Quite suddenly, there is talk of change in the eurozone's economic strategy and, in particular, of the need for urgent action by the European Union to reverse the downward spiral of negative growth and rising unemployment. The likelihood that François Hollande will be elected as president of France next weekend has injected an important note of dissent into the pro-austerity consensus. Even more important than the French elections, however, may be the indications that even the political debate in Germany is now changing its tune.
The opposition German social democratic SPD hopes for election victory in the key state of North Rhine Westphalia on 13 May, as well as in the German general election next year. The SPD has already signalled that it will support the French Socialists in support of an investment-led EU strategy to boost growth and jobs. Moreover, the German social democrats and the German Green party also back the creation of euro-bonds and using the proceeds of a tax on financial transactions to finance a return to growth.
It is unclear at this time whether next year's German general election will lead to an SPD/Green coalition government or to a "grand coalition" of the SPD and Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats. But Angela Merkel has already sent some of her top advisers to Paris to explore the proposals of the French Socialists and to see to what extent she and a future President Hollande might be able to salvage a Franco-German partnership in the EU.
The conservative German government is resolutely opposed to any formal re-negotiation of the "stability and governance treaty" which has been cited to justify the crippling austerity measures imposed on Greece and other eurozone "peripheral" economies. But Hollande is now focussing on a series of "additional measures" rather than actual "changes" to the treaty. These additional growth measures would include a major boost to the resources of the European Investment Bank to allow it to put far more capital to work, especially in the hardest-hit economies. Second, the French Socialists would like to see the European stability mechanism given the status of a bank, so that it can receive funding from the European Central Bank and thus be better able to contain any future crisis affecting the euro. Third, they argue for widening the mandate of the ECB so that it is obliged to pursue growth objectives as well as price stability.
Unsurprisingly, a number of sympathetic noises off are being heard from Rome, Madrid and other EU countries, where centre-right governments which are struggling against economic suffocation by obsessive austerityitis.
But how far is Chancellor Merkel really willing to go to accommodate the pressures for a change in economic direction? There is little pressure from the media: German tabloids are still playing to the "feckless Mediterraneans" cliche, criticising any change in European policy which might cost the German exchequer. She is also aware of the German constitutional court looking over her shoulder in case of any infringement of its views on national sovereignty.
However, the German chancellor can also read the political runes. She may well conclude that the best chance of the Christian Democrats holding on to office after next year's general election is to bed down once again with the social democrats. So it may be better to start now making compromise adjustments in economic policy to facilitate a coalition with the SPD.
None of this is to suggest that the shift in policy will be sufficiently radical or sustained to reverse the current, terrifying drift towards economic depression and the disintegration of the euro. But across the EUalternative voices on the left can be heard demanding a more root and branch progress to full European economic union.
As the first round of the French presidential election has confirmed, growing unemployment and poverty is also boosting support for the fascists and other far-right parties. The likely swing of the electoral pendulum in France, Germany and elsewhere may well produce a return to the centre left in the short term. But should the EU fail to bring capitalism's crisis under control, dangerous new prospects may open up for the extreme right. In the meantime, might the Cameron-Osborne duo be left as Europe's last deflationists?