After the tumult of 2016, Europe could do with a year of calm. It won’t get one. Elections are to be held in four of the six founder members of the European project, and populist Eurosceptic forces are on the march in each one. There will be at least one regime change: François Hollande has accepted that he is too unpopular to run again as French president, and it will be a surprise if he is the only European leader to go. Others might cling on but find their grip on power weakened by populist success.
The spectre of the financial crash still haunts European politics. Money was printed and banks were saved, but the recovery was marked by a great stagnation in living standards, which has led to alienation, dismay and anger. Donald Trump would not have been able to win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, without that rage — and the conditions that created Trump’s victory are, if anything, even stronger in Europe.
European voters who looked to the state for protection after the crash soon discovered the helplessness of governments which had ceded control over vast swathes of economic policy to the EU. The second great shock, the wave of global immigration, is also a thornier subject in the EU because nearly all of its members surrendered control over their borders when they signed the Schengen agreement. Those unhappy at this situation often have only new, populist parties to turn to. So most European elections come down to a battle between insurgents and defenders of the existing order.
Nowhere is this more the case than the Netherlands. The Dutch will vote on 15 March and the election will essentially be Geert Wilders’s Freedom party versus the rest. Wilders, who was convicted of inciting discrimination earlier this month, is expected to top the ballot. His party, which defined itself by antipathy to ‘Islamification’ and a desire to quit the EU, regularly leads in the polls, often by double-digit margins. Normally, the party that comes top on election day in Holland provides the prime minister. But if Wilders triumphs, few other parties would support him and he won’t come to power. For a populist, to come top and then be kept out of office by an establishment stitch-up is almost the perfect result.
Even without winning the premiership, Wilders is already influencing Dutch politics. The House of Representatives recently voted for a partial ban on the burqa; Wilders made his name calling for a ban on the Quran. Wilders’s power also means that no Dutch government is going to be prepared to sign off on the fiscal transfers that would be needed to make the eurozone function properly as a currency union.
It is not the Dutch election that causes the most European concern, however, but the French one. There we have a similar story: Marine Le Pen versus the rest. She will probably make the final round in April and face François Fillon, the 62-year-old former Prime Minister. It won’t be the first time that the Front National has made the run-off, but back in 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen won only 18 per cent of the vote. His daughter will run her opponent far closer.
Le Pen will distance herself from her old party and her father as much as possible; her campaign branding is all about ‘Marine’ — leaving out her surname and her party identification. Someone who talks to her regularly says that she will seek, like Trump, to run almost as an independent. Her strategy will be to portray Fillon as a Thatcherite hatchet man out to dismember the French social model. This could be a fertile line of attack as she seeks to garner more support from female voters and public-sector employees. She already commands strong support among working-class voters. Like Trump, she will pander to protectionist instincts as well as campaigning on ‘Islamification’ and immigration.
Fillon’s economically right-wing views and Catholic social conservatism will make it hard, perhaps impossible, for the left to vote for him. But the pacte républicain is surely still strong enough to keep the Front National out. And it is worth remembering that Le Pen has long believed that it is the election after next, in 2022, that offers her best chance of victory.
The election most likely to damage the European project is the Italian one — if it happens. Matteo Renzi’s resounding defeat in the recent constitutional reform referendum shows how angry Italians are. By some measures, southern Italy is now poorer than Poland, while manufacturing in northern Italy is struggling to compete because the euro has inflated its costs. Across the country as a whole, economic growth has been flat for 15 years. The IMF predicts that it will take Italy until the mid-2020s to return to its pre-crisis peak — after two lost decades. In these circumstances, one can see why voters there might regard a leap into the unknown as preferable to the status quo.
What makes Italy different from other countries is that there is not just one political party there that opposes the euro. Both main opposition parties are anti-euro, with a third increasingly so. Depending on the electoral system that ends up being used, the leading opposition party, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, has either more potential anti-EU support in a run-off round, or potential allies in parliament to help it form a government. Grillo says he won’t do deals with other parties to get into power, which limits Five Star’s prospects. But to have an anti-single-currency government come to power in Italy would be an even bigger shock to the EU than Brexit.
Germany’s elections promise to be far less dramatic. Angela Merkel is well-placed to secure another term as Chancellor, even if Alternative für Deutschland, the most vocal opponents of her handling of the refugee crisis, will probably win seats in the Bundestag for the first time. But AfD hasn’t quite worked out who will challenge Merkel. Most money is on Frauke Petry, a chemist and a mother of four who serves as co-chair of the party. Dubbed ‘Adolfina’ by her foes, her approach is milder than many of her colleagues. Marcus Pretzell, one of AfD’s seven MEPs, referred to those killed in the Islamist attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin as ‘Merkel’s dead’. Even the head of Merkel’s sister party, the CSU leader and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, has called for a rethink on her immigration policy because ‘we owe it to the victims.’
Merkel is still by far the most powerful politician in Europe — and her 57 per cent approval rating makes her an overwhelming favourite to win re-election. But those hoping she will secure a Brexit compromise will be as disappointed as David Cameron was by her failure to help him more during the renegotiation. The more she sees ‘populism’ on the rise, the more she’ll feel the need to defend the EU project.
The established order could scrape through this year in Europe. Dutch voters could shy away from Wilders when faced with the reality of voting for him; in France the ceiling on Le Pen’s support could turn out to be nearer 35 per cent than 50. The Italians, past masters at muddling on, might avoid fresh elections. But the populists will almost certainly end the year in a stronger position: that much closer to winning someday. Le Pen, for example, will almost certainly find her party with a sizeable presence in the National Assembly after the parliamentary elections.
The British, it is said, always underestimate the sheer political determination to keep the European project moving forward. But doing so now demands contradictory measures. If the insurgents in the south are to be kept at bay, then the eurozone must become a full transfer union, with proper burden-sharing on refugees. And that would create perfect conditions for insurgents in the north. Until — or unless — European leaders can resolve this conundrum, they will continue to dread elections.