The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

If 2016 was the year of the unpredictable and the rise of populism, 2017 looks to be the year that much of that ground work now plays out.

It will be likely dominated by Donald Trump as the world watches his move into the White House and tears up the rule book of how to govern with a new style of shock politics, protectionism, straight talking and Twitter diplomacy.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be determined to prove to her critics that she can start the UK’s exit from the EU – one of the biggest earthquakes of 2016 – in an orderly fashion when she triggers divorce proceedings through Article 50 by the end of March.

Will Mrs May finally lay on the table what exactly she wants – membership of the single market, staying in the customs union, and so on? These are monumental decisions that will affect every one of our lives.

She will have to be ready for the reaction of EU leaders, who will no sooner be ready to throw down any whiff of “cherry-picking”. Each country will each have their own grievances, least of all a need to keep their own popularity in check back home.

_90099158_pressgraphic.jpg
Brexit hitting the headlines across Europe last year

May has the impossible task of pleasing those in her party and across the country who voted not only leave but remain, and across Europe she’ll be trying desperately hard to get allies to back her Brexit wish list.

But the EU will be determined to show that Brexit isn’t the only priority – the continent after all is still nursing the hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and trying to muddle its way through its policy on migrants – which has all but disappeared from the headlines.

There will likely be a lot of back and forth – concession on one hand and demand on the other – which could mean 2017 is the year of inaction, even anticlimax, for Brexit.

This has always been classic EU territory though – the approach of just about getting by.

The prime minister will first need to see who will be those leaders around the negotiating table, following decisive elections in some of Europe’s biggest democracies.

All eyes will be on France for the next five months to see how the political mood there will determine the results of its presidential election.

The expectation will be that while populism is exerting great pressure on the political conversation, it’s yet to yield truly significant results in the biggest national elections.

The far right in France has been boosted by many different factors, least of all an historically unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, who has ruled himself out from running for a second term. His Socialist party looks disunited – with no clear frontrunner in its own primary elections – and all opinion polls indicating it won’t make it past the first round of France’s presidential vote.

France’s likely new president from May – centre-right François Fillon

The surprise candidate could be former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to capture the tricky centre-ground of politics. His unconventional style – never having been elected to office or joined a political party – is gathering momentum, but has he simply laid the ground for a more serious run next time round? In such a crowded political spectrum, it may prove difficult for Macron to unite traditional left voters around his start-up campaign.

But the focus will be firmly on the Front National, for whom a victory has always been seen as impossible. Everybody has always said the two-round voting system is fundamentally rigged against the FN. Both left and right merely gang up in a tactical move to prevent the far-right from gaining enough ground.

But we’re living in very different times, and while the polls give centre-right hopeful François Fillon two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen in the second round, her softening of the party image, a longstanding disaffection with mainstream politicians and the feeling that globalisation has bred great inequalities mean her party is gathering support like never before.

Le Pen’s focus on identity politics at a time when more than 230 people have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last 18 months has growing appeal for some French voters who want a hard line on Islam, immigration and security.

le pen tweet.JPG
Marine Le Pen said Donald Trump’s victory gave hope for her presidential campaign

If you still believe the polls however, France will elect centre-right former prime minister Fillon – keenly labelled a Putin supporter and Thatcher admirer. He has promised a liberal economic policy, huge cuts to the public sector and a ‘shock’ at the top of France’s sclerotic political system. His main priorities will be to shore up a failing economy, bring down relatively high unemployment and an unmanageably large government debt – and more challenging yet, make French people feel safer.

We could well be in for a surprise result in May. Be sure to mind that gap in the opinion polls for the months to come. Fillon is a skilled, experienced politician who thinks he knows how to administer the medicine of change to France – but don’t underestimate the rogue nature of polling and those who don’t even normally vote who could sway the result in Ms Le Pen’s favour.

A Le Pen victory would have unknown consequences politically across Europe. It could spell the end as we know it for the EU which she says has made French people poorer and under threat from terrorism.

The stakes existentially for the union this year could not be higher on this one election alone.

Over in Germany, voters in elections in the autumn of this year will in all probability realise Angela Merkel is the only candidate capable of steering the EU’s largest economy – and arguably the 27 other member states – through still turbulent waters. But as we’ve seen with her recent announcement to ban the full-face veil and criticism of her domestic migrant policy, Merkel is feeling the pressure like never before from both outside her ranks with the buoyant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and within her coalition government.

forsa-umfrage-cdu
Angela Merkel will be hopeful of a fourth term in office

 

The right-wing nationalist AfD party, founded in 2013 as merely an anti-euro party, has turned its focus to the surge in immigration in previous years and frames Islam as ‘not German’. It has so far made strong gains in regional votes. Polls suggest it has around 12% support nationally, and it looks set to play the security card even more after December’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, which killed twelve, and other jihadi-related terror on German soil last year which has left some Germans seeing refugees as the problem.

Angela Merkel’s popularity is some way ahead of her European counterparts and despite saying this election will be “tough like no other”, her likely election win will bring her to an unrivalled sixteen years in power.

Yes, she will lose seats to her majority, and yes, the AfD will enter the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, but Merkel will escape largely unscathed with the promise of more security measures for Germans, a call for greater unity domestically and across Europe, as well as more strong leadership by not cowering to populist rhetoric.

On the global stage, however, with a clear Putin and Trump alliance to come, she will find herself much more isolated.

The Netherlands too will be heading to the polls with the peroxide populist Geert Wilders hopeful that growing momentum in past elections will finally provide electoral victory in March’s vote – offering another political earthquake to a nervous Brussels establishment.

143f55f2-d09a-4998-ba3d-affd3ae3fb0c
Dutch far-right politician Gerry Wilders

The PVV party, which he founded in 2004, became the third-largest party in elections in 2010. It has captured support from an unease about growing immigration, a pledge to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, a lack of trust in the ruling government and his promise to take the country out of the European Union.

The latest polls show the PVV as the biggest single party in the country – and Wilders seems to be pushing himself as the candidate saying to voters – “I’m the only one listening to you”. At the very least he’ll have a powerful voice in the Dutch parliament, and at most he could become the country’s next prime minister.

Populism in Europe so far has proven it isn’t a “one-size fits all” – it has been difficult for any commentator to neatly categorise and accurately predict this burgeoning phenomenon.

Austria overwhelmingly rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer last November but the populist tide there looks set to shape parliamentary elections and the political discourse for some time yet.

In Italy, a referendum on the political system and on the country’s own leader Matteo Renzi both adhered to and confounded expectations. Voters said no to the changes but the political chaos that was expected didn’t come to pass with the swift appointment of Paolo Gentiloni. He will need to bring strong governance – something Italy isn’t used to – at a much-needed time for stability – through a commitment to reform its vastly expensive parliamentary system and mend its ‘sick-man’ economy which has scarcely grown in the past 20 years.

Turkey’s President Erdogan will be fearful of more attacks this year

Leaders from around the world will be fearful of more violence in Turkey on its doorstep after the most turbulent and bloody year there in recent history, given its crucial geography as a border post to the Middle East and a hotbed for terrorism inside and outside its boundaries.

It will take a lot for President Tayyip Erdogan to convince European leaders he is placing Turkey’s security first, in front of any personal leadership ambitions to become more autocratic by increasing his executive powers (which he’s putting to a referendum). It comes after a year of mass arrests of people from across society following a failed coup attempt in July and an ongoing state of emergency from countless acts of terror.

Support from Erdogan’s nationalist voters will only isolate him in Europe and the Middle East, exacerbating security, political and economic risks. His tight grip on power will equally put the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey into question, which spells trouble for EU leaders up and down the continent.

The person to watch closely this year will be none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – the newest – and strongest – global alliance?

With ongoing military provocation in Eastern Europe, his continued support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and suspected cyber interference in the US elections, the strong man of Russia looks set to be a big winner in 2017 – but a figure at the very centre of more global uncertainty.

Russia’s place as a resurgent global superpower has been well and truly cemented after what is seen as a successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s involvement there will be entrenched further throughout 2017, leading Putin to gain even more influence in Middle Eastern events.

With the US under Trump on-side, Putin will in short be given a lot of room to show his political and military muscle in 2017 and beyond.

2017 will be a year marked by nail-biting elections, as millions of people across Europe decide at the most crude level what sort of politics they want. The backdrop of populism as a march against globalism means strong leadership in Europe will be in much demand but in short supply.

The status quo for a trouble-burdened European continent looks more shaky than ever – and the potential for surprises ever greater.

But could populism be the wake-up call the European Union has needed?