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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

France’s Socialists survive another day

France’s Socialists survive another day

There were smiles on the faces of France’s Socialist MPs today. During a time of division, talk of leadership battles and polls that show the party falling behind the right and far right in next year’s presidential elections, you’d think there isn’t much to be happy about on the left of French politics.

Yet in this time of survival for the government, it didn’t come as a surprise that they saw through the defeat of a vote of no confidence on a controversial labour reform bill, seen as too pro-business by some, which has now been fast-tracked through to the Senate.

For governments in France, the number 49.3 is more often than not a sign of desperate times. This part of the constitution allows bills proposed by the government to avoid a vote by French MPs, making it closing to becoming law.

The last time it was used was last year to allow a package of disputed economic reforms, nicknamed the Loi Macron, after Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, to be pushed through parliament.

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France’s reformist Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron

Even yesterday the party was under attack from within, as rebel backbench Socialist MPs put forward a vote of no confidence – a way of putting an end to this constitutional backdoor, before it was narrowly defeated.

It served as a crystallisation of just how difficult it is proving to enact reforms, loosening France’s unwieldy regulation and complex bureaucracy and kickstarting the country’s perpetually ailing economy.

The legislation aims to weaken the power of unions, make employers able to extend working hours beyond 35 hours and make it easier for them to fire and hire workers.

Scenes of tear gas, vandalism and violence on the streets of Paris and several other cities across the country, told a different story. Despite polls showing relatively low membership of worker’s unions – perhaps surprisingly given France’s long history of the worker rising against the rich and powerful elite – the influence of the unions can’t be underestimated.

Their voice may be loud, the scenes of their mobilisation great fodder for journalists, even that doesn’t seem enough to derail this government’s determination to make the economy more flexible and put it on a stable growth footing with unemployment hovering around 10 per cent.

The reform bill has set out to bring a more laissez-faire approach to the labour market, doing away with the current government-central diktat dictating regulation to employees in the form of a nearly four thousand page tome.

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France’s labour code

The Loi Travail, or Loi El Khromi – named after the labour minister, will continue through to the Senate next month, on 13th June. It could well be changed before it returns back to the lower house, when the government could once again dodge a bullet by resorting to its 49.3 constitutional back door.

The centre-right Les Républicains party voted against the government, with one of their MPs calling François Hollande’s five-year term as president “beyond all hope”.

Such a tense time for the left means it is open season for electioneering and exposing the Socialist party’s vulnerable position, which rests on Hollande’s promise to grow the economy and bring down unemployment. It’s a pledge which he made last year that only then will allow him to stand for election next year.

But with determination from France’s unions and an increasingly impatient mood for signs of economic prosperity, opposition to the bill means this headache for the French government is far from over.

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

Cameron’s ticking clock to an EU referendum

Cameron’s ticking clock to an EU referendum

When pressed yesterday, David Cameron said that having his planned EU referendum before the end of 2017 would be all the better. He refused to be drawn on what stance he would pick as of today, and denied the chance for cabinet members to take their own personal stance on pro- or anti-Europe in the event of a vote. In his first interview of 2015, Cameron reinforced that his changes would not only make Britain better, but in a not so modest vein, would make Europe better too.

With such a traditional election campaign already in motion, fought between the Conservatives and Labour on the economy and the NHS, how much space will Europe end up occupying? Nigel Farage is sitting quiet so far – he will have to produce a manifesto with much more than just Europe on the table – but how long before he throws his hat into the ring and pressurises Cameron and the election rhetoric into broaching the topic of the EU? If last year gave the first signs of a UKIP building itself up for the election, when several Conservative MPs and many more voters not only flirted with UKIP but deserted the Tories, Cameron’s UKIP nightmare is set to worsen.

Current benefits

Was David Cameron’s logic right when he argued so strongly that by controlling benefits fewer EU migrants would come to this country? Many political commentators dismissed this as overly simplistic, and in any case, is Cameron even right to limit his view of “problematic” migrants as being just from the EU? He may be forgetting a sizeable number of EU migrants who are simply here to work, regardless of benefits. A UCL study from November revealed that European migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive back in benefits. That is to the tune of £4.96 billion each year since 2011, making it a net contribution of £20 billion so far. Cameron would surely not argue with how well he says the UK has recovered. In this way, the highly skilled and educated migrants that the study says are coming to Britain are no more than taking advantage of the country’s upbeat economic figures and the growing number of jobs on offer.

In the interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Cameron renewed Conservative efforts to bring down Britain’s debt and deficit, in order to, as he says, prevent massive cuts to health such as in Portugal or Greece, where cuts of 16 or 17 per cent have been made, again according to Cameron’s figures. Britain can only ever be strong if Europe is too, and Cameron went on to say that influence, trade links and access to European markets from being in the union are invaluable for the country’s recovery.

He later outlined his current thinking on benefits for EU migrants: no unemployment benefit full stop, migrants would be kicked out if they can’t find a job within six months, and tax credits would only come after residing in the UK for four years and paying enough into the system. Cameron was asked several times over on where he stands on a cap on EU migrants – it sounded like he had let that idea go, but he didn’t say it. How Cameron phrased it was: “Those things [change in welfare system for EU migrants] I believe would achieve a reduction in, in migration…” It is a not-so-convincing line of argument.

“The most important thing of all is being able to make changes to the welfare system,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “The key areas are safeguarding the single market, getting out of ever-closer union, being able to veto regulations and a package of measures on welfare.”

(Re-)negotiation

David Cameron has put a two-year window on the table in which he wishes to re-negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, an ever closer relationship which Cameron says he wants to get out of. This would require treaty change, and therefore a vote, which would have to be agreed unanimously between the union’s 28 member states. Angela Merkel a year ago ruled out retouching any of the treaties.

When David Cameron sits down with Angela Merkel later on in the week, the topic of Europe will be needless to say highest on the list. The Euro at a nine-year low against the dollar, the possibility of a Greek exit, so say some, if or indeed when, Syriza are elected into the Greek government at the end of January, the likelihood of quantitative easing starting within the 19-member currency, and last but not least, Putin’s tactics this year in Ukraine. All in all, it is a perilous mood that David Cameron has to contend with as Europe – and the UK’s biggest trading partner – enters into 2015.

What to watch out for then when Angela Merkel arrives in London on Wednesday … Will she be set back by the anti-EU feeling that there is in the UK, at the same time when she is having to confront right-wing forces, albeit less than comparable to UKIP, that nonetheless threaten relations between different ethnic groups? Newspapers are calling it a “love-hate relationship”, whilst another says “Angela Merkel underestimates how toxic Europe is for David Cameron’s UK voters”. This might just be the final time David Cameron and Angela Merkel can share their grievances together as heads of government, and neither is known for mincing their words on the topic of Europe at least. Yet for all of the worrying, David Cameron can rest easy in knowing he’s not the leader who will be micro-managing Europe’s precarious year ahead.