December 13, 2016
A resounding referendum defeat for the government. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister, resigns. The pressure mounts on Italy’s cash-strapped banks. The euro falls sharply in value. Europe’s leaders take fright. Is the wave of right-wing populism sweeping across the West now unstoppable?
It crashed into a small barrier in Vienna: Austrian voters did not pick a far-right politician as their new President. But a substantial minority supported Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party, and there were real fears that the country of Hitler’s birth would elect its first head of state from the far right since the Second World War. Despite Hofer’s defeat, the Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis, now looks set to play a leading role in any future coalition government after elections that are expected as early as next year.
Italy in freefall?
In Italy the shock is more immediate and severe. One of the biggest economies in Europe showing deep weaknesses, now lacks strong national leadership. While the sudden political crisis caused by Renzi’s resignation has been contained via the appointment of Paolo Gentiloni (Foreign Minister in the outgoing Renzi cabinet) as the new Prime Minister, the country remains deeply unsettled. Gentiloni is a reserved technocrat, not a national political leader capable of helping Italy to turn the corner.
The fact is that a vast majority (about 60%) of angry voters has thrown out proposals for constitutional reform proposed by Renzi in order to make the country more governable. Renzi was not just defeated; he was humiliated.
Investors, taking fright at Italy’s huge national debt – the biggest per head after Greece – may start pulling out their money. Leading banks, crippled by a mountain of bad debt, may default. Opposition parties, seizing on the resignation of Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, are pushing for fresh elections, promising an unrelenting campaign to pull Italy out of the euro. And the opposition leader Beppe Grillo, a comedian and euro-sceptic founder of the Five Star Movement, is riding a wave of populist nationalism not seen in Italy since the fall of fascism.
The rise of the right in Europe
For months, Europe’s established politicians have been looking with alarm at the inexorable rise of the right. Eastern Europe has already elected right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. Both campaigned strongly on nationalist and anti-EU themes: a refusal to accept Syrian refugees and other migrants, opposition to Brussels and further European integration and a contempt for the tolerance and press freedoms of liberal social democracy.
A new wave
Now those movements are gathering pace in the West. The Brexit vote in Britain unleashed forces of nationalism, xenophobia and isolationism long seen as marginal in British politics. Donald Trump’s upset victory in the US presidential election legitimised and encouraged the anger of Europe’s dispossessed, the marginalised and those “just about managing”, in the words of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Already there is talk of Geert Wilders, an openly racist and far-right politician in the Netherlands, winning power in the coming elections. And Marine Le Pen, leader of the powerful National Front party in France, is likely to find herself a finalist in the race to be French president in May of 2017.
The European left is reeling. In several countries where it long held sway it has fragmented into bickering factions. In Britain, the opposition Labour party has lost all cohesion and political authority, as it moves sharply to the far left under its ineffectual new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In a by-election in London last week, the Labour party candidate won so few votes that he lost his deposit – a humiliation the party has not suffered for years. In France, President Hollande’s popularity rating of a derisory 4 per cent has persuaded him not to stand again for the Socialist Party, and his Socialist ministers are now quarrelling over who should contest the presidential election for their party.
How to react to the populist appeal?
Europe’s mainstream politicians are desperately searching for ways to stem the anti-establishment tide which threatens to throw them all out of office. Some have tried to embrace the mood. In Britain, Theresa May, who became Prime Minister after the Brexit vote, recognised in her first speech on assuming office that millions who voted to leave the EU did so because they were angered by the remoteness of London politicians, felt marginalised by globalisation and were worried by high levels of immigration.
She promised to listen to their voices and act on their concerns. But so far, apart from taking a very hard line on immigration, there is little sign that she has done so. The government is being torn apart by disagreements on what Brexit means. And it has been preoccupied by a legal challenge over whether parliament should have a say in negotiations with Europe – an issue that went all the way to Britain’s Supreme Court on Monday.
Tough on immigration
Throughout Europe, political leaders have been toughening their stance on immigration – largely in response to the huge influx of migrants in 2015. They are hoping to assuage voters’ anger by being seen now to take a tough line – erecting border fences, reintroducing passport controls and demanding immigrants learn the local language and accept Western values.
Nowhere is this more urgent than in Germany, where the recent influx of more than a million refugees severely dented the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, boosted the right-wing Alternative for Germany party and came close to causing riots in some cities. The authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, held a referendum to underpin his refusal to accept refugee quotas imposed by Brussels, losing only on a technicality. Even left-wing parties, in Britain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, are taking a tougher line on migration to counter the challenge from the right.
It is on the issue of the future of the European Union where the battle lines are now being drawn. Almost all EU citizens are now disillusioned with the European project, angry at Brussels bureaucracy, opposed to greater political integration and demanding a return of national sovereignty and even an exit from the Eurozone. Those countries such as Germany, at the heart of the EU, are deeply concerned – and are now openly criticising such polarising figures as Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Council, for his aloofness, lack of imagination and arrogant assumption of privilege.
Insisting that “more Europe” is the answer is seen as a disastrous policy. Europe has failed to cure the economic woes in Greece, dithered on immigration, shown no response to the Trump challenge, done little to boost economic growth and employment and has failed to inspire the younger, often unemployed, generation. But political leaders dare not question the very basis of the EU for fear that the whole project will unravel. That is why they are so fearful of both Brexit and the Italian referendum result – both of which challenge the EU’s very existence.
No fresh ideas
Trying to accommodate the new right, while sticking to the postwar framework, is proving difficult. Many on the far right have a strong admiration for the decisiveness and strong-man image of President Putin – and in turn he is happy to indulge them. This is anathema to Atlanticist establishment politicians who believe NATO should stand up to Putin. And tinkering with formulas to improve the EU satisfies no one – as the British government is finding in its current fumbling to find a way to remain inside the single market but outside EU structures.
More to come
The populist wave has clearly not yet reached its height. The big test will come next year in France. Should National front leader Marine Le Pen win and hold a referendum that leads to an exit from the euro, the EU is as good as dead. Some politicians therefore insist that they need to fight back hard. And by backing Francois Fillon, a tough conservative who has stolen many of Le Pen’s populist ideas, the French may yet halt the march of the right. But it will be a tough challenge – and on the other side of the Atlantic President Trump will be a visible alternative for all European populists to follow.
Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television. He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.