In France Emmanuel Marcon, spouting a pro-EU, neo-liberal praise of globalization defied the apparent populist trends to easily win the French Presidency and a large majority in the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, in Great Britain Theresa May’s gamble to call a snap election failed miserably. She put her 17 seat majority on the line, believing the polls that said she could win by 20% and gain 100 seats. Instead the Conservatives beat Labour 42-40%, and she lost her parliamentary majority. She looks to remain Prime Minister by forming a partnership with the conservative northern Irish DUP. It will be precarious, at the first big controversy her government could fail, meaning new elections.
She campaigned on the argument that she needed a strong majority to negotiate a good Brexit deal for the UK. Well, so much for that! Indeed, some are quietly discussing the possibility that Brexit may be avoided after all.
Taken together, the two stories point to a rough Brexit for Great Britain. The French want to prove that leaving the EU is painful. The Germans and French may play “good cop/bad cop” with the British, perhaps dangling out the idea of remaining inside the Union after all. Stranger things have happened.
Earlier this year Gerd Wilder’s Party for Freedom was expected to do very well in the Dutch elections, perhaps winning a plurality. While he did gain some votes since the election before, his numbers dropped precipitously from polls in 2016, with the establishment parties hanging on in the Netherlands. Beyond that, the nationalist UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) failed miserably in the British elections, while polls show the anti-EU “Alternative fuer Deutschland” (AfD) having its worst numbers in years ahead of the German election in September. Angela Merkel’s CDU looks strong, bouncing back after predictions that her liberal refugee policy would threaten her re-election.
What to make of all this?
In 2016 it looked like Europe was going the route of nationalist populism. With Marine Le Pen on the rise in France, Wilders polling very well, and Merkel in trouble, the nationalists were on the rise, the establishment on the run. With the Brexit vote to “leave” surprising everyone mid-year, predictions were made that perhaps even France would vote to leave, especially if Le Pen became President.
So what happened? What did everything turn around, almost on a dime?
A possible answer: Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Brexit.
To many Europeans, nationalist populism was an effective way to protest a feared loss of control as more power shifts to the EU. When the Syrian refugee crisis hit a peak, fear of terrorism and worries about the cultural identity of Europe grew.
But when the Brits passed Brexit and the Americans elected nationalist populist Donald Trump, most Europeans were shocked into reality. Moving away from the EU towards some kind of nationalist vision was not just a protest, it could have real world implications! Europeans asked themselves if they were really ready to give up the benefits of the European Union, which is the major reason for peace and economic vibrancy in Europe. Indeed, the EU’s willingness to expand eastward helped stabilize democracy and markets in East European states, a real success story.
As the Trump Presidency wobbles, the geo-political balance appears to be shifting away from the US, as the Europeans cultivate ties with China and other states. The Anglo-American core of the western alliance is weakened, as Angela Merkel more often is dubbed “the leader of the free world.”
Yet politics is fickle. The US still is the major military force of the West, and has the world’s largest economy. Americans are already turning against Trump, and the prospect that the next President will be a committed Atlanticist is quite real. If that were to happen, the Europeans would welcome the US back (though the French might be a tad disappointed).
Still, one wonders what would have happened if Trump had not been elected. Would the Europeans have shifted away from populism so quickly if the real world implications weren’t put on display with Trump’s America? Ironically Trump’s election may have played a role in turning European politics away from the populist right, towards an acceptance of the establishment ideals that have worked so well since the end of WWII.
Yet the political world remains in flux. In Great Britain the resurgence of the Left shows the criticism of the neo-liberal establishment remains popular on the both sides of the spectrum. Macron’s French victory could sour should he not deliver on his promises. Trump remains a wild card – unpredictable and unconventional.
Still, for now European politics appears more stable than it did a year ago, even as flux and uncertainty remain. When the Germans vote in September that will complete elections in the “big three” this year – France, the UK, and Germany. Things appear to be stabilizing, but the 21st Century has so far demonstrated that the political world has become unpredictable in these days of systemic change.