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Throughout the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen repeatedly linked her campaign with Donald Trump’s triumph in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain. Her victory, the far-right candidate predicted, would be the third great shock to the western political establishment.
At the beginning of the year, many academic experts and leading politicians agreed that the anti-establishment wave that had swept the UK and the US in 2016 could easily engulf continental Europe in 2017. In January, Professor Matthew Goodwin, a leading authority on British Euroscepticism, forecast: “If you thought 2016 was all about populism, you haven’t seen anything yet.” In Berlin, around the same time, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor and foreign minister, warned that if imminent elections went the wrong way in France and the Netherlands, “the European Union could fall apart”.
In the wake of Ms Le Pen’s crushing defeat in the French presidential election, a wave of relief has washed over the European political establishment. Emmanuel Macron, the president-elect, has received heartfelt messages of congratulation from Berlin and Brussels.
However, just as it was a mistake to believe that populism was poised to sweep all before it in Europe, now it would be wrong to write off the challenge to the establishment in the west. The forces that have fed the populist surge in Britain and the US — and nourished populist movements in continental Europe — have not disappeared. Unless mainstream politicians can deal more effectively with the economic, social and security issues that have boosted populism, the fragmentation of the political centre in Europe may soon resume.
More tests to pass
For the time being, at least, the European status quo seems to be holding. Ms Le Pen’s defeat is part of an emerging pattern of setbacks for anti-establishment parties in continental Europe. In recent months, populist forces have experienced defeats across the EU. In Austria in December, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom party lost a run-off of the presidential election with just over 46 per cent of the vote. In the Netherlands in March, the far-right suffered another defeat — as Geert Wilders’ Freedom party came second in parliamentary elections with just over 13 per cent of the vote and was excluded from coalition negotiations.
France was arguably the most promising territory, and the biggest prize, for Europe’s far-right. The country has been traumatised by a series of terrorist attacks over the past 18 months which have claimed 239 lives. Race relations are uneasy and unemployment is high. But Ms Le Pen’s efforts to “detoxify” the image of the National Front were not successful enough to bring together the nearly 50 per cent of voters who had backed anti-establishment candidates in the first round of the presidential election.
The German elections in September will be the next big test. And again, it looks as if the forces of populism are ebbing. In the aftermath of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit about 1m refugees to Germany in 2015, many predicted a surge in support for the far-right. For a while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party did indeed soar in the polls. But with refugee flows slowing and the AfD collapsing into infighting, so the party’s support has fallen away, with the latest polls showing the AfD at about 8 per cent.
However, the solace that the European establishment is drawing from the election of Mr Macron should not disguise the fact that the political extremes are still gaining ground in Europe — and the centre is fragmenting. Ms Le Pen’s 34 per cent of the run-off vote is nearly double the roughly 18 per cent that her father received in the 2002 election. The FN could make a significant breakthrough in parliamentary elections in June. A substantial bloc of the party’s representatives in parliament would give it increased visibility and legitimacy. In Germany, meanwhile, the AfD is likely to break the 5 per cent threshold to secure representation in the national parliament. For the first time since 1945 there will be a far-right party represented in the Bundestag.
While none of the larger nations of western Europe has seen a populist party take power, that situation could change in Italy, which is likely to have parliamentary elections early next year. The anti-establishment Five Star movement is topping some polls. The fact that the party is led by Beppe Grillo, a former comedian — rather than having its roots in fascism like France’s FN — has, to some extent, disguised the radicalism of Five Star. But like other populist parties in Europe, Mr Grillo’s outfit is pro-Russian, anti-capitalist and deeply hostile to the EU.
Indeed, all the major opposition parties in Italy are Eurosceptic in nature. Mr Grillo responded with disappointment and hostility to the Macron victory, lambasting the French president-elect’s supporters as “ dummies who are slaves of an impossible currency”. Like Ms Le Pen, Five Star has promised a referendum on continued membership of the euro. If it ever takes power in Italy, there would immediately be renewed worries in the financial markets about the threat of a break-up of the euro.
The rise of groups such as Five Star highlights the extent to which the traditional political centre is crumbling away in Europe. This is particularly true for socialist and centre-left parties. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate in France, won a meagre 6.36 per cent of the first-round vote. The Dutch Labour party was also almost wiped out in the recent elections — scoring just 5.9 per cent of the vote and losing two-thirds of its MPs.
The British Labour party seems set to crash to a historic defeat in the general election on June 8. The Spanish Labour party hit a record low in recent elections — despite many years of recession and a corruption scandal in the ruling Popular party. As one leading member of the Dutch Labour party put it: “In the current circumstances, it seems you either defend the establishment or promise to destroy it. Being a reformist party does not seem to be popular.”
Mr Macron’s victory may cause a partial revision of this gloomy verdict. But he too succeeded only by breaking away from the establishment and forming his own party — which is a testament of the volatile political mood in Europe.
Even where establishment parties have held on to power, they have often done so at the price of embracing some populist themes. In the Netherlands, the Liberal party of Mark Rutte, the prime minister, adopted a much tougher line on the need for immigrants to assimilate into the Dutch mainstream, as a way of pulling voters back from the Freedom party. In marked contrast to Mr Macron, the Dutch government is also increasingly Eurosceptic in tone.
In Britain, Theresa May’s Conservative party is poised to pull in many of the voters that once opted for the Europhobic UK Independence party. But the Tories have managed to do this only by adopting Ukip’s agenda of a “hard Brexit”. Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, likes to point out that Mrs May is repeating many of his talking points of the past 20 years.
And while no populist party has yet taken power in western Europe, the situation is very different further east. Both Poland and Hungary are governed by nationalist parties that share many of the views of France’s FN or the Dutch Freedom party — in particular, fear of Islam, hostility to the EU, suspicion of the mainstream media, scepticism about globalisation and admiration for Mr Trump.
A lot will depend on whether economic growth can pick up in Europe. In a speech last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, boasted that the EU is growing faster and creating more jobs than the US. Growth in the eurozone was 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year — which is, indeed, faster than the US or the UK. But it will take time to make significant inroads into high levels of youth unemployment in the EU — which stand at about 25 per cent in France, 35 per cent in Italy and 40 per cent in Spain. Ms Le Pen did particularly well among young voters, which does not bode well for the political stability of France and which makes a striking contrast with the UK, where support for Brexit was particularly strong among the elderly.
The chances of reducing unemployment are also damaged by the high debt levels in many EU nations, which is likely to mean that the commission (with Germany standing behind it) will continue to argue for rigour in public finance. “The French spend too much money and spend it on the wrong things,” Mr Juncker warned on Monday. A continuation of austerity — combined with the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence — may prevent any rapid expansion in employment or wages. And that will mean that the economic insecurity that nourishes populism is likely to continue.
The same will be true of the social and physical insecurity that has boosted the appeal of populist parties. The return of European jihadis from Syria and Iraq — combined with online radicalisation — is likely to ensure that Europe will continue to be plagued by sporadic terrorist attacks. That will, in turn, heighten fear and suspicion of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Yet the flows of refugees and illegal migrants are unlikely to stop any time soon. The political order of the Middle East continues to break down across a range of countries — including Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — creating flows of refugees.
Over the long term, the population of Africa is likely to double to 2.4bn by 2050. The coexistence of a relatively poor, youthful and populous Africa next door to a wealthy but ageing Europe makes mass migration all but inevitable. And the subsequent political backlash in Europe is also easy to foresee.
For all the tension around security and migration, however, European voters have demonstrated more resilience and calm than many pundits and politicians anticipated. One of those who anticipated that fears of terrorism would boost Ms Le Pen is the current occupant of the Oval Office. When a policeman was killed in an attack in Paris just days before the French vote, Mr Trump tweeted: “Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election.”
In the event, the US president’s analysis of the mood of France was flawed. Ms Le Pen did worse than expected by pollsters and Paris itself voted 90 per cent for Mr Macron. Obituaries for the death of globalisation and liberal democracy in Europe will have to be put back into the files, for now.