Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats. 

In The Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his anti-EU Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) are falling behind for the first time since taking a lead in polls two years ago. With no other parties willing to join Wilders in government, he was hoping he could notch at least the paper victory of winning more seats than any other party. Instead, though prime minister Mark Rutte was almost certainly going to lead the next coalition government, Rutte’s liberals have now reclaimed the lead from the PVV. As Dutch voters have focused in the last two weeks, populist parties are losing support, including not just the PVV, but 50PLUS, another pro-pensioner populist party. This week, polls show that the PVV might also fall behind another center-left liberal party, the Democraten66 (Democrats 66).

After the Trump roar last November, Wilders proclaimed that he too would ‘Make The Netherlands Great Again.’ Instead, Wilders and his party will be lucky to win just 15% of the vote and 25 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives. A third-place finish for Wilders would be nothing short of a disaster for his movement and his extreme anti-Islam ideology.

In France, Marine Le Pen continues to lead most polls for the first round of the presidential election on April 23. But Le Pen has never convincingly shown how she could win a runoff against a more moderate candidate. Even though his campaign is falling apart due to a scandal over ‘fake jobs’ (with non-fake salaries) for his wife and children, former prime minister François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Républicains, still leads Le Pen in a potential runoff by a double-digit margin.

It’s possible that Fillon will be forced to quit the race, with a pending indictment later this month. For now, Le Pen is far more likely to face off against center-left independent, Emmanuel Macron, a former aide to president François Hollande and former economy minister. Polls give Macron a wider lead (in the range of 60% to 40%) over Le Pen — far wider, of course, than any lead Hillary Clinton ever enjoyed in 2016 over Trump.

Moreover, if Fillon drops out of the race in the next two weeks (his likeliest replacement may be former finance minister François Baroin), it’s entirely possible that a scandal-free Republican could make it to a runoff against Macron, forcing Le Pen back into third place. If Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left Front de gauche (Left Front) and Benoît Hamon, the former education minister who won the nomination of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), join forces, an increasingly unlikely prospect, a unified left-wing candidacy might also make it to the runoff. Either way, a third-place result for Le Pen would mark a humiliating retreat for a candidate who has led first-round polls for years.

In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes for a fourth term are increasingly dicey, but not because of populists. The anti-immigration and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) is still set to enter the Budestag for the first time after September’s federal elections. But polls show that its support is fading from a high of around 15% last year to 10% or under today.

Instead, the decision to make Martin Schulz, the former MEP, the chancellor-candidate of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has galvanized a party that hasn’t won a national election since 2002 — and which has spent eight of the last 12 years as the junior partner in Merkel-led ‘grand coalitions.’ Schultz, who has led the center-left faction of the European Parliament for much of that time, is unsullied by his party’s compromises with Merkel, and he casts a punchy and populist figure on the campaign trail, indicating that he is willing to reconsider some of the ‘Agenda 2010’ labor market and economic reforms put into place under Schröder and maintained by a decade under Merkel.

In a taunt to Trumpismo and its supporters, Schulz fans have hailed the Social Democrat as a candidate who will ‘Make Europe Great Again.’

If Schulz succeeds, Germans will have replaced Merkel with someone who is even more enthusiastic about European integration and who has defended Germany’s embrace of foreign migrants even more strongly than Merkel, who welcomed nearly a million immigrants, mostly from Syria, into Germany in 2015 (and still welcomed another quarter-million in 2016). Schulz has become so popular so quickly that supporters have adopted as their rallying call #MEGA — or ‘Make Europe Great Again’ — as a tongue-in-cheek pro-Schulz retort to the nationalism underlying Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again.’

Even in Italy, as the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) seems destined to tear itself apart over internal squabbles and Matteo Renzi’s ambitions (for himself as much as for his party and for Italy), it is still not out of the question that Renzi will win the upcoming leadership election this spring and lead his party to victory in elections this year or early next year over the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

With the rest of the once formidable Italian center-right in decline, the Five Star Movement now counts anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the Italian electorate among its supporters. But as the movement has struggled to transform from an organized protest vehicle to a coherent governing platform. Five Star supporters rejoiced after winning a series of local elections last summer, including Rome, but the new Roman mayor Virginia Raggi has struggled to govern and now burdened by dual accusations of incompetence and corruption.

5 thoughts on “Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists”

  1. This is pretty poor analysis of the situation. The rise of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders was never about the people growing more extreme, it was about the political establishment getting more detached. The growth of parties like the PVV and AfD forced formerly centrist parties to speak to the issues that were the cornerstones of said parties rise and moderate or completely change their positions on them, thus roping disgruntled voters back into the fold.

    If you want an example of somewhere this trend was not followed, look to Sweden. The government there continues to bury tis head in the sand about the challenges of immigration and integration, demonising the Sweden Democrats and theparty of the antichrist, and seeing their poll rating floor and those of the SD reach new records.

    What has changed post-Trump is that the established parties woke up to the, for them, chilling fact that not listening to the people and pretending you know better than them is a sure fire way to an election loss. They became more populist, more nationalist, at least enough to ensure the voters they were losing that they were not completely off the reservation. The trend is still firmly away from more integration, the rhetoric is just milder.

    1. Certainly you can see some of that in Rutte’s reelection campaign in the way that he’s targeted immigrants (the ‘be normal or be gone’ bit). But that doesn’t apply to Democrats 66, which are on the rise, nor does it apply to GroenLinks. Even if it does seem to be working for the VVD, It didn’t work in June 2015 when Helle Thorning-Schmidt pulled the Social Democrats to a similarly ‘tough on migrants’ position. The Danish People’s Party gained 15 seats and ended up with 21% of the vote.

      The situation in Sweden is difficult to read, I grant you. Sweden Democrats are way up in support from 2014 elections, but down from their highs in mid-2015 or even mid-2016. I agree with you that neither Anna Kinberg Batra nor Stefan Löfven seem to “get it,” and I believe Kinberg Batra has already had a “deplorables” moment calling rural Swedes unintelligent.

      I’m not sure I would call Macron a populist, and though he’s certainly embracing the mantle of “change,” he’s the candidate closest to Hollande in the race, in policy terms and otherwise. He’s not a fiery Montebourg-style economic nationalist, he’s not co-opting much of Le Pen’s rhetoric to working class voters in the northeast. He’s another ENA graduate and a former investment banker who is claiming an “independent” approach that was starting to ring hollow before Bayrou’s endorsement and Fillon’s implosion.

      I would call Schulz more populist, but he’s hardly any more so than Schröder was (at least in style, if not in substance). Again, he’s leading an election on a campaign of EU-wide internationalism, embracing immigration, etc. The AfD certainly pushes Merkel in a more hardline direction (veil ban), but she seems to be falling behind Schulz’s PC #MEGA populism.

      So I would agree that in some cases (Dutch in particular) co-option has been a successful strategy. I’m not sure that explains the PVV’s freefall in polls over the last two weeks — perhaps more to do with Arjen Lubach’s withering takedown. It reminds me of Emile Roemer’s collapse in 2012.

  2. I think there’s a bit of anti-European bias in this piece revealed by the opening line about how the one thing uniting Europeans is the fact that they’re all a bunch of effete snobs (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

    In truth, nothing has changed in European elections to justify this piece, although it’s refreshing to read an article written in English that recognizes that Europe and America/Britain might be headed in opposite directions politically.

    Le Pen, Wilders and the AfD were always going to lose in Europe, and badly. They were going to lose badly even if their monolithic proto-fascist movements with their minority of the vote they represent were the largest single (minority) party in a given country.

    However, much of the English-language press — obsessed as it is with political events in only two countries, America and Britain — simply assumed that the victory of Brexit and Trump meant that “western civilization” was going off the rails. In reality, this is only happening to western western civilization.

    The fact that radical economic Reagan/Thatcherism never triumphed in continental Europe in the 1980s and 1990s is directly linked to the fact that right-wing populism hasn’t triumphed in continental Europe in the 2010s, and will not in 2017.

  3. The analysis seems to be accurate and hopefully true. However I find it very intersting that Poland, Hungary and the other illiberal democracies, where trumpismo has been hegemonic in the past few years apparently are not part of the Europe or the European Union you are writing about.

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