These 5 Facts Explain Why European Populism Will Survive a Le Pen Defeat

May 04, 2017

Far-right Marine Le Pen probably won’t win the French presidency on Sunday—though the loyalty of her base gives her a fighting chance. Still, some in the media will inevitably argue that a Le Pen loss marks a significant defeat of Euro-populism. Not so fast. There's good reason to believe the cycle will be with us for a while yet:

1. Brexit is just getting started

Begin with the most tangible manifestation of European populism to date—Brexit. Until David Cameron called for a Brexit referendum in 2015, most Britons didn’t even consider their country’s relationship to the E.U. as a matter of significant concern. But the move was hailed as a clever tactic that would allow the Conservative Party to pull support from Nigel Farage and his surging UK Independence Party. That part of the plan worked. Then British voters voted themselves out of the European Union by a 4-point margin.

Euroskepticism has always been an important feature of British politics, but Cameron underestimated its power. The wave of populism, in Europe and beyond, has only intensified since. But voting for Brexit was the easy part; the negotiation process has begun badly — the two sides are currently “miles apart”, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May has already accused Brussels of trying to meddle in upcoming UK elections — and next two years will stoke plenty of popular anger at overbearing European institutions—and not just in Britain.

2. Hungary and Poland are drifting towards illiberalism

On the other side of the continent you have countries like Hungary and Poland, which are moving in a different direction than their western European counterparts. When Poland and Hungary first entered the E.U. in 2004, they had GDPs of $510 billion and $164 billion, respectively (in PPP terms). Today, they’re at over $1 trillion and $260 billion. But as the E.U. began to stumble over a succession of political and economic crises in 2010, and as the migrant crisis in 2015 fed the fears of their voters, leadership in both countries began to question what European values really meant to them.

The current governments in both countries have undermined democracy in recent years; Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he’s building an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia, China, and Turkey. Both countries have cracked down on free media, challenged the independence of courts, and fanned anti-immigrant sentiment at a time when the rest of Europe is still struggling to cope with the influx of Syrian and Libyan refugees. The open disdain for democratic processes and burden-sharing isn’t helping European solidarity, and at a particularly dangerous time for the entire European project.

3. Relations with Turkey are deteriorating

Why dangerous? Because Turkish elections are on the horizon. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just won a popular referendum that will give his office sweeping new powers, though he needs to win an election for those powers to come into force. Given Turkey’s stumbling economy and increasingly infuriated opposition, the sooner Erdogan calls elections, the better for him.

That worries Europe. Erdogan has already proven that he thinks bashing Europeans will get him more votes. That’s why he referred to German and Dutch leaders as Nazis ahead of his referendum, and it’s why early elections in Turkey will ensure that Turkey-E.U. relations get worse. Remember that there’s currently an E.U.-Turkey migrant deal in force that’s keeping 3 million Syrian refugees on the other side of the Aegean. A flood of migrants is the fastest way to add accelerant to the flames of European populism. The E.U. is paying Turkey considerable sums as part of this deal, and Erdogan could use the cash to care for all those refugees. But the risk is real that he’ll try to use the future of the migrant deal as a bargaining chip. In the meantime, the war of words will only make things more difficult.

4. Italy's economy is on its last legs

Before there were Syrian refugees or Brexit, there was an economic crisis. Seven years later, it’s Italy that may pose the biggest risk of all to the future of the European Union. As the Eurozone’s third-largest economy with a 2015 GDP topping $1.8 trillion, Italy is “too big to bail.” The Italian economy continues to falter, and the populist, euroskeptic Five Star Movement (M5S) is likely to come first in the country’s next election (spring 2018 at latest). If so, it’s even less likely that Italy will undertake the necessary but unpopular fiscal and structural reforms needed to get its economy back on track and avoid an emergency that E.U. leaders won’t be able to handle.

If M5S can cobble together a governing coalition — still unlikely but increasingly possible — it will be with other anti-establishment and Eurosceptic parties; if it succeeds, it will create an existential crisis for Europe. Italy is a founding member of the E.U. and the Euro. An M5S government in Italy would cause a spike in Euro interest rates, and will likely derail Brexit negotiations as Brussels focuses on the E.U's survival rather than on compromise with the U.K.

5. France is still bitterly divided

And then there’s France. A President Macron will have a tough time governing, given that he founded his political party just last year. En Marche currently has zero members in France’s parliament, and while that will likely change with June’s parliamentary elections, Macron probably won’t have the number of reliable allies he needs to push through his technocratic, pro-E.U. political agenda. Macron’s most likely political partners, the mainstream center-left Socialists and center-right Les Republicains, will be focused on strengthening their own positions, rather than helping him govern successfully. The center-right, in particular, will be looking to win back support by co-opting parts of Marine Le Pen’s and the Front National’s populist message.

Many in the media will write stories about the end of the populist threat to European unity; but there will still be plenty of French voters looking for change. The two mainstream political parties combined to capture merely 26 percent of the first-round vote, good for third and fifth place. A Macron presidency—mainstream in everything but name—is unlikely to change that.

Elections are never the end of anything. They’re a beginning. And there are good reasons to doubt that those winning this year’s elections in Europe will now heed the demand for a European Union more responsive to their needs.

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