If there is such a thing as a “Trump Effect” in European politics, it’s not unfolding quite the way that Europe’s liberals had feared.
No stampede of dark horses from the nationalist fringe has come trampling across the European Union. No other countries have yet followed the British to the exit. Instead, the leaders of the right seem to be suffering one setback after another, which is all the more remarkable given how confident they felt just a few months ago.
On Jan. 21, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the leaders of Europe’s main right-wing parties gathered in the German city of Koblenz to celebrate the return of nationalism to both American and European politics. The headliner at their summit was Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, who declared from the stage that, “We’re living through the death of one world and the birth of a new world.”
She spoke too soon. Out of the four party leaders who shared that stage in Koblenz, two have since faced humbling defeats. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders saw his nativist Party for Freedom roundly beaten by the pro-E.U. incumbents in an election held last month. His allies in the right-wing Alternative for Germany have meanwhile seen a drop in the polls so steep that their chairwoman, Frauke Petry, announced last week that she would not lead the party into the German elections due this fall.
By comparison, Le Pen has fared better — though not nearly as well as she’d hoped. Her second-place finish on Sunday in the French presidential race earned her 21.4% of the vote, enough for her to enter the second round of the elections, which will be held on May 7. But the result was more than three percentage points weaker than her party’s tally during the European Parliamentary elections held in 2014.
So what exactly happened to the revolutionary wave Le Pen and the others had promised in Koblenz? In some ways the conditions for it are still in place. The French elections, much like Trump’s victory in November and the Brexit referendum in June, demonstrated that voters across the Western world are fed up with the political establishment. Neither of France’s two mainstream parties made it into the second round, and the first-place finisher, Emmanuel Macron, had never run for office before.
Also working in Le Pen’s favor is the fact that xenophobia and, in particular, a deep aversion to immigration from the Muslim world, are still driving the debate in European politics, just as they did in the U.S. during the Trump campaign and the U.K. ahead of Brexit. In a survey published in February by Chatham House, an average of 55% of respondents in ten E.U. countries agreed that “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” Only a fifth of respondents disagreed with this statement.
And if such feelings are combined with the E.U.’s aging population, idling economy and high unemployment, it sets the stage nicely for right-wing populists to attract mass support, or even take power, on the backs of voters fed up with the status quo. What the nationalists seem to be missing in Western Europe is the skill and the charisma to seize on these opportunities.
Just take Austria. Much like in France over the weekend, the Austrian presidential elections last fall saw the two establishment parties both knocked out of the race during the first round of voting. The two run-off candidates in Austria were both outsiders – one from the far-right Freedom Party, the other linked to the left-wing Greens – and the campaign centered around the issue of illegal immigration, where the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer had the clear advantage. But in the end he was defeated by 73-year-old Alexander Van der Bellen, whose liberal, centrist campaign had all the razzle-dazzle of a civics lecture.
According to most polls and projections, Le Pen is now headed for the same sort of disappointment. It would not be her party’s first. During the French presidential ballot in 2002, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, also made it to the run-off vote on a platform laced with xenophobia. But the prospect of him winning the presidency so horrified the French electorate that the elder Le Pen ended up with less than 18% in the final round.
There is still a chance that his daughter will fare better. But so far, the closest thing to a discernible Trump Effect in Europe has served to weaken support for Le Pen and her fellow travelers on the right. Once Europeans had gotten a chance to observe the Trump campaign and see how the Brexit referendum was playing out, enthusiasm for the E.U. went up across the bloc, according to a survey published in November by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation.
Meanwhile, a grassroots movement in support of European liberalism – with its core values of inclusiveness, tolerance and open borders – has found its voice across Western Europe, routinely filling city squares with massive demonstrations against right-wing populism.
One of this movements biggest shows of force took place outside of the Alternative for Germany’s annual convention this weekend in Cologne. Tens of thousands of protestors came out against the party’s illiberal message, bringing the city center to a standstill and dwarfing even the biggest rallies that Germany’s anti-immigration forces have recently been able to attract. It seemed a fitting illustration of the party’s electoral outlook. After peaking at about 15% in the polls last year, it has dropped as low as 7% under Petry’s leadership in recent weeks. So her decision to step aside makes sense. Doing otherwise would risk stumbling toward yet another defeat — not just for her, but for the “new world” her movement supposedly helped represent.
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