by Gareth Axenderrie
When Emmanuel Macron was elected as President of France in May, many were quick to conclude that populism, and specifically nationalism, had had its day in Europe. Macron had swept to power with 66% of the vote share against Front National’s Marine le Pen. His vision was a centrist, pro-European one, and as he stood celebrating in front of European Union flags, the assumption was that order had been restored.
Barely five months on however, you could argue that the nationalist and populist movement is still in full flow across Europe.
We are very quick to continue to talk about Trump and Brexit, but as we have become tangled in the US President’s latest inflammatory tweet or arguments about hard, soft, red, white and blue Brexits, Europe is becoming a battleground between the established centre-ground, and a plethora of internal opponents to the status quo.
Germany was the first major shock since the summer. Chancellor Merkel has been the immovable object in European centrist politics for the best part of twelve years, and yet now, she faces the task of a swell in right-wing nationalism throughout the country. This swell has resulted in Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) becoming the Bundestag’s third largest party, and a huge thorn in her side. Political commentators are predicting a huge change in the discourse and tone of debate in the western world’s largest parliament.
The AfD’s result was quickly mirrored in neighbouring Austria, albeit on a more cataclysmic scale. 31 year-old Sebastian Kurz led his Austrian People’s Party to electoral victory earlier this month, and they have just opened coalition negotiations with the far right Freedom Party. The proposition of an extremely right-wing government in Austria sent shivers down the spine of the EU establishment.
Those shivering spines will have turned cold last weekend however, as the Czech Republic elections delivered a victory for a man dubbed the ‘Czech Donald Trump’. Andrej Babis led his anti-establishment Action for Dissatisfied Citizens Party to 30% of the vote making them the largest party in the country. Babis is the Czech Republic’s second wealthiest businessman, with an estimated worth of $4.1 billion. The owner of conglomerate Agrofert, has been heavily accused of undermining democracy by buying up a large proportion of the country’s media to silence criticism. Campaigning on an anti-immigration platform, it’s evidence that Europe is ready to accommodate populist charges into politics from ‘Trump-style’ demagogues.
There was minor relief in the form of the Slovenian presidential elections as the first round produced victories in all but three districts for Borut Pahor of the social democrats. Slovenia has Europe’s lowest rate of income inequality, and it appears its electorate are rewarding its political class. That said, Slovenia’s example is a current anomaly in the wider European context.
The rise of separatism is also a major concern for the EU’s status quo. Catalonia is the obvious example, as established constitution comes head to head with a drive toward self-sovereignty. The EU has been extremely cautious in its response to the crisis on the Iberian Peninsula, and they’ll be conscious of the potential for mirror movements in Corsica, northern Italy and other semi-autonomous regions.
There’s no doubting that Europe as a continent and political establishment is in the midst of a huge identity crisis. Years of centrist establishment rule is being challenged by populism and nationalism on a scale not witnessed for the best part of the last fifty years. The EU has threatened countries embracing populist and nationalist movements with sanctions, but you fear that this rhetoric may only further drive people to opposition.
Those who pointed to Macron’s election victory in May as an end to this, should be reminded that Macron himself can be defined as a centrist populist. The establishment is creaking, and possibly even taking on water. Brexit was the first rock of the boat, and there are many waves still ahead.