Europe: An Integrationist Backlash?
February 20, 2017 § 2 Comments
The UK and US have both set a national course along similar trajectories recently. Brexit and Trump may not be precisely the same phenomenon, but the resulting governments have some distinctly similar features; a traditional right-wing party being led by its most nativist, nationalist elements, pushing anti-immigration policy and sentiment without regard for the potential economic or political damage, a disregard for innovation as an economic driver, and the heavy rhetorical use of “real” (as code for an idealised vision of “masculine/manufacturing”) people being played against a caricature of “elite” city-dwellers. The similarities go on, but the point is made.
We and our media, however, may be so wrapped up in our current situation that we are missing the patterns and trajectories in other countries, assuming too quickly that they are simply waiting or threatening to follow us along that road, or at the very least that their more centrist politicians will have to give significant ground to the nativist right in order to withstand the tide. Such a view is by no means stupid – the hard right has been resurgent across Europe as well as the Anglosphere – but if one looks beneath the surface, Europe may be about to take a hard tack in the opposite direction altogether.
There are three key elections coming up in Europe this year – France, the Netherlands, and Germany. As three of the EU27’s largest economies, these countries (especially France and Germany) have a huge rule in dictating the future of the European Union. Closer union cannot realistically happen without their consent; their leaving the European project would be far more fatal than Britain’s exit, were it to take place. A quick examination of these three countries gives us a very interesting, and very real, glimpse of the Europe that the Anglosphere might find itself dealing with by the end of 2017; it may not be what some in our commentariat, enthralled by the potential success of hardline populists like Le Pen to match that of Trump, seem to expect.
So, how are these three elections shaping up? The Dutch election is probably the least consequential and hardest to predict of the three. With a plethora of parties likely to gain seats in parliament, and the hard-right PVV likely to come first but with no plausible coalition partners, an unwieldy multi-party coalition is a near certainty, probably led by the current right-wing VVD, who have themselves been moving to try and head off PVV support by moving away from their pseudo-liberal roots towards a harder-right stance on Islam and migration. The resulting government, if it hangs together at all, will struggle to take any definite position on anything whatsoever given that it may need at least five parties to form a majority. Nonetheless, with the PVV having seemingly peaked in the polls and sliding back down towards the VVD, and the latter needing support from left and centre parties to govern, the hard right is likely to stay locked out of power in the Netherlands.
It is in France and Germany that things get far more interesting. Germany, not so long ago, looked nailed down for the CDU, with a likely continuation of the centrist “Grand Coalition” – but that was before Martin Schulz, a popular former bookseller and veteran EU politician, took the helm of the lesser coalition partner, the Social Democrats. On January 23 a poll suggested that the SDP were on 21%, behind the CDU by over ten percent. A fortnight later, Schulz had them on 31%, with a narrow lead. Merkel’s position is unexpectedly under threat, and not from the hard right AfD at all (whose “surge” of the last two years has brought them only to a distant third place in Germany, and whose positions on issues like immigration, unlike those of their UKIP counterparts, have been resisted and rejected by the centre-right). Instead, the challenge comes from a resurgent centre-left.
In France, the dice have been favourable to the long-shot candidacy of former economy minister and centrist liberal Emmanuel Macron. Not so long ago, he was clearly well behind Les Republicains’ Francois Fillon (a Russophile, soft-Eurosceptic with economically Thatcherite leanings), and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen (whose success in painting a veneer of merely “hardline authoritarian” over the fascist core of her movement is remarkable, but whose party is still too unpalatable for a majority of French voters to consider). Whilst Le Pen is still clearly likely to win the first round with around 25-27% of the vote, scandal has descended on Fillon’s campaign and Macron is now the narrow favourite to sneak into the second place spot. In France’s two-round system, second place can be every bit as good as first – the top two candidates book a place each in the second round, and polling clearly shows Macron as an easy winner there, crushing the National Front by as much as a 2:1 margin.
Macron and Schulz have some obvious commonalities. Both are of the centre and centre-left, for one thing – but more importantly, both are passionate about one thing perhaps above all else. And that thing is Europe and European integration. Schulz has been president of the European Parliament for five years; Macron encourages his supporters to fly the Union’s golden crown of stars along with the French Tricolour at his rallies. If these two men end up forming a future axis across the heart of Europe, it could put rocket skates beneath the EU’s ability to integrate policing, defence cooperation, budgets, and far more.
Perhaps more pertinently for the Anglo-American “Trumposphere”, it could set Europe’s foreign policy on a path of dramatic opposition to Britain and the US. The Macron-Schulz EU, if it happens, will in all likelihood be trying to forge forward with international trade deals just as America and Britain retreat from them; it will, perhaps dragging a less-willing US behind it, perhaps not, take the lead in a bullish pro-democracy stance against Putin in Ukraine and Georgia. As for Brexit, the thought of facing Macron and Schulz across the table should be keeping Conservative negotiators up at night. The two men will not seek to humiliate or needlessly damage Britain, but they will certainly ensure that it cannot get benefits reserved for members of the European club; defending the indivisibility of the “four freedoms” (people, services, capital, goods) will be more of a priority. More so than their more naturally cautious Conservative alternatives, they may be prepared to stomach a brief economic punch for the potential gains of industries and services relocating into their own countries.
How have we got here? Ironically, perhaps because of some of the very dynamics that brought Trump and Brexit to the fore. With an isolationist Trumposphere having formed, a gap now opens for a populist opposition in Europe to an exceptionally unpopular US president and an increasingly disliked and chaotic Britain whose reliability as a partner seems in question and whose platitudes about trade cannot mask the cosying up to Trump or the wholesale sacrifice of Britain’s hard-won trade deals in order to curb the bogeyman of immigration. Being able to run against two increasingly disliked foreign governments is a gift to politicians like Macron, who despite his inexperience can already look the part of a Europhile statesman.
Whether this stance is likely to be successful in government is a question far beyond the discussion here, but it may have significant electoral appeal for playing to centre-left voters. It may also provide opportunities in domestic policy – Macron’s vision of France sees the country taking over as the capital of entrepreneurship and innovation, benefiting from an Anglo-American “brain drain”. He will find such a project difficult for France specifically in some respects, but the potential gains for the Eurozone as a whole in providing a strong pull for US/UK researchers are clear. With Trump having both declared fair game on sharp-elbowed economic diplomacy of a sort not often seen nowadays, and having alienated some of his most mobile labour and capital forces, Europe has an opening to snap up potential gains by ramping up the “pull” factors without seeming churlish on the international stage. The integrationists have every intention of doing just that; the Trumposphere’s loss may yet be their gain.
One final note: all the above is a possibility, not a statistical prediction. There are as yet many things that could prevent any of the above coming to pass, the most obvious feature being the fact that both Macron and Schulz are in no better than a statistical tie with their rivals (Fillon and Merkel respectively). The scenario discussed is however considerably more likely than a right-populist wave overtaking the core western European EU states, with Le Pen faring ill in all second-round matchups that have been polled, Wilders lacking partners to govern with, and AfD languishing in the polls and the CDU sharply distinguishing themselves from their policies. Rather than the question “who’s next?” being first to mind when looking at Europe, it may yet be the case that Trump and Brexit have handed the integrationists the last laugh.