December 1, 2016
Trump Coattails in Europe?
In Europe, nearly 4 weeks after the U.S. elections, much of the public, media and established party leaders remain astonished at President-elect Trump’s win. The German weekly news magazine “Der Spiegel” pronounced the election of Donald Trump to be “the end of the World (as we know it)”. On the heels of the UK Brexit vote in June, the success of Mr. Trump’s populist message has European elites worried that right-wing populist and nationalist messages will also resonate with voters in upcoming elections in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and France, even possibly challenging the future of the European Union, according to some European experts.
These European populist parties and candidates are perceived by many as riding the coattails of President-elect Trump’s win and Brexit. But we should be careful not to see all of these nationalist parties and movements as the same. In fact, the differences between the various populist parties in Europe are significant, as is their relevance for the future of Europe and US-European relations.
Voters in Austria may choose right-wing FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer in Presidential elections on December 4. But Austrians have flirted in the past with the FPÖ, and the Presidency is largely ceremonial. Italians may reject the constitutional reform championed by Prime Minister Renzi in Sunday’s referendum. Renzi, a socialist moderate proposed constitutional reforms that should be seen by the right as moving in the right direction but in the meantime has so linked his own personal future with the reforms that the no vote may prevail as populist voters see a quick way to force Renzi to resign. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the right-wing PVV party may win March 2017 elections on an anti-immigrant platform.
Europe can and will probably survive all of these elections as well as Brexit as long as the French and German core remains committed.
This means that the French elections in May 2017 are key. A possible victory by far-right anti-European Front National candidate Marine Le Pen (who has been strong in polls) in France would be a game changer for Europe. France and Germany have been the “motor” of Europe since the founding of the common European market in 1957 – and France cannot be replaced in that equation by any other member state. That is the reason why EU supporters breathed a sigh of relief when Francois Fillon clinched the conservative Republican party’s nomination to face far-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen in May 2017 elections.
The selection of Mr. Fillon, a much more conservative ad populist figure than his rivals Alain Juppe and earlier candidate and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, increases his party’s chances to prevail against Marine Le Pen by shoring up support of his party on the right.
Angela Merkel has just announced her candidacy for a fourth term beginning in 2017. Angela Merkel has emerged as the champion of Europe’s old order and is headed for a major confrontation with the populist tide. The German Chancellor faces a difficult campaign largely because of her open door refugee policy, but is not yet seen as seriously threatened. She may ultimately welcome working with the Trump Administration to keep the US-EU relationship strong and to minimize Trump coattails both for the emerging right-wing AfD party in Germany as well as for other anti-European parties and movements.