With storm clouds on the horizon, 2017 looks set to deliver a wave of new leadership across Europe, and with it a more favourable forecast for Britain’s Brexit negotiations, argues Patrick Sullivan.
With Trump soon to be installed in the White House, and Brexit underway, the wave of populism that came to define 2016 looks set to continue well into the new year.
These factors, combined with the forthcoming crunch elections in Italy, Germany and France, mean this year looks set to be even more of a rollercoaster ride for the bosses in Brussels than 2016.
Conventional thinking has the UK as a lone voice in its opposition to free movement. But even a cursory glance at some of the opposition parties vying for power in next year’s elections show that the tectonic plates of European politics are primed to send a political earthquake shattering across the continent.
With anti-European sentiment fomenting from Naples to Nuremberg, the odds on the UK securing a favourable Brexit settlement are undoubtedly shortening.
In Italy, Matteo Renzie’s resignation as Prime Minister has thrown a country famed for the dysfunction of its political class into even greater turmoil. Currently under the stewardship of foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, the country fresh parliamentary elections are likely to be called early in the new year.
The country’s two populist parties, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League look set to win big. Both have expressed scepticism about Italy’s membership of the Euro and freedom of movement.
Some have even speculated that Five Star Movement might secure enough seats for its bumptious leader, Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, to end up as Italy’s next Prime Minister. I can’t see Angela Merkel laughing at that punch line…
Given he’s expressed his admiration for UKIP’s Nigel Farage in the past, some see him as being more sympathetic to Brexit Britain than others.
And his promise to stage a referendum on the country’s membership of the Euro should he gain office is likely to grab all the Eurocrats’ attention in Brussels, and divert attention away from turning the screws on Brexit Britain. In the event, Brussels should also be wary of adopting too antagonistic approach towards the UK for fear of provoking a backlash from sympathetic and frustrated Italian voters.
In March, the Dutch will take to the polling booths. If the polls keep moving in their current direction, the anti-immigration, Eurosceptic Freedom Party looks set to gain the most seats. Even taking into account the party’s current polling projections, the country’s electoral system means the Freedom Party’s controversial leader, Geert Wilders, who was once banned from the UK for being an “undesirable person”, is unlikely to be the next Dutch Prime Minister.
Instead, the next government will likely be a continuation of the current coalition between the VVD (Liberals) and the Labour Party. However, the growing popularity of the “far-right” in the Netherlands will force the more established parties to take this election as a warning and try to address genuine concerns both about Brussels, and immigration.
Meanwhile in Brussels…
The popular unrest in Europe is also likely to impact the otherwise impenetrable bubble of European government in Brussels. If turmoil does start to take hold, don’t be surprised if new leadership is installed in the European Commission in a bid to steady the ship.
Indeed, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, herself badly damaged by her handling of the migrant crisis, is seen to be rapidly losing authority. The de facto leader of the European Union is finding herself increasingly isolated.
Mere days before her Italian ally Matteo Renzi resigned, and just when the German Chancellor thought her year couldn’t get any worse, another ally, French President François Hollande announced he would not seek re-election, thus confirming his lame duck status.
The contest to be France’s next President looks set to be a contest between Marine Le Pen and either ‘independent’ candidate, Emmanuel Macron, former Economy minister under M. Hollande or the Republican candidate Francois Fillon.
The election will be a key test for how far Mme. Le Pen has succeeded in decontaminating the Front National brand from the days of her Holocaust denying father’s leadership. In 2002, when he made the final ballot, the clear majority of Socialists held their noses and voted the unpopular Gaullist, Jacques Chirac, in for a second term. Whether she has a chance will depend on how successful she has been in bringing her party and its message into the mainstream of French politics.
The odds of a President Le Pen are still unlikely, although in the age of Trump one should be wary of ruling anything out. What is more likely is that she will do better than expected and in doing so change the centre of gravity in French Politics.
Whether Mme. Le Pen ends up facing M. Macron or M. Fillon, her challenger is likely to try and appropriate some parts of her policies.
Whatever the result, the next occupant of the Elysee Palace is bound to repesent a significant break from M. Hollande with the adoption of a more France First approach both to foreign policy and immigration.
The surge in support for populists across Europe is likely to cause the greatest level of concern in Germany. The true symbol of Angela Merkel’s failure as German Chancellor is the growth of the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party. The AfD have been the prime political beneficiaries of the backlash from Merkel’s open door policy to Middle Eastern migrants, coming second in the 2016 regional elections. They even knocked Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union into third place in her own home state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommem.
If polls remain as they are, next September’s federal elections will see the AfD break the threshold for representation in the Bundestag. While this doesn’t mean they will form any part of a governing coalition (all other parties will avoid cooperating with them) but that will not make the achievement any less historic. It will be the first time since the Second World War that an anti-immigrant, nationalist party will be seated in Germany’s Parliament.
There are numerous reasons why the political class in Germany will not want this to happen. It is extremely likely that pressure will be put on Angela Merkel not to seek a fourth term, especially given that she is seen by many as the cause of the refugee crisis.
Without Merkel, Germany’s governing parties will most likely disavow her excesses and move to address legitimate concerns regarding immigration and the costs of further European integration. Any new Chancellor will need to tend to the quagmire on the home front before undertaking any grandiose ideas about running the European Union. This can only be good for Britain.
With storm clouds on the horizon, this year looks set to deliver a wave of new leadership across Europe, and with it a more favourable forecast for Britain’s forthcoming Brexit negotiations.