January 2, 2017

2017: Europe primed for political earthquake

2017: Europe primed for political earthquake

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.

3.70 avg. rating (74% score) - 40 votes
Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan is the Chief Executive of Parliament Street, a Westminster based think-tank. He was previously research director for a US Congressional Campaign in 2012.
  • digitaurus

    The European Commission’s “programme of work” is a pile of bureaucratic nonsense. If we had been staying in the EU I would have advised you to chuck it in the bin and stop worrying about it. As we are leaving the EU, even that advice is moot. The European Commission isn’t where the power is. Never has been.

  • digitaurus

    That’s not a long game. The second British Empire was built between 1750 and 1930.

  • SeeYouAnon

    We had already played it, and lost. 40+ years of it!

  • SeeYouAnon

    No chance of that whatsoever.

    All attempts to reform, or repatriate power in the past, have failed completely. That includes the PM’s hopeless renegotiation.

    The EU plans to accelerate its destruction of national sovereignty, and therefore influence, this year. Have a look at their programme of work. There is no opportunity for any country to shape anything: that is for the birds.

  • Adrian Johnson

    Same with our upland family sheep farm. Yes, we’ve had subsidies, but before the EU we spent one weekend a month on paperwork. Under the EU via DEFRA, we spend two days a week on paperwork and need to employ an accountant just so we don’t fall foul of the bean-counters. As with other farmers, we had to diversify just so we could afford to break even; what we get out of farming is the privilege of hosting the extended family there for Christmas and Easter reunions–othewise the farm pays its own keep thorugh holiday lettings as it is “picturesque” (read: old & quaint because we could never afford to moderiize it) . We were happy to vote Brexit.

  • Adrian Johnson

    Apology accepted now that you clarified.
    Happy New Year.

  • digitaurus

    I can see that my point was unclear. Sorry about that. The EU has been a success in ensuring peaceful cooperation between its members. That was the point I was trying to make. As both your point about the Yugoslavian conflict and Widddget’s point about the Ukraine illustrate, it has not proven a successful body for resolving conflict in neighbouring territories. I agree that its existence probably exacerbated the tensions in both situations.

  • Adrian Johnson

    “ensuring Peaceful cooperation . . . ?” I think the bloody Yugoslav war has slipped your mind.
    All the EU did about it was wring its hands and sigh sympathetically. The EU gutted Greece.

  • Little Black Censored

    You are Howard Jacobson and I claim my 10 euros reward.

  • St Louis

    Tragic. Delusional. Concentrate on eating quietly at home.

  • St Louis

    Presumably you are a descendant of Lord Halifax? Or is it Chamberlain?

  • St Louis

    Ever get lonely sitting there on that fence? Or are you taking the pyss?

  • Shadow Warrior

    No, I don’t. Quite the reverse in fact. The Queen could also have forced the government to seek a mandate via a general election if she did not feel that with-holding royal assent sat well with the state of the constitution at that time. This option is no longer open to the monarch (until the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is repealed).

  • TheRightToArmBears

    And you still think the EU is good value?
    I have a map with an X showing the site of a gold mine that I may let you buy from me . . . . .

  • TheRightToArmBears

    Walter Bageot, the Victorian political commentator’s view was that the Crown has one function and one alone, which is to withhold ultimate power, which is rendered by declining to sign bills into law.
    E2R could, and should, have declined to sign each of the four bills ceding our sovereignty to Brussels, giving each of the four premiers to either admit what they were doing, or withdraw the bills.
    Do you think Heath would have survived that in the Commons?

  • Shadow Warrior

    Interestingly, Cameron and Clegg’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act removed the last safeguard our constitution had against a rogue government, that being the ability of the monarch to call a general election without the Prime Minister’s permission. The idea being that a government that was clearly defying the will of the people could be forced by the monarch to go to the people for a mandate (or otherwise). The Queen could have done this in the 1960s and 1970s (and did not), now she cannot.

  • digitaurus

    I had about £2,000 in EU farm subsidies a few years ago (total over a couple of years). But I have a feeling I’ve paid a hell of a lot more tax than you have over the years, a good slice of which goes to Brussels so I’m guessing I’m a bigger net contributor than you are.

  • TheRightToArmBears

    How much is Brussels paying you?

  • TheRightToArmBears

    May need do the following – 1) Stop the money
    2) Tell the staff to close the offices and come home
    3) Write asking the German auto industry if they still want to sell us their cars
    4) Deport all illegals and foreign criminals
    5) Re-establish our fishing grounds
    6) Tell the civil service to shut up and get on with it
    7) Have lunch and wait for a reply from Germany
    Everything else would be a problem for Brussels.
    But May won’t because she and her party are for remain and keeping us shackled to the EU corpse.

  • TheRightToArmBears

    The disgrace is that Elizabeth II did not tell Heath, Thatcher, Major and brown that they were asking her to break her coronation oath with the bills ceding sovereignty to Brussels. She could and should have told each of them to take the bills back to the House and say publicly what they were asking her to break her coronation oath with regard to the sovereignty that she had been entrusted with. If the House of Commons would publicly instruct her to sign then she would, but not before.

    But she didn’t, did she? She knew what she was signing.

  • digitaurus

    OK – no problem!

  • Widggget

    On 2nd thoughts, we’re probably wasting each other’s time, so just enjoy your late Christmas dinner!

  • digitaurus

    Will do. Just starting an Xmas dinner now but will give you further thoughts when I get a chance.

  • fordwych

    Scotland won’t be leaving the UK anytime soon.

    Enough of us are not so stupid.

  • Widggget

    There’s a lot of speculative theory in there D. How about some hard evidence? eg which countries have we ‘exported’ democracy to?

    Justify your assertion of it being an ‘astonishing success’ in geopolitical terms (bearing in mind it’s been an economic disaster for most member states, excluding Germany.)

    The EU is a source of friction and disharmony as seen in Greece, and relations with Turkey. It also stirred up conflict between Ukraine and Russia by its inept meddling in foreign policy.

  • Billow

    Can anybody foresee the Mayors of say London, Manchester, Birmingham issuing their own visas to any amount of European Financiers in exchange for Financial Access to Europe. Should this happen, would the EU still have their tentacles firmly wrapped around our financial goolies?. In other words, could we leave the EU and single market but still be ‘IN’ courtesy of arrangements made by our city mayors?.

  • digitaurus

    I think the EU (in its various incarnations) has been a major factor in ensuring peaceful, productive cooperation between the major (and minor) European powers over the last 60 years. I think it has also provided a mechanism through which we have exported ideas about democracy and the rule of law to many countries that had either never had them or had lost them. In geopolitical terms, it has been an astonishing success. Thinking about the UK’s specific interests, I also think it provided a framework in which we could establish a dominant position for financial services across all of Europe and, more broadly, it gave us a route (after the collapse of the British Empire) for becoming a great global power again in the 21st century.

  • getahead

    Well said Mojo.

  • Widggget

    Thanks D, but you must surely know (as pointed out above by Phil) that all we’ve seen for our patience is an increasingly diminishing voice. QMV drastically curtailed the UK’s veto/voice.

    I’m intrigued, though, since you point out all the things we’ve escaped from by opting out, what’s the point of the EU? Don’t tell me about trading advantages, since China & the US sell to the EU without any need for harmonising laws or free movement. And just look at the EU unemployment rates – particularly youth – which are a disaster, representing untold human misery.

  • digitaurus

    And that is the route that has been chosen.

  • digitaurus

    Gosh. Er, ok.

  • Mojo

    Having spent forty years trying to reshape a bloc of countries who have very little in common with us, it seems to me that there must come a point when we need to walk away and set our own course. I personally think we can help individual countries far more by being on the outside and making our own decisions. We may have had a veto on certain issues but one or two lone voices add up to zilch.

  • digitaurus

    I understand your frustration. Patience was always a prerequisite. I think we had done pretty well so far. We helped drive the enlargement of the EU to 28 nation states which pretty well guaranteed that the federalism dream was a dead duck. By retaining our own currency we kept the ability to respond to economic shocks much more easily than the Euro area. We kept ourselves outside the Schengen area. We were dominating the EU financial markets. We even had a rebate on our contribution. The constant snubs from the French and (to a lesser extent) the Germans was an irritation, I agree. But in the days of Empire we would have had the confidence and maturity to see the bigger picture.

  • Mojo

    It was our sovereign right to hold a referendum. Our laws state very clearly that our sovereignty and laws are not for Parliament to give away!!!!!! Any change that affects our country’s future and the future of its people have to be put to the people!!!!! The disgrace in 1975 was that Parliament knew they were committing treason, knew they were selling democracy out to federalism but were dishonest and secretive about it. And the bad taste in our mouths today being Parliament is still committing treason as is the House of Lords. But none of these people have the country’s well being and prosperity as a top priority. They have there own career, pension and status as the important factor. And that includes everyone involved in Westminster.

  • Mojo

    If this is indeed proven to be part of the correspondence between Ted Heath and Lord Kilmuir during the De Gaulle negotiations in 1960, then Ted Heath knew in 1973 that he was committing treason by deliberately telling the country that we would only trade with the EEC and there would be no loss of sovereignty. Ken Clarke was also part of this in the 1970s I believe, so again this man knew he was deceiving the country. The words of Lord Kilmuir were ‘an act of treason’. I feel totally devastated that not only our Parliament (then and now) have deceived us but also the House of Lords. I might also suggest that our Monarch must have known that her country was being signed away and did nothing to protect her people. This information alone is enough for the British public to demand we walk away from the EU without any negotiation because everything being discussed, ruminated over and appeased is actually treason in itself. The law of this land has been broken time and again by subsequent governments who should now all be held to account. We must indeed drain this vile swamp.

  • phil

    We have been a member of the club for over 4 decades and our voice has been progressively ignored, Shunted sideways and circumvented by each subsequent Treaty change causing in effect a dilution of our sovereignty by stealth. Any opportunity over the coming decades, as you put it, would have had to be have been predicated on what we achieved previously which is a big fat zero and anyone with an IQ of 70 would see exactly where this country would have wound up further down the line. We have always been the outsider as far as the EU was concerned basically because France and Germany were fearful of what we might achieve when we first joined and in so doing destroy their cosy top dog perch. The fact that Germany is currently pulling all of the EU’s strings says it all about what the direction of travel and destination is for Europe and Democracy is probably at the bottom of their list of priorities.

  • disqus_qE254HgVCU

    Wishful thinking doesn’t make for a good forecast. By December 31, 2017, little will have changed in our lives as we live day to day. That is what matters.

  • digitaurus

    It’s moot now we have committed to leave the EU but there would have been plenty of opportunity over the coming decades to shape the EU into the form we wanted, including repatriating powers to nation states. The UK’s superior culture of entrepreneurialism and its economic engine would have ensured our domination of the EU (probably alongside Germany) eventually. That’s the glory of compound growth.

  • Widggget

    Such as…

  • Derek

    US political researchers have found a causal link between rising inequality (which started around the 1970s) and increasing political polarization.

    See ‘These political scientists may have just discovered why U.S. politics are a disaster’.

    Polarized politics means that the ‘enthusiasts/believers’ on both sides of the spectrum can find little or no common ground on anything. In the UK its noticeable that liberals cannot accept the BREXIT vote.
    Democrats have moved much further left than conservatives have moved right – not too dissimilar from the UK where Labour have moved much more left.

    Due to the large differences in moral values Conservatives Can’t Understand Liberals (and Vice Versa) http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/why-conservatives-cant-understand-liberals-and-vice-versa

    …. He (Haidt) points out that conservatives tend to value order even at the cost of those at the bottom of society, which can result in morally dubious social implications. Liberals, however, often desire change even at the risk of anarchy……
    Does this explain Merkel’s insistence on mass immigration regardless of downsides?

  • digitaurus

    It was a mistake to hold a referendum in 1975. We should have relied upon the arrangements enshrined within our representational democracy to thrash out the issues. The problem presumably was that the issue cut across traditional party lines (and still does) and the parties were (and remain) reluctant to re-align themselves around these issues as opposed to the traditional dividing lines of class and capitalism vs socialism.

  • digitaurus

    There were other ways to achieve parliamentary sovereignty than throwing our toys out of the pram.

  • getahead

    It was political steamrollering that got us into the EEC in the first place. It was done by deceiving the population into believing that there would be no loss of sovereignty. There was and it was illegal. See Lord Kilmuir’s letter to Edward Heath.


  • getahead

    A majority of British voters voted to have parliamentary sovereignty returned to Westminster. You should get used to that.

  • digitaurus

    Most democratic decisions are repeated every few years and we are used to having the opportunity to revisit our collective decision at a subsequent election. We often reverse the previous decision. In this situation, it’s obviously ok to keep campaigning for the ‘losing’ point of view as there is an opportunity to make the loser the winner next time round.

    As a society we haven’t really worked out how to behave when the democratic decision is supposedly a ‘one off’ thing. We have had a vote in Scotland to stay in the UK. Was this a ‘once in a generation’ vote? If so, why? Should that remain the case now that the UK is leaving the EU? My sense is that, in this situation, people really aren’t sure what kind of longevity of mandate these votes provide particularly given that we live in a representative democracy and referenda are advisory, not binding.

    All of the votes to which you refer could be reversed if they were held again. In 24 months time, it will be obvious that the UK will be leaving the EU with WTO terms of trade. Perhaps this would change the result if a Brexit referendum were held again (perhaps not). This plus the SNP’s dominant position in Scottish politics (and Labour’s collapse) could equally tip the balance on a fresh Scottish independence vote. At the same time, the midterm elections in the US will provide the first “post-Trump” democratic safety valve.

    In the first two cases, the losers are pressing for a “re-run” and the victors are outraged at the prospect – presumably because the decision could be reversed. I can see merit to both points of view. Perhaps we should have changed the constitution beforehand to make these things binding. Perhaps not.

  • digitaurus

    This shows what a waste of time it was for us to leave the EU. We should have just stayed in, kept our heads down and played the long game.

  • Andy

    Nothing to fault there.

  • Malcolm

    The EU is now having to fight for its survival on many fronts at the same time. This is a direct result of its own hubris in trying to force an intergenerationist agenda on a clearly unwilling European citizenry, using political slight of hand, denial of democratic results it didn’t like and outright bullying to achieve its aims without even pretending to make the effort to carry the people affected with it. What may have started out as a good idea in the minds of ordinary people during the lean years after WW2 soon shed its cloak and revealed its true purpose: to extinguish the proud nation states of Europe and create a politically united federal behemoth. It lacks popular support and without that it can only survive by resorting to tyranny. History teaches us that such a tactic can never succeed in the longer term because eventually the tipping point will be reached and the people will revolt. We are starting to see just that, thankfully through the ballot box rather than on the barricade; Brexit may yet turn out to be just the start, the first ripple in the pond. Those who have used the European Project to empower themselves at the expense of democracy, and lived high on the hog while ordinary Europeans in many countries found themselves and their welfare sacrificed on the altar of flawed grand ideas, should sleep far less well at night than they are used to. The bell tolls for thee.

  • Frankfurt 13

    I didn’t think Beppe Grillo could be elected to office because of a manslaughter charge he has from a car crash in the 80’s…

  • geo

    what I think is most disturbing about the various results re brexit, scottish independence, US presidency is the complete unwillingness to accept the results by the losers. democracy has been lauded for so long as the best of a poor choice … is now not acceptable and there must be reruns UNTIL the ‘right’ side wins. The EU brought us this sick mutation of democracy so I wonder just how it will react if the core countries of france italy and germany suddenly turn eurosceptic?
    I fear the EU monster will not willing go into the night … not without a fight.

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