2017 could be the year of the far-right in Europe, and spell the end of the EU.
Since taking office, US President Donald Trump has provoked, exasperated, and unsettled world leaders from Mexico to Australia and the EU headquarters in Brussels.
But there is one constituency that continues to enthusiastically support the president: Europe’s far-right, who believe they have found common cause with Trump on issues ranging from restricting Muslim immigration and reviving economic nationalism to accommodating Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, called Trump’s win a “victory for freedom”. Geert Wilders, who heads the Dutch Freedom Party and who wants to close all mosques and ban the Quran in the Netherlands, said that the US had “regained its national sovereignty”. Nigel Farage, a former leader of the UK Independence Party who appeared on the campaign trail with Trump, said he “couldn’t be happier” with Trump’s triumph.
The day after Trump’s inauguration last month, leaders of Europe’s far right and hundreds of their supporters met in Koblenz, Germany, in an attempt to project an image of strength and unity.
To rapturous cheers and applause, Le Pen predicted that 2017 “will be the year of the continental peoples rising up.” “The world is changing,” Wilders declared. “Yesterday, a free America, today Koblenz and tomorrow a new Europe.”
The rise of the far-right
For years, these right-wing groups languished on the fringes of mainstream European politics. But their support has surged recently, and Trump’s victory has galvanised European populists. It has also given them added credibility. Some claim that the US election has removed some of the stigma of voting for an anti-establishment outsider.
Polls show Wilders’s Freedom Party in the lead ahead of national elections in the Netherlands set for March 15. Projections predict his party will win 32 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, up from 15 in the last national election. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is expected to drop from 41 to 23 seats in parliament.
The French presidential election, scheduled for April and May, remains wide open. Allegations of corruption have badly damaged former prime minister François Fillon, who just a month ago seemed like a virtual shoe-in for the Elysée Palace. Le Pen is currently leading in the polls and is widely expected to make it to the second-round runoff, where she is likely to face either Fillon or, more likely, centrist Emmanuel Macron.
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), led by Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen, is now represented in ten of Germany’s 16 state parliaments and is expected to enter the Bundestag in September for the first time. It would be the third-biggest party, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.
Breaking the postwar consensus
These European leaders share some attributes with Trump’s populism. All of them feed on voters’ disillusionment with mainstream political parties, which they portray as corrupt, ineffective and unresponsive to the real concerns of voters.
Fuelled by anti-establishment anger and frustration, they rail against “globalism” and mass immigration and claim that national identity and culture are under siege. Le Pen, for example, kicked off her presidential campaign by describing globalisation and Islamism as “two totalitarianisms” that seek to “subjugate France”.
They are also opposed to the postwar consensus in the US and Europe: economic and political integration, international institutions and cultural pluralism. They say that the EU is a threat to national sovereignty and celebrated British voters’ decision last June to leave the bloc.
Still, Europe’s far right is far from a coherent or cohesive political group, and ideological differences make it unlikely they will be able to form anything resembling a far-right grand alliance.
Hungary’s Jobbik, or Movement for a Better Hungary, is socially conservative and hostile to gay people, whereas Wilders calls for LGBT rights and gender equality. The National Front campaigns for a return to economic nationalism in France, while UKIP generally embraces the free market.
Even within some of these groups, there is a lack of ideological cohesion. In 2013, following successive Greek bailouts, the AfD started as an anti-euro party, attracting economists and other academics. But in the wake of the refugee and migrant influx of 2015, its focus became more anti-immigrant, attracting ultra-nationalists and even neo-Nazis, causing some of its early supporters to leave the party.
While many of Europe’s populist politicians and parties feel emboldened following Brexit and Trump’s victory, it is important not to overestimate their appeal or their electoral prospects.
The National Front has been around for 40 years, but it still has a tiny presence in the French National Assembly, and polls show Fillon and Macron easily beating Le Pen in a second round runoff. Even if Wilders’ Freedom Party wins the most seats in national elections next month, he will still have trouble forming a government, as no other party will risk entering a coalition with him.
In Germany, the AfD is still polling at around 10% and has no chance of unseating Merkel. Though her Christian Democrats Party lost seats in regional elections across Germany in 2016, Merkel’s approval rating remains high.
And in Austria’s December 2016 presidential election, voters rejected Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party in favour of his Green Party challenger, Alexander Van der Bellen.
Europe on the brink
Nonetheless, as right-wing populism spreads across Europe – with such leaders already in power in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – there is growing fear that the continent is sliding into a darker past.
The consequences would be significant if the movement gained power in the Netherlands and France, two of the founding members of the EU’s forerunner.
While the EU would be able to survive a Wilders victory next month, a Le Pen win in May could spell the beginning of the end of the bloc. With Germany, France has been one of the two main engines of European integration, and it is inconceivable to think of an EU without France.
The coming year will show if Le Pen, Wilders and other populists can replicate in Europe a Trump-style triumph, or if they will be forced to remain on the sidelines, figures of protest and symbols of anti-establishment resentment.
Richard Maher is a Research Fellow at the Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute.