Blond bombast

Europe’s centrists will prove powerless against populism, predicts Matt Steinglass


Long before Donald Trump’s victory in America, fringe parties on the right and left were on the rise in Europe. In 2017 that will end—not because such parties will no longer be on the rise, but because they will no longer be on the fringe. Europe’s mainstream parties have tried to freeze out the populists, forming centrist left-right coalitions and creating a cordon sanitaire to keep them from power. These tactics no longer work. In some countries, the radicals are entering government. In others, they are forcing centrists to adopt their policies. That will mean a Europe where immigrants and Muslims are increasingly unwelcome, free trade is unpopular, and the euro and the European Union itself are fragile.

For the populists, the first big test of 2017 will be the Dutch general elections on March 15th. Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom (PVV), whose platinum pompadour has earned him the local nickname “the big blond Smurf”, wants to close the country’s borders, shut down its mosques, and leave the euro and the EU. If the polls hold, he will finish in first or second place. France will follow in April, with the first round of its presidential election. Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN), another blonde bent on stopping immigration and quitting the EU and the euro, looks certain to make it to the second-round run-off in May.

Mr Wilders will not become prime minister, and Ms Le Pen has only an outside chance to be president (though the same was once said of Mr Trump). The Netherlands will get a broad centrist coalition to lock out the PVV (and the far-left Socialists), just as it did in 2012. In France, the mainstream left and right will form an alliance in the second round in an effort to make sure the National Front does not win.

But Europe’s grand-coalition strategy is looking shopworn. When established parties mock populists and their supporters as a basket of deplorables, it only confirms the populists’ belief that elites are conspiring against them. Meanwhile, collaboration between the mainstream right and left erodes the identity of both, pushing more voters to the extremes. In Spain, political fragment­ation has made it impossible to form a majority government. In Germany, France, the Netherlands and Poland, the main centre-left, social-democratic parties are in disarray.

As differences fade between the mainstream left and right, the populists have become the real opposition. Already, leading contenders in the Netherlands and France are campaigning more against Mr Wilders and Ms Le Pen than against their mainstream adversaries. Even if they fail to gain power, the radicals have pulled government agendas far in their own direction. In France’s Republican presidential primary, the proposal of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to lock up suspected terrorists without trial was so radical that even Ms Le Pen denounced it. If Italy faces an election in 2017, Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democrats will chiefly be battling the far-left Five Star Movement.

After Mr Trump’s victory, the popularity of western Europe’s fringe parties will no longer seem shocking. Indeed, in the continent’s east, the populists began winning years ago. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party dominates the landscape through anti-immigrant nationalism and “illiberal democracy”—that is, disregarding minority rights. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party has followed suit, adding a healthy dose of state benefits for mothers and the old. Mr Wilders and Ms Le Pen would happily embrace this agenda: conservative on culture and nationhood, statist on economics.

As power shifts towards these identitarian nationalists, left-wingers may feel left out. Indeed, some are abandoning electoral politics. In Poland, Italy, Spain and even Germany, hapless centrist and leftist parties have ceded control of the agenda to radical protest movements built on social media. Ivan Krastev, a political scientist, calls this “democracy beyond elections”. “Young people, some of them on the left, some more libertarian, talk eagerly about street protests or any type of ‘e-democracy’, but for them elections and voting don’t matter,” says Mr Krastev.

The better Angela of our nature

Amid all this upheaval, the pro-European liberal consensus that dominated continental politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall finds itself without a convincing defender. “The complete lack of a positive liberal-democratic narrative is stunning,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on the European far right. The remaining believers in that European vision are mostly Greens—along with the last bastion of the Europhile centre-right, Germany’s Christian Democrats. If Angela Merkel runs for a fourth term as chancellor in the autumn of 2017, and wins (as she probably would), she will find herself fighting a lonely struggle against the populist tides.

You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'