Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany will be held in what is arguably the most febrile political environment since the European Union’s creation. The post-war liberal democratic order is under threat everywhere, but particularly in Europe, where the EU is confronting challenges that include an increasingly aggressive Russia, the constant threat of terrorism, democratic disenfranchisement, and uneven economic growth.
Following the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as US president, the question facing Europe is straightforward: Will populist and nationalist forces exert the same influence in core countries of the EU?
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party are polling strongly ahead of next month’s election. Wilders approves of Trump’s executive order barring entry to the US for anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries. Like Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, Wilders views the world through a racist prism, and he believes that he is engaged in a battle to save Western civilization from Islam.
No other Dutch parliamentary party holds such views, so a Wilders-led government is still far from certain. With Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte holding his ground, Wilders will most likely be denied power in the end.
Meanwhile, in France, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen is currently ahead in the polls for the presidential election, which will be decided in two rounds in April and May. Le Pen has promised to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the eurozone, despite warnings from the Bank of France that leaving the monetary union could increase the French national debt by €30 billion ($31.8 billion) annually. She has also expressed a desire to dismantle such fundamental components of European integration as free movement for European citizens.
In the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, voters from large metropolitan areas overwhelmingly supported “Remain” and Hillary Clinton, respectively. We will likely see a similar pattern in the French election. But while older voters have fueled resurgent British and American nationalism, Le Pen owes much of her support to younger cohorts – a worrying sign of the extent to which key segments of the French electorate feel disenfranchised.
A Le Pen victory would undoubtedly destabilize Europe politically and economically. With the dangerous nationalist demons of Europe’s past unleashed, the EU as we know it could easily disintegrate. But those who believe in liberal democracy, the rule of law, and European integration still have time to mobilize around an alternative candidate – who would most likely prevail in the second-round run-off with Le Pen and, one hopes, bring about much-needed reforms and uphold France’s proactive role in Europe.
In Germany’s election later this year, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is unlikely to be able to mount a credible bid for the Chancellery, despite any support that it receives from Russia. But the next chancellor – whether it is Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats (SPD) or still Angela Merkel – will have to lead a global coalition of the willing to defend what is left of the post-war order. Such an effort should include Canada, Australia, and Western allies in Asia, but it must start by putting Europe’s house back in order.
Europeans recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, which marked a seminal moment in the history of European integration. As we have learned in the intervening years, the EU’s powers are insufficient to address all of the challenges that now confront Europe. Germany must help to rectify this situation by offering a vision for a more confident and ambitious Europe – one that can overcome internal divisions, see to its own security, and sustainably manage migration.
If new movements emerge to counter the forces of nationalism and populism, this would not be a far-fetched scenario. And while former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, Wilders, Le Pen, and their peers continue to pose as plucky anti-establishment underdogs, this conceit is wearing thin, owing to their own success – and, in UKIP’s case, to financial scandals.
If far-right nationalist leaders do come to power in some of the larger Western countries, they will soon discover that making populist promises is easier than keeping them – as Trump is now discovering amid the alarmingly chaotic start to his administration. Trump, the Brexiteers, and their counterparts elsewhere have yet to prove that they can ensure broadly shared economic prosperity and defend global-governance systems by conducting themselves competently and professionally on the world stage.
It should be obvious that, in a globalized world where individual nation-states are increasingly impotent, no heady brew of populist nationalism can deliver the change that people are demanding. Fortunately, liberal democracy still offers a progressive alternative, and a victory by Merkel or Schulz in Germany, following the defeat of Le Pen in France, could herald the emergence of a global counter-offensive.
Meanwhile, new pro-European centrist movements have already sprung up across Europe, from Nowoczesna (Modern) in Poland to Ciudadanos (Citizens) in Spain. These parties do not peddle lies, and they do not owe their success to Russian-sponsored propaganda bots or social-media trolls.
Now that some populists have come to power, liberals have a responsibility to hold them to account and offer an alternative vision. Belittling the people who voted for Brexit, Trump, and their European equivalents is not a sound strategy. The new global demagogues must be judged by their deeds, and vanquished with truth, reason, and respect for democracy.