Why The Trumps Of Europe Will Likely Fail

The cumulative outcome of this year’s European elections will probably favor the electoral center, not fringe populists.
02/14/2017 12:19 pm ET
Le Pen and Wilders take a selfie during a meeting with other European far-right leaders to discuss the European Union. Jan. 2
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters
Le Pen and Wilders take a selfie during a meeting with other European far-right leaders to discuss the European Union. Jan. 21, Koblenz, Germany.

Donald Trump’s trans-Atlantic strategy seems to be to make Europe crater again. The first transition call with European Union officials that began with the question of which country would leave next was no faux pas. Trump’s likely ambassador to the European Union, Ted Malloch, has likened the EU to the Soviet Union, adding “maybe there is another union that needs a little taming.” He also said he would “short the euro.” And then Peter Navarro, the head of the president’s new National Trade Council, indulged in accusations of currency manipulation ― not against the pegged Chinese yuan, but the free-floating euro.

The new administration’s mood permeates the commentariat: following a harrowing 2016, most observers approach 2017’s minefield of European elections with PTSD (Post-Trump Stress Disorder). Whether it is in the Netherlands, France or Italy, they see populism coming to power everywhere. Similarly, Brexit supporters ― including several within Theresa May’s cabinet ― not so secretly hope for a new European crisis to vindicate Britain’s electorate, without the difficulties inherent in leaving the world’s largest market.

And yet, the cumulative outcome of this year’s European elections will most likely vindicate the electoral center. The immediate future looks more consistent with a framework of a “reverse domino” against populism rather than the stuff of Steve Bannon’s dreams.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch PVV political party, speaks at a conference of European right-wing parties. Jan. 21, Koble
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch PVV political party, speaks at a conference of European right-wing parties. Jan. 21, Koblenz, Germany.

Despite the press coverage, the Netherlands’s March election is unlikely to propel Geert Wilders’s extremist Freedom Party to power. True, the so-called “Dutch Donald Trump” has surged in popularity since the refugee crisis, but his numbers have begun to shift downward as the election approaches. Prime Minister Mark Rutte has become tougher on immigration, threatening Wilders’s key electoral promise. To be fair, there is not much else ― the party’s full program fits on a single page. Even if Wilders were to come ahead, other relevant parties will not join a coalition that includes his extremist, xenophobic Freedom Party; they have all vowed to avoid it. So a new term for Rutte is more likely than not.

Shortly after the Dutch election comes the main course of 2017: France. If you go by the Anglo-American press (and the Kremlin-sponsored echo chamber), it would seem like Marine Le Pen and her National Front will crown a triptych of spectacular populist victories that began with Brexit and continued with Trump. But the reality is that Le Pen is nowhere closer to the presidency than her father was 15 years ago, when he reached the second round of the French presidential elections, only to be humiliated by Jacques Chirac.

For months, it has been clear Le Pen is likely to win the first round, thus qualifying for the ballotage. This is because she will run with a devoted base in an atomized field with at least six other candidates. But in a second round against only one other candidate, she is running miles behind. Every single other plausible candidate would beat her. Moreover, her approval ceiling is below her father’s was in 2002.

Marine Le Pen in Lyon. Feb. 5.
Chesnot via Getty Images
Marine Le Pen in Lyon. Feb. 5.

French elections are never dull: the center-left selected a candidate, Benoît Hamon, who describes himself as a “socialist from the future” eager to tax robots and automation. The (formerly) front-running center-right candidate, François Fillon, has been embroiled in a maelstrom of scandals related to influence-peddling and nepotism. This cocktail of extremism and scandal provides an opening for the centrist Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European independent who has impressive momentum. Both Fillon and Macron would comfortably beat Le Pen in a second round; indeed, the latter would trounce her by almost 30 percent.

Although there are currently no scheduled elections in Greece or Italy, both countries appear to be headed toward polling booths this year. In the former, populist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras might take advantage of yet another impasse with European creditors to rally his base rather than press ahead with structural reforms. But this Tsipras is far different than the one that toyed with “Grexit” in 2015; he is an electorally spent force with crashing popularity. Whenever elections are held, he is likely to lose power against his pro-European reformist rival, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Take heed: the coming Greek political transition looks to be away from populism and toward growth-enhancing reforms.

After the traumatic experience of Italy’s referendum back in December, a new electoral system is currently being negotiated. Former comedian Beppe Grillo would love to be Italy’s Trump, yet the original Italian political disrupter ― Silvio Berlusconi ― is likely to be kingmaker in a new centrist coalition led by none other than Matteo Renzi. Although Renzi lost the December referendum, the party he leads is still the most popular ― and it has led most polls published this year. Grillo’s Five Star Movement remains unable to get much higher than 30 percent of the vote in most polls, and any alliance with extreme right-wingers is likely to undermine both his message and his base.

Beppe Grillo in Turin. Dec. 2, 2016.
MARCO BERTORELLO via Getty Images
Beppe Grillo in Turin. Dec. 2, 2016.

Last but certainly not least, there is Germany, where Angela Merkel is running for yet another term. Even if the populists from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party steal the headlines, with around 12 percent of the vote in recent polls, they are not the real story. The Social Democrats’ new candidate, Martin Schulz, is an experienced pro-European who propelled his party ahead of Merkel’s in the latest polls. He could attempt to form an anti-Merkel coalition, even if he comes in second in this year’s election. But Germany is safe from populists on either end of the political spectrum.

Europe’s 2017 may well be tempestuous, but it will not be tragic. Indeed, the continent’s multiple electoral tests are likely to yield more, rather than less, pro-European governments than we have today. Indeed, with Rutte, Macron, Renzi, Mitsotakis and Schulz in power, Europe will have its best opportunity yet to agree on a fiscal and political union to bolster its imperfect monetary union.

So Trump’s team should not hold its breath waiting for a meltdown of European unity.

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