It can be imagined that there was a huge sigh of relief in Brussels as the clock struck midnight, bringing in the New Year of 2017. But if Europe’s political elite believe that the next twelve months are going to be any easier than that of 2016, they are going to be in for a shock. There are many elections and dilemmas coming up that could see the European Union completely fracture and seal the fate of the increasingly doomed political project.
To start with, it would be wise to go back to the events of last December when unexpectedly, Norbert Hofer, of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party, lost the rerun of the Presidential election. While this was indeed great news for Austria, Europe and probably the world, it appears yet again Eurocrats have failed to grasp the significance of the event. There should be no complacency about Austria rejecting a man, who potentially could have been the first far right head of state since the war. The obvious question should be how did an ultranationalist candidate get so close to the Presidency of a developed, diverse, and western country like Austria in the first place? What circumstances have caused over two million Austrians to back such a man and his Party? Why were moderate candidates so heavily defeated in the first round?
These questions, and indeed the wider rise of extreme populist movements across Europe, should be being considered carefully in the bureaucratic glass palaces of Brussels. But so far there appears to be only a deafening silence and distain meeting the growing number of dissatisfied and disaffected voters in Europe.
Despite the relief of the Austrian vote, the Italian constitutional referendum showed yet another surge of populism. Whatever you think of Beppo Grillo and his Five Star Movement, it must be noted how they so successfully turned a referendum on logical constitutional reform into a rejection of Matteo Renzi, the Italian political establishment, and the European project. While this will not lead to Italy leaving the EU anytime soon, it has clearly sent a message to Brussels that the country, long considered to be the most sympathetic to European Union, has serious resentment and anti-establishment sentiment.
Following Renzi’s resignation, his fragile coalition government, while clinging together for the moment, will probably fall in the coming months as internal power struggles ensue. All this political instability is only compounded and made worse by the economic instability caused by the Italian banks teetering on the edge of financial oblivion. Therefore, it is fair to suggest there will be an early general election and, if current opinion polls are to be believed, Grillo’s Five Star Movement may well end up in government. Provided this happened, there would almost certainly be a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro, which, if Italy rejected the single currency, could put the last nail in the coffin for the failing monetary union. Continuing this hypothetical thought line, upon the collapse of the Euro caused by Italian withdrawal, it would surely also guarantee the demise of the European project in general.
Another tempest set to harass the European Union may well be that of a President Le Pen of France. It is a given that reasonable and moderate advocates of British Euroscepticism would be appalled by this notion. This may seem an unlikely eventuality, but following the migrant crisis, years of financial woe as well as weak leadership from socialist President François Hollande, it is not an impossible prospect. François Fillon, who was seen by many to be the obvious, sensible, and moderate centre-right candidate appears to have had his chances pretty much destroyed now by his wife’s job scandal. Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate, may well be the new front runner for French moderates, but it is unclear as to whether many Republican voters, fed up with weak and ineffective leadership in France, would support him, a former Socialist Party member, against Marie Le Pen in the second round of voting. If disillusioned Republican voters deliver a Front National victory after the second round, a EU referendum would surely follow. While this may seem appealing to some hard-line Eurosceptics, a ‘Frexit’, if such a thing were to occur could very well herald the collapse the Union which is not in Britain’s interest while we are negotiating our exit.
2017 does have the potential to be even more unpredictable and momentous year than 2016, but caution should be urged against cries of euphoria from the Eurosceptic centre-right and right-wing in Britain, if some of the aforementioned scenarios were to become a reality. It is increasingly apparent in many countries on the continent that Euroscepticism, which is, contrary to what the Liberal Democrats proclaim, a sensible and moderate concept, is being hijacked and abused by disturbing malevolent political forces. The Front National of France, the FPO of Austria, the Five Star Movement of Italy and the PVV of the Netherlands are no friends of Britain or Brexit. While the UK starts its journey on its bold, global vision for post Brexit Britain, we must keep our eye on our European neighbours, and aid them in the fight against the far and populist right.