Heavy sighs of relief went through Europe for the second time within just a few months. After the general elections in The Netherlands, the French citizens too did not vote for a populist leader and a Europe skeptic to become their president. Populism, however, is still strong.
Advocates for the European Union had a rough year so far, living on the edge and seeing how the construct they’ve put much work and believe in was starting to crumble. But time and time again they’re relieved to find, that the EU they have fond memories, of is still standing despite the trials it’s facing. They count it as a victory that neither Geert Wilders in The Netherlands nor Marine Le Pen in France came out ahead. But what if it isn’t so much a victory as it is a final test? A test that, if failed, will set the Union ablaze in a not so distant future. What seems like a victory now could very well turn out as the final nail in the EU’s coffin unless it learns to adapt.
Populist parties have done an incredible leap in votes across the board in a variety of different countries, so much in fact, that even the biggest victory of other parties is not synonymous with “the defeat of populism” like some people like to call it. Populism does not vanish because the central parties come out ahead by a few percentage points, it waits, lingers and attacks at the next election. And chances are they’ll find it much easier to succeed next time around.
Populism Born out of Fear
The fact is, that there are a lot of people dissatisfied with the course their countries have taken within the EU, intensified by economic shortcomings, terrorist threats and a still strong going refugee crisis. Populism gains momentum off of that, but it is still more of an arising power that has not come to full force and there are a number of people that are not yet at the point of voting in a more radical direction, straying from the rather central oriented parties. The responsibility to contain populist movements lies now with the new administrations, as they will have to exceed in their work to win back their citizen’s trust and to prove that both the EU and their countries can strive together and that there are solutions take all problems can be tackled head-on.
Macron, for example, cannot just be a good president, he has to excel at a number of things, especially his vision of the full democratization of the EU and an improvement of EU border patrols will be watched as closely as the reforms he’s pursuing within France. Macron, while being liberal at heart, will face the challenge to get as many of the French citizens satisfied within his first term in order to contain populist movements to a minimum. This will be in fact the same challenge Dutch Premier Mark Rutte will face with a strong populist opposition breathing down his neck and very eager to get a second chance if he should fail to prevail through the challenges that lie ahead for both his country and the EU.
The Populistic Outlook for Europe
Germany will be the last European country in 2017 to hold a national election in November and even though the populist Alternative for Germany (AFD) party has had some strong regional election results under its belt, it is even more unlikely than in any other election for them to actually have a say in the new administration. Nevertheless it will be a third of a trifecta of sighs that rumble through Europe because of the averted collapse of the Union, but in the end, it might just buy us some time. The way the governments of those countries use the time given will ultimately decide whether or not the EU is built to last and if their voters can share this vision permanently. After all, populism isn’t that easily defeated.
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