By Pietro Capece Galeotta
The year 2016 and two political tsunamis — the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election — are behind us.
Yet waves of populism and xenophobia are still washing up on Europe’s shores like unwanted migrants, riding tidal currents that threaten to erode the very foundations of the European Union.
There is little doubt that Britain’s vote last June to leave the EU, along with the election of Trump as U.S. president, will influence coming elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands. But how, and by how much?
The kind of far-right populism that carried Trump to victory has traditionally faced obstacles in many parts of Europe, given the scars that xenophobia and racism left the continent in the last century.
But rising numbers of migrants, a perceived lack of benefits from the EU and a spike in terrorism have pushed more voters into the arms of far-right parties, which all espouse varying combinations of Euroscepticism, xenophobia, anti-feminism and climate change denial.
While many predictions in this populist era have proven unreliable, it’s sure that concerns over economic growth and equality, immigration, terrorism and unemployment, often cloaked in populist rhetoric, loom large in each of the three European countries holding crucial polls.
In France, discontent could favor the far-right National Front.
France will elect a new president in two rounds of voting set for April 23 and May 7, followed by legislative elections on June 11 and 18.
The EU’s third largest economy will be seeking change from President François Hollande, a socialist accused even by party faithful of indecisiveness during his five years in power.
During Hollande’s tenure, France legalized same-sex marriage and gave LGBTQ+ members the right to adopt children, sticking to the Socialist Party’s playbook. But he failed to push through pension and labor reforms, and his efforts to crack down on terrorism after attacks in Paris and Nice could not halt his slide in popularity while they fanned xenophobia.
Facing certain defeat, Hollande decided earlier this year not to run for re-election. His successor will have to reconnect with a disillusioned French middle class and appeal to a wider range of voters, especially non-urban dwellers. A dash of charisma, lacking in Hollande, would help.
In France, an inflow of immigrants in recent years has fostered resentment in the more sheltered communities, rekindling racist sentiments. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent and left-wing parties in disarray, discontent on the fringes of society and in the lower classes could favor a political appeal to xenophobia and help the far-right National Front party.
In Germany, the far-right AfD party will put pressure on the chancellor.
It will be the turn of German voters on September 24 to elect members of its federal parliament, the Bundestag.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party could prove as much of a threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances of re-election as the Social Democratic Party (SPD). While the SPD has a traditional center-left voter base, the far-right, Eurosceptic AfD is poised to attract disillusioned voters from both the left and right.
The probable presence of the AfD in the Bundestag will put pressure on the next chancellor, who will face a struggling EU and a shrinking common market due to the eventual departure of the UK.
Merkel’s defeat would mean the exit of Europe’s most powerful leader — and a strong proponent of EU unity — and mark radical change for both Germany and Europe. A weakening of the EU would be a daunting prospect for millions of young people like me who have benefited from opportunities provided by EU integration.
European unity is under siege.
The Netherlands, which holds general elections on March 15, usually sets high standards for liberalism, tolerance and freedom in Europe.
But the far-right, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) is leading in polls and, like the UK Independence Party, the AfD and the National Front, calling for a radical change.
The PW is expected to win the most seats in parliament, but its leader, Geert Wilders, could be denied the chance to form a government if, as expected, mainstream parties refuse to form a coalition with him.
The same kind of political obstructionism would bar the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, from becoming president if, as expected, voters on the left and right combined to deny her victory in the second round of voting in France’s presidential election.
Still, with far-right parties winning millions of votes in France, Germany and the Netherlands and emerging as the most popular political groupings in two of those countries, the post-war drive to keep the peace in Europe by promoting ever greater unity is facing a dire threat.
Pietro Capece Galeota is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying War Studies and History. He is passionate about art, technology and philosophy, and French, English and Italian.