Voters in Europe are repeatedly showing they are unpredictable and cannot to be taken for granted by parties or movements of any persuasion
This has been a mind-boggling year for Europe. First Britain’s shock European Union referendum result and the ensuing backlash against immigrants seemed to signal the rise of the right in Europe. The certainty that the right was on a steady march to power seemed confirmed by the U.S. election result and was seized upon by right-wing parties across Europe, who saw it as a sign of the inevitability of the swing towards them. “Their world collapses. Ours is being built,” tweeted Florian Philippot, one of the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s most senior advisers, on November 9, while Dutch far right leader Geert Wilders proclaimed on the day that “the people are taking their country back. So will we.” The photograph of Donald Trump, who had described himself as “Mr Brexit”, and Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage by the gold-plated elevator seemed to cement the sentiment that the right was there to stay and entrench itself.
A pixellated portrait
But two political developments in Europe over the past few days have made it plain that that picture is more complex. First there was the re-run of the Austrian presidential election, the results of which emerged on Sunday evening. It saw Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green Party-backed independent candidate who won a narrow victory in the summer, widen his lead over his far right rival Norbert Hofer to around 7 per cent. Mr. Van der Bellen is a firm pro-European who has also adopted a strong pro-refugee, open borders stance, and in his acceptance speech pledged to be the president of a liberal, pro-European republic. A “red-white-red signal of hope and change” will be sent to all the European capitals, he said.
However, the relief across Europe was somewhat drowned out by developments in Italy where voters decisively rejected changes to the constitution on which Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had staked his political future. The referendum is considered significant beyond the borders of Italy not just because the political uncertainty could jeopardise the position of one of the country’s oldest banks, but also because it was seen partly as a judgment call on pro-European centrist Mr. Renzi himself. Both the right-wing Lega Nord and the anti-establishment, anti-EU Five Star Movement (M5S) had campaigned heavily for a “no” vote, with the M5S positioning itself as an alternative in the general election expected to take place next year. (Mr. Renzi has agreed to delay his resignation to give the government enough time to see through the 2017 budget and for the banks to stabilise.)
However, there’s reason to not over-interpret the developments in Italy. Observers point out that opposition to the constitutional changes proposed, including handing further authority to local government, came from the left as well and even from Mr. Renzi’s party. And much would have to happen before a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Eurozone, which the M5S has talked about, could be conducted. The M5S, which has sought to portray itself as a movement rather than a political party, could struggle to do well electorally under changes to the electoral law expected to be brought in that would make Italian parties far more dependent on coalitions, says Carsten Nickel of Teneo Intelligence.
The Austrian result has also highlighted the difficulties that the European right has had coming to power at a national level. The rerun of the presidential election played to Mr. Van der Bellen’s advantage, says Mr. Nickel, adding that it enabled him to project an aggressively centrist stance to younger, female and urban voters, and make it clear that he would not be chased by the far right. “He pro-actively said, there is a constituency that backs my moderate position.”
The fact that all is not lost for centrist Europe was also highlighted by developments in Britain last week. In the London constituency of Richmond Park, the popular former Conservative politician, Zac Goldsmith, was defeated by the Liberal Democrats, a party that many observers had previously relegated to electoral oblivion, but which was able to play on anti-Brexit, anti-right sentiments to make political gains.
Of course that is not to say the right can be discounted or underestimated. While it has struggled to seize power at a national level, it has managed to divide. Austria has by all accounts been left divided by the presidential election in much the same that Britain was in the wake of Brexit, and is contending with uncomfortable questions about how a man representing a party originally founded by former Nazis had come close to becoming its head of state. The right has also influenced the politics and rhetoric of governing parties. This has been apparent in Britain where the rhetoric of the ruling Conservative government has on occasion displayed remarkable similarities to that of the UKIP — whether it was Prime Minister Theresa May ridiculing anyone who thought of herself as a “citizen of the world” or her jingoistic call for a “red white and blue” Brexit. And this week, in a move that surprised observers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the burqa to be banned where legally possible during a speech to her party conference. It’s seen as a tacit acknowledgement that her party has come under pressure from the right in the wake of its decision to open its borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Divisions within the right
But the recent developments have also highlighted the great divisions within the right in Europe. Despite the fact that they have deployed similar anti-establishment, anti-globalisation language and egged each other on, their politics by its very nature is inward looking and domestically focussed. Mr. Hofer this week criticised Mr. Farage for attempting to interfere in the Austrian election by suggesting his party would be pushing for a referendum on EU membership. In a country heavily dependent on trade with its European partners, Germany in particular, this was a viewpoint that would have gone down like a lead balloon.
All this will soon be put to the test early 2017 onwards. Germany has a presidential election in February (not to be confused with the Bundestag elections later in the year that could return Ms. Merkel as Chancellor). These would be closely followed by Dutch general elections that will test appetite for Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom, and French presidential elections in April and May. Italian elections will also take place at some point in 2017. A lot remains up in the air, but one thing seems certain: voters in Europe have repeatedly shown they are unpredictable and cannot to be taken for granted by parties or movements of any persuasion.