After Austria and Italy, what are Europe’s next political milestones?

The European Union as we know it is at risk. Image: REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Simon Torkington, Formative Content

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s self-styled “demolition man” is the latest member of an established political elite to crumble against a tide of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping across Europe and the wider world.

The Italian prime minister came to power with a promise to sweep away Italy’s stifling bureaucracy and cumbersome institutions. In the end, he staked his political career on a referendum which, if it succeeded, would reduce the powers of Italy’s Senate and regional authorities. He lost, in a humiliating 60–40 split in favour of the “no” campaign.

Image: Reuters

How safe is the euro?

Renzi’s defeat could offer a pathway to power for the anti-euro 5-Star Movement. The currency markets wobbled badly after Renzi’s emotional concession speech but recovered quickly in early trading. European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici dismissed talk of a Eurozone crisis, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble urged calm, saying: “There is no reason to talk of a euro crisis and there is certainly no reason to conjure one up.”

But if the 5-Star Movement were to take power in Italy, it has plans for its own referendum. The party wants the Italian people to vote on whether the country should abandon the euro in favour of a national currency.

Renzi’s attempt at reform was set against a backdrop of public dissatisfaction with his efforts to boost the economy, as well as a broader mistrust of the continent-wide status quo that has seen off a British prime minister, threatens the German chancellor and places France’s far right National Front central to the forthcoming election.

The elections that will shape Europe’s future

Germany: Angela Merkel will face a populist backlash when she stands for a fourth term of office in Germany’s federal elections in 2017. Her decision to welcome more than a million migrants into the country is set against a surge in far-right extremism. Merkel has presided over one of Europe’s strongest economies since 2005, yet securing a fourth term is likely to be her sternest electoral test.

Image: Reuters

Austria: The far-right Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in the recent presidential election. For those troubled by the direction Europe appears to be taking, it will have felt like a small victory. But the movement is gaining ground. Parliamentary elections in 2018 will offer the Freedom Party another chance to increase its power base.

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France: A recent IPOS poll gave National Front leader Marine Le Pen 29% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. That may not look like a winning share of the potential vote, but after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton we would do well to wonder if the polls are accurate and if potential voters are really expressing their true intentions when canvassed by pollsters.

Image: Reuters

When political shocks have become the norm, it would be foolhardy to rule out a Le Pen victory, although many of the alternative scenarios make a Le Pen presidency appear highly unlikely.

Netherlands: Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party has made a bold prediction for himself. Wilders attended the Republican Party Convention in July to show his support for Donald Trump. At the event, he told Politico his party had been ahead in the polls in the Netherlands for a year. Wilders said: “If this becomes reality in the elections in March next year, I could become the next prime minister.”

Image: Reuters

Europe at a crossroads

The relative stability Europeans have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War looks more vulnerable now than it has for decades. The Brexit vote in Britain has brought the very existence of the European Union into question. Amid the fallout from the vote, Greece’s faltering economy has become a footnote. The IMF and Germany still can’t agree on the best approach to the continuing bailout and 50% of the youth population is unemployed.

Image: Statista 2016

When spring comes to the Greek islands, so will the fleets of boats carrying refugees to Europe. They’ll land on the beaches just as millions of voters in Europe’s heartlands prepare to go to the polls.

The rise in right-wing sentiment has been fuelled in large part by Europe’s refugee crisis. In the 2017 election season, conflicts outside Europe will add fuel to a fire that is also being stoked from within.

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