The Tide is Shifting Against Populists Who Want to Tear Down the European Union
There is a global war being fought today.
Not a war fought with guns and bombs, but a war of ideas and philosophies.
But the outcome could be just as damaging as a physical war.
This battle is being waged primarily among the First World nations in Europe and North America, but its impacts are being felt in Africa, Asia, and in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
This war pits anti-globalist populists like Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen against the centrist forces led by Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and the Clintons.
In 2016 the Populists won major victories with the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
This year is even more important. The very fate of Europe will be decided this year, through the elections in France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Populists in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Slovakia are all running campaigns to leave the EU, or promoting separatist movements in their own countries.
The dream of European unity appears to be shattering.
It reminds me of the poem by British poet William Butler Yeats, written at the end of the First World War.
Europe was shattered, the British Empire was crumbling and no one in the United Kingdom appeared to have the will to stop it.
Shocked by the War to End All Wars, Yeats wrote fearfully:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
In Europe today the racist alt-right and neo-Nazis are full of passion, reborn in an atmosphere of hate, fanned by a wave of terrorist attacks, legions of refugees, and the sagging European economy.
The forces of unity and liberal democracy appeared to “lack all conviction,” and the EU itself was spiraling into self-destruction.
THE BREXIT AFFECT
The vote for Brexit in the UK last year came as a shock to pundits and politicians throughout Europe.
No one really expected British voters would step away from the single largest economy in the world.
But they did.
And the reasons were based on long-simmering resentments over a perceived loss of British sovereignty.
‘Foreigners’ were coming to Britain from Europe and taking British jobs. The UK was spending millions bailing out EU countries like Greece and Spain. Neighbourhoods were changing as people of different nationalities and languages moved in next door.
The Brits, accustomed to their isolated and proud Island empire, didn’t like it and voted to leave.
Whether that turns out to be a sound decision is still up for debate.
But the Brexit vote energized the Populist, Nationalist movements across Europe and North America … and psychologically energized Trump supporters in the US.
Fed up with Wall Street bankers, Washington insiders, and a global economic elite they felt were stealing their jobs and wealth, disgruntled voters rejected the traditional power elites and elected a brash, anti-immigration, anti-globalization candidate.
The populists were on a roll.
Brexit passing in the UK. Resurgent nationalists and EU exit plans in France, Holland, Italy and Slovakia. And Donald Trump surging to a shocking victory in the United States, publicly denouncing the EU and NATO.
The unity of the entire Western world appeared to be failing.
TRUMP’S FAILURES HURTING THE POPULIST CAUSE
Populist leaders like Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen at first believed Trump’s victory would galvanize their supporters and help their cause.
But the Trump White House has consistently failed to push through a single major piece of legislation.
Trump himself suffers from historically low approval ratings.
And his halo effect has turned to dust.
Even worse, Trump’s attempts to ban Muslim immigration and deport millions of undocumented immigrants have been widely condemned around the world as racist.
Another factor came to play as well, when US Intelligence Services revealed the Russian government was hacking Democratic mail servers, and trying to influence not only the US election, but also the Brexit referendum and European elections.
Instead of galvanizing the populist movement, Trump’s election has galvanized its opponents instead. The centrists are no longer standing idly by and wringing their hands.
They’re out there organizing politically across Europe.
THE TURNING POINT IN THE UNITY WAR
The first sign of the shift came in the Netherlands. The anti-Muslim, anti-EU candidate Geert Wilders and his ultra-right wing party the PVV lost convincingly, while pro-EU parties made large gains.
Since Trump was elected in November last year, right-wing candidates have lost and lost convincingly not just in the Netherlands, but also in Austria and local German elections.
Support for the anti-EU campaign in Slovakia has plummeted to the point the referendum will likely be canceled.
And then came the French national election.
RISE OF MACRON MAY BE THE NAIL IN THE POPULIST COFFIN
People on both sides of this political war saw the election in France as the real test of whether the EU would stand or fall.
France and Germany, after all, were the founding countries of the European Union, and France is also the largest country in Western Europe with the second largest population.
If France should undertake a ‘Frexit’, the EU would almost certainly fall. For a while it looked like that would happen.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, enjoyed a huge surge in her popularity through 2016, especially after the Brexit vote and in the early days following Trump’s victory in America.
The election isn’t yet over, but it now appears the National Front and Le Pen will be crushed by the new French ambassador of European unity.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron came out of nowhere with his message of tolerance, unity, and liberal democracy, and has taken France by storm. His message is simple: We are stronger together.
Macron and Le Pen came out on top in the first round of voting, but in the French system there must be a run-off vote on May 7.
And the polls show Macron is headed for an overwhelming victory.
GERMANY HOLDING STRONG AS THE HEART OF EUROPE
While populism has risen in many European countries, Germans have not wavered. Support for leader Angela Merkel remains high, hovering around 60 per cent.
Even more telling, ALL of the main parties in Germany are solidly pro-EU. The sole anti-EU party, Alternative für Deutschland, is mired in the mud at less than 10 per cent support … and has sunk into a miasma of bitter infighting and internal division.
All of this means that, in the language of Yeats, the centre is actually holding, and the EU is not falling apart.
The pro-unity, pro-globalism, and pro-liberal democracy forces are prevailing throughout Europe now, after some shocking and unexpected defeats last year.
But Europe is not free from threat yet.
Attacks from Islamic extremists, the pressure of Syrian refugees, a still-stagnant economy and the destabilizing tactics of Russian propagandists are still there and still a factor.
Should European leaders fail to deal with the very real concerns of their people, populism will again catch fire, and could easily inflame the entire continent.
And then, as Yeats would say in his apocalyptic language, we will see “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”
By Gary Symons, Equedia