A Happy Ending for Europe in 2017?

| Mathew Burrows
Mathew Burrows
Director, Strategic Foresight Initiative, Atlantic Council

A comparison with the 1848 domino-like revolutions that spread across Europe is a bit of a stretch, but far-right populism is definitely on a roll, throwing the whole European project in doubt. Will it continue is the big question in 2017.  A victory by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen or a trouncing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017 would crown it, setting off a veritable revolution that would mutilate, if not kill off, the European Union (EU). The opposite happening – President Francois Fillon elected in France and Merkel weakened but victorious – would signify the passing of the high water mark of electoral rebellion and potentially a more stable Europe. Whatever happens, Europe will never be the same after 2017.       

First up will be the Dutch with their parliamentary elections next March. A victory by Geert Wilders and his far right Freedom Party (PVV) would rock the EU, even without a further populist victory in France. Wilders has promised to hold a referendum on Dutch membership in the EU – what he calls Nexit. A Dutch exodus – still rated as unlikely even if Wilders wins – would trigger a psychological, if not constitutional, crisis in the EU, far bigger than Brexit (the UK’s decision to leave the EU). After all, the Netherlands was one of the original six signatories of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Even absent such a move, a Wilders-led Netherlands will continue to shift the balance within Europe to less, not more, EU. Recent polls give Wilders’ Freedom Party 36 out of 150 seats, which would make it the biggest party, giving him the right to try to form a government. 

Italy is another one of the original signatories to the Rome Treaty and could see early elections in 2017. Another referendum vote is also possible on former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s labor market reforms. In either case, the populist Five Star Movement is poised to make gains, fueling more populist momentum across Europe, particularly if Wilders and Le Pen win mandates.  

Le Pen, head of France’s Front Nationale (FN) party, most likely will make it to the second round presidential election in early May 2017, but pollsters and pundits believe she has less of a chance to prevail since social conservative Francois Fillon became the center-right Republican contender. To succeed, Fillon would need the support of the left, however, and also some nationalist support from Le Pen’s voter base. Leftists dislike Fillon for his role in the 2007-2012 Sarkozy government. He’s no euro-enthusiast but also not an iconoclast like Le Pen. 

Le Pen would like to take France out of the EU, although this could prove difficult even if she wins. She and her supporters would need to change the nation’s Fifth Republic Constitution. Her election could paralyze the EU. France’s legendary Charles De Gaulle undertook an empty chair policy in the mid-1960s that brought the EU to a standstill. A Le Pen presidency – which would run at least five years – could be even more destructive.      

Despite her welcome for Syrian civil war refugees – which was massively unpopular – Merkel looks likely to weather the populist storm, if only because her opposition isn’t strong. The Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Socialists (CSU) have mended fences since the refugee crisis. Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – established only in 2013 – has been gaining in state elections but does not have the widespread public support of a Le Pen or Wilders. 

Still, Merkel recently called for a burka ban – a sign that she needed to consolidate conservatives and others angered by her open refugee stance. More terrorist incidents, such as the recent attack in the Berlin Christmas market, could undermine her support and substantially weaken her in her fourth term as chancellor.

For the first time, a U.S. President-elect is opposing the EU despite the fact that its origins derive from the U.S. Marshall Plan at the end of World War II. President Barack Obama campaigned against Brexit, while Donald Trump hailed it and made a show of meeting with UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage shortly after his presidential win. A big question going forward is how much backing Trump will give Wilders or Le Pen once he is officially in the White House. Open support could help shift the electoral balance in their favor but constitute an unprecedented affront to other European leaders who support the EU. Even if Trump forbears, there’s enough suspicion of where his true feelings lie that transatlantic relations will be difficult.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) seems moribund, if not dead. Many of Trump’s supporters relish the thought of sticking it to the EU by engaging in trade talks with the UK before Britain leaves the EU – something which continental Europeans are already warning would sour relations with Washington. 

Even if the worst case doesn’t happen – Wilders and Le Pen aren’t victorious – 2017 will be chaotic for Europe. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to start Brexit negotiations by March, inaugurating two years of suspense and nail-biting. The EU Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50 allows for member-states to voluntarily leave, but there’s no playbook to follow during the two years of permitted talks. The EU always negotiates to the last minute and sometimes even past. A Wilders or Le Pen victory might smooth the way for Brexit, but French leaders tend to fiercely protect French interests whatever the issue. We may not have any better sense of whether Brexit will end up “hard” or “soft” or a “train wreck,” even in a year’s time. 

2017 will be a turning point whatever the outcome of the elections and ongoing Brexit negotiations. A Le Pen victory, if not a Wilders one, would lead to a re-nationalization of Europe’s politics and economies. The euro would be in immediate jeopardy, leading to a mammoth global economic crisis.

On the other hand, a President Fillon – although a eurosceptic by French standards – along with a reelected Merkel could help stabilize Europe. To the chagrin of all EU institutions and many American supporters, the European project would probably be headed more in a Gaullist direction – a Europe of nations – shorn of its federalist aspirations and leery of close transatlantic ties, but potentially restoring interstate cooperation and boosting Europe’s standing over time.      

The Author is Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. Burrows joined the CIA in 1986, where he served as analyst for the Directorate of Intelligence... Read More

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