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World

European Union Populists: Is the Genie Out of the Bottle?

By the time the German elections come around in late September, three-time Chancellor Angela Merkel could well be fighting for something more than just Germany

Presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leading member of the Greens Party, celebrates on the podium at a party of hius supporters in Austria's capital Vienna, photo: AP/Matthias Schrader
10 months ago

Another crisis looms in an already shook-up European Union. Italian voters rocked Europe’s boat more this weekend than Austrian voters were able to steady it. With its shaky banks and massive economy, Italy is now in the throes of energized populists who are no friends of EU leaders in Brussels.

And the storm isn’t over yet: Europe’s unity and common currency face growing uncertainty in a raft of upcoming elections, notably in the Netherlands and France, where the far-right looms large. And like Italy, both are founding nations that were at the cradle of the EU in the 1950s.

“Europe in 2017, we all know, will be a disaster,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at the Luiss University in Rome. “We have to expect European paralysis.”

Unless EU juggernauts like France and Germany find ways to turn the tide, it could leave the defeat of the extremist right wing in Austria’s presidential election on Sunday as a mere blip on an increasingly muddled screen.

What counts is that the anti-establishment wave that swept over Britain and then the United States won another victory Sunday that could further shake the foundation of the European Union. Italians rejected constitutional reforms championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had boldly staked his political future on winning the referendum. To rub it in, Renzi offered his resignation against the backdrop of the starry EU flag.

“Inside this vote, there is a vote of frustration, discontent — punishment,” Orsina said of the unexpectedly large margin of defeat — 60 percent — from a robust turnout of nearly 70 percent of the electorate.

That was music to the ears of far-right populists like Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen and her National Front in France.

“Congratulations Italia,” Wilders tweeted early Monday after Renzi’s defeat at the hands of Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and anti-immigrant Northern League.

When the Dutch go to the polls in March, Wilders could well be next to ride the mood of discontent that has trampled the status quo since the June 23 referendum in Britain stunned all powers-that-be and forced Britain to seek an exit from the EU.

The Netherlands has already had two referendums seen as punishing Europe — the country rejected the EU’s proposed constitution a dozen years ago and earlier this year voters rejected a free-trade pact between the EU and Ukraine — a vote that was widely seen as a rebuke of the bloc’s policies. Wilders called that outcome “a vote of no confidence by the people against the elite from Brussels.”

In May, anti-EU Le Pen could well have a shot at victory in the French presidential election — an outcome which, in this topsy-turvy election season, would not be considered as stunning as Donald Trump’s win in the United States. The impact on the frazzled bloc would be devastating.

Le Pen is already relishing the challenge and happily watched Sunday’s implosion of Italy’s political establishment.

“This Italian ‘No,’ after the Greek referendum, after Brexit, adds a new populace to the list of those who want to turn their backs on absurd European policies that plunge the continent into misery,” Le Pen exulted.

By the time the German elections come around in late September, three-time Chancellor Angela Merkel could well be fighting for something more than just Germany.

What European politics showed again over the weekend, said Hendrik Vos, a European political science professor at Ghent University, is that “the genie is out of the bottle.”

“With a lot of noise and fact-free politics you can win elections,” he said. “We have entered a period where nothing is impossible and it worries all capitals, and especially the EU headquarters.”

It’s almost an indication of the depth of despair that Sunday’s win by left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen over his right-wing rival for Austria’s presidency — a largely symbolic post — was welcomed as a blow against the populist forces victorious elsewhere.

Van der Bellen beat Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant FPO party with a slender margin of just 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent — an incredible result for a far-right party.

Le Pen immediately seized on that. “The formidable performance of the FPO in Austria testifies to this: The global rejection of all EU policies, notably on the economy and migration, is accelerating on the continent,” she said.

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