Czechs this weekend elected a new prime minister who heaps scorn on the European Union and says his country shouldn’t have to accept a single refugee. Germany just sent a radical far-right party to parliament for the first time since the days of Adolf Hitler. And Austrians last weekend gave the anti-immigrant Freedom Party their biggest share of the vote since 1999.
Those three elections in the past month are just the latest to upend the European political order by elevating anti-establishment populists. Nationalist parties now have a toehold everywhere from Italy to Finland, raising fears the continent is backpedaling toward the kinds of policies that led to catastrophe in the first half of the last century.
The fissuring of Europe — a traditional American ally and the United States’ largest trading partner — could complicate U.S. foreign policy, hurt American corporations and even create problems for national security as the bloc struggles to find consensus on issues ranging from refugees to free trade to internal borders.
Meanwhile, with each bomb-thrower elected to national governments or to the European Parliament in Brussels, the prospect of reaching agreement on solving the very problems driving populist rage grows dimmer. Developing a common policy for dealing with the influx of Middle Eastern and African asylum-seekers, for instance, will be more difficult now that Austria is more likely to side with Hungary and Poland and move to block them.
‘When one country closes its borders, others do the same, and we all become losers,’ European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen said on Tuesday at an event in Washington.
‘In Europe, this phenomenon had disastrous economic consequences in the 1930s and contributed to social unrest that fueled nationalism and ultimately contributed to war,’ he said.
The European nationalist movement has some parallels to what happened in the United States last year with the election of Donald Trump. The new Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is also a blunt-spoken billionaire. But while U.S. voters fear losing their jobs to immigrants or workers abroad, European voters are angry about the EU’s inability to contain the financial and eurozone crises and the ineffectual response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war zones.
‘I see some evidence that poor economic performance in Europe is contributing to these anxieties and fueling some of the support, especially for left-leaning populists, but the story in central Europe is hysteria over migration and this distrust of elites,’ said American Enterprise Institute fellow Dalibor Rohac, who researches economic and political trends in central Europe.
In Europe — where the foreign-born unemployment rate is about 15 percent — voters worry that immigrants will sap resources from their often-generous welfare states.
“In general, pure economic considerations are secondary to voters of populist radical right parties like AfD and FPÖ,” said political scientist Cas Mudde, author of On Extremism and Democracy in Europe.
“That said, many see the economy through a racialized lens, thinking immigrants or ethnic minorities costs the society too much money, as they overestimate the importance of these groups in the social provisions,” he said.
The 2015 migration crisis remains a potent political issue in part because it appeared European leaders were in over their heads. The spate of recent terror attacks on European soil also played into the hands of right-wing agitators eager to connect the influx of migrants with Europeans’ growing security concerns.
“I think what [German voters] got angry and upset and worried about was the impression that government was really struggling to get this under control, didn’t have a plan,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, the Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In Austria, meanwhile, there has been “a rise in share of [the] foreign-born population over the last 10 years,” Rohac said. “Austrians will tell you they sort of fear becoming a minority in their own country, which is sort of silly. But the pace of change has been dramatic… The hysteria over immigration is really unprecedented in this part of the world.”
The new chancellor in Austria — conservative Sebastian Kurz — is expected to lead a right-leaning coalition with the Freedom Party, which will make talks about a bloc-wide asylum policy and financial reforms in the countries that use the euro more difficult.
Among European officials, the populist nationalist movement is often attributed to a “lack of leadership” — as both French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and European Investment Bank President Werner Hoyer put it during visits to Washington last week — and botched communication about the benefits of trade.
“There must be reasons for this disenchantment with the way politics is run all over Europe and in the western world in general, and it has certainly something to do with uneasiness about global developments, globalization developments, and the perception of a lack of leadership on this situation,” Hoyer said. “I think it is basically a leadership issue.”
Each anti-establishment tremor appears to come as a surprise to political and financial elites, many of whom believed the populist tide turned after the election of French President Emmanuel Macron in June — even though 40 percent of French voters cast their ballot for fringe candidates in the first round, and 34 percent voted for hard-right Marine Le Pen in the second.
The political shocks of the last year and a half don’t appear to be prompting course corrections. The International Monetary Fund’s Global Financial Stability report cautioned policymakers and banks to address the “legacy problems” lingering from the 2008 financial crisis — bad debt, for example. But it avoided perhaps the biggest legacy problem: a seething public.
Brussels, meanwhile, continues to talk of “ever-deeper integration,” with Macron leading the calls for closer European ties now that the British have voted to leave the bloc. But Macron has proposed a common eurozone budget – the first step, critics allege, to a transfer program that would ask richer northern Europeans to subsidize poorer southern Europeans, which doesn’t sit well with the new coalition forming in Germany.
“I don’t think things can really go on as before,” Rohac said. “These elections matter.”
There won’t be any quick fixes, he added.
“The nation-state is back, and yes, that makes the politics of the whole thing difficult, but it is what it is. That’s what voters decided,” he said. “It won’t be a straightforward way forward, but there is no alternative.”
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