Spring elections European Democracy Is on the Line

The E.U. is currently at a crossroads of liberal democracy, and upcoming elections will determine its future path, writes Belgium's former prime minister.
While Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party is currently polling strongly, he is unlikely to succeed in the upcoming elections. Photo: AP, Peter Dejong

This year, elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany will be held in what is arguably the most fevered political environment since the European Union’s creation. While the post-war liberal democratic order is under threat the world over, the E.U. is entering a particularly decisive moment, confronting challenges that include an increasingly aggressive Russia, the constant threat of terrorism, democratic disenfranchisement, and uneven economic growth.

Following the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, the question facing Europe is straightforward: Will populist and nationalist forces exert the same influence in core countries of the E.U.?

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party are polling strongly ahead of next month’s election. Mr. Wilders approves of Trump’s executive order barring entry to the U.S. for anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries. Like Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, Mr. Wilders views the world through a racist prism, convinced that he is engaged in a battle to save Western civilization from Islam.

No other Dutch parliamentary party holds such views, making a Wilders-led government is still far from certain. With Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte holding his ground, Mr. Wilders will most likely be denied power in the end.

Like Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, Mr. Wilders views the world through a racist prism, convinced that he is engaged in a battle to save Western civilization from Islam.

Meanwhile, in France, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen is currently ahead in the polls for the presidential election, which will be decided in two rounds in April and May. Ms. Le Pen has promised to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the euro zone, despite warnings from the Bank of France that leaving the monetary union could increase the French national debt annually by €30 billion, or $31.8 billion. She has also expressed a desire to dismantle such fundamental components of European integration as free movement for European citizens.

In the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election, voters from large metropolitan areas overwhelmingly supported “Remain” and Hillary Clinton, respectively. We will likely see a similar pattern in the French election. But while older voters have fueled resurgent British and American nationalism, Ms. Le Pen owes much of her support to younger cohorts – a worrying sign of the extent to which key segments of the French electorate feel disenfranchised.

A victory by Ms. Le Pen would undoubtedly destabilize Europe politically and economically. With the dangerous nationalist demons of Europe’s past unleashed, the E.U. as we know it could easily disintegrate. But those who believe in liberal democracy, the rule of law, and European integration still have time to mobilize around an alternative candidate – one who would most likely prevail in the second-round run-off with Ms. Le Pen. Such a candidate would also hopefully bring about much-needed reforms and uphold France’s proactive role in Europe.

In Germany’s election later this year, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is unlikely to be able to mount a credible bid for the chancellery, despite any support that it receives from Russia. But the next chancellor – whether it is Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats (SPD) or Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) – will have to lead a global coalition of the willing to defend what is left of the post-war order. Such an effort should include Canada, Australia, and Western allies in Asia, but it must start by putting Europe’s house back in order.

A victory by Ms. Le Pen would undoubtedly destabilize Europe politically and economically. With the dangerous nationalist demons of Europe’s past unleashed, the E.U. as we know it could easily disintegrate.

Europeans recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, which marked a seminal moment in the history of European integration. As we have learned in the intervening years, the E.U.’s powers are insufficient to address all of the challenges that now confront Europe. Germany must help to rectify this situation by offering a vision for a more confident and ambitious Europe – one that can overcome internal divisions, see to its own security, and sustainably manage migration.

If new movements emerge to counter the forces of nationalism and populism, this would not be a far-fetched scenario. And while former U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, together with peers such as Mr. Wilders and Ms. Le Pen, continue to pose as plucky anti-establishment underdogs, their conceit is wearing thin. Ultimately, they owe their own success – particularly in UKIP’s case – to financial scandals.

If far-right nationalist leaders do come to power in some of the larger Western countries, they will soon discover that making populist promises is easier than keeping them – a fact that Mr. Trump is now discovering amid the alarmingly chaotic start to his administration. Mr. Trump, the Brexiteers, and their counterparts elsewhere have yet to prove that they can ensure broadly shared economic prosperity and defend global-governance systems by conducting themselves competently and professionally on the world stage.

It should be obvious that, in a globalized world where individual nation-states are increasingly impotent, no heady brew of populist nationalism can deliver the change that people are demanding. Fortunately, liberal democracy still offers a progressive alternative, and a victory by Ms. Merkel or Mr. Schulz in Germany, following the defeat of Ms. Le Pen in France, could herald the emergence of a global counter-offensive.

Meanwhile, new pro-European centrist movements have already sprung up, from Nowoczesna, which means "modern" in Poland to Ciudadanos – "citizens" – in Spain. These parties do not peddle lies, and they do not owe their success to Russian-sponsored propaganda bots or social-media trolls.

Now that some populists have come to power, liberals have a responsibility to hold them to account and offer an alternative vision. Belittling the people who voted for Brexit, Donald Trump, and their European equivalents is not a sound strategy. The new global demagogues must be judged by their deeds, and vanquished with truth, reason, and respect for democracy.

 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.www.project-syndicate.org