'Trump effect' topples Italy's PM – and could shake Europe further in 2017

Prime Minister Renzi resigned after Italians rejected his constitutional reforms. Experts attribute that in part to Donald Trump's election – which could upend elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands next.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi speaks during a press conference at the premier's office Chigi Palace in Rome, early Monday. Mr. Renzi acknowledged defeat in a constitutional referendum and announced he will resign.

In Italy, a coalition of opposition parties, spearheaded by the anti-immigrant right wing Northern League and the populist Five Star movement, earned an unexpectedly convincing victory Sunday over Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in a referendum, defeating his plans for constitutional reform and forcing him to resign.

But more importantly, it could fuel the prospect of a Europe-wide political earthquake that could upend the continent’s post-World War II political order.

Many observers are blaming the “Trump effect.”

“Donald Trump’s victory has the effect of making voting for a complete rupture less dramatic” for Europeans, says Dominique Reynié, who heads FondaPol, a center-right think tank in Paris. “Nowhere in Europe now can a leader be sure of re-election.”

That is hardly the exclusive fault of Mr. Trump, of course. Political disaffection has been a long, slow-burning fuse in a Europe still feeling the effects of the financial crisis. Few citizens feel any emotional attachment to remote European Union government agencies, and many are anxious about how the arrival of a million-plus refugees will change their continent.

The EU’s internationalist ideals are in danger of foundering on the rock of nativist sentiment, bolstered by fear of Islamist terrorism and uncontrolled globalization. As voters prepare to go to the polls in France, the Netherlands, and Germany next year to choose new governments, the rising anti-establishment mood would be familiar to Americans.

“There are clearly similar trends,” says Sheri Berman, an expert in European history at Barnard College in New York. “Factors motivating people to vote for Trump are motivating populists elsewhere, too. People who are very, very unhappy with the status quo are willing to try new things.”

How radical?

Quite possibly, radically new things. So uncertain has the future become that a figure as sober as former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti does not rule out the complete collapse of the European Union.

That union, credited with ensuring six unprecedented decades of peace and prosperity, is now increasingly reviled in some quarters for its remoteness, its inability to promote economic growth, and failure to resolve Europe’s migrant crisis.

Right-wing populist movements across mainland Europe – in Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France – are hoping to emulate the Brexit campaigners who last June persuaded Britons to pull out of the EU.

“Nationalist populism can be more harmful” in Europe than in the United States, warns Professor Monti, “because it could in the long term lead to the structural breakup of the European Union.”

Economists, businessmen, and traditional politicians may wring their hands and prophesy disaster at such an outcome, but many voters are not listening.

“There is an appetite for the unknown amongst those who hate the known,” suggests Raphaël Glucksmann, a young philosopher and political commentator in Paris. “The American election results will help them to make the jump; if the Americans did it, they say, why shouldn’t we?”

In Austria, at least, voters were not persuaded. On Sunday, former head of the Green party Alexander Van der Bellen just held the line against his far-right, anti-European Union rival Norbert Hofer in a presidential runoff vote. (Austria's two centrist parties didn't make it past the first round.)

Seizing the moment

But leaders of Europe’s right-wing populist parties, which have been slowly gathering strength over the past two decades, seem ready to seize the moment.

“After Brexit, Trump, what next?” a TV journalist recently asked Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front party which currently enjoys 30 percent approval ratings according to opinion polls.

“The election of Marine Le Pen as the French president,” she declared confidently. A month ago, political observers would have scoffed at her overweening ambition. Trump’s victory, however, “made possible what previously had been presented as impossible,” she boasted. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, likely to be his party’s presidential candidate, has himself acknowledged that such a result is “possible” next May.

Elsewhere, Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-Islam Freedom Party in the Netherlands, which is running neck and neck with the ruling conservative party in the polls ahead of parliamentary elections next March, predicted that Trump’s election would have “an enormous effect on European politics.”

The head of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, Matteo Salvini, also took heart in advance of yesterday’s referendum. “If Brexit and Trump’s victory teach us something, it is that it’s not the time to be afraid,” he said earlier this month, announcing he would run for prime minister if fresh elections are called in the wake of Mr. Renzi’s resignation.

A definining political phenomenon

If Mr. Trump’s shock electoral success has put encouraging fresh wind in the sails of Europe’s right-wing populists, they have long fed on domestic discontents that have been rising in many corners of the continent.

Sometimes they have to do with economic grievances; other times they are driven by social or cultural issues. Most often they are stirred into a potent brew by populist leaders who win voters’ trust by paying attention to those who feel ignored, even despised, by society’s rich and powerful because they hold unfashionable views.

And there are many of them. In a Europe-wide survey, British politics professor David Sanders found that in eight of 12 countries he studied, people with attitudes he classified as “authoritarian populist” made up nearly half or more of voters.

That means they attached little value to human rights and favored a tough foreign policy, while opposing immigration and the EU.

“There is a very real chance that the rise of authoritarian populism could be the defining political phenomenon of the next decade, and not just in Europe, but across developed democracies,” predicts a recent report by YouGov, the polling firm that commissioned Professor Sanders’s research.

On the economic front, chronic unemployment has eroded many young people’s faith in their government; 39 percent of Italian youth are without a job. And the picture is hardly rosy for those lucky enough to have work: real wages in the EU are still below their 2009 levels, as European countries struggle to emerge from the financial crisis, and income inequality has risen to levels not seen since 2004, according to a report by the European parliament.

Populist leaders in Europe have also profited from spreading unease about immigration, especially in the wake of last year’s mass influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, and fear of Islamist terrorists.

At the same time, European societies have been growing steadily more secular and socially liberal when it comes to sex roles or tolerating diversity. More traditional voters, often less well educated than average, can feel out of place.

Common bedrock: rejection

Different populist leaders in different countries combine these concerns in different fashions. But they build their campaigns on a common bedrock – rejection of the establishment and ruling elites that have led European nations into their current difficulties.

In most places, European populists play the nationalist card, blaming supra-national EU institutions for the continent’s problems and calling for a return to full sovereignty within national borders. Many national government leaders have unwittingly given such arguments extra momentum by taking credit for things that go well, but blaming Brussels for things that go badly.

“Anti-establishment rhetoric mobilizes a unique set of voters, and then populists can combine it with other ideological positions” with local appeal, says Bert Bakker, who studies far-right movements at the University of Amsterdam. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Bakker's surname.]

In Germany, for example, where the EU remains popular among most Germans, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has focused on the problems caused by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s willingness to allow more than a million refugees into the country.

In France, where voters have traditionally sought comfort in a strong state, Ms. Le Pen’s party advocates nationalizing troubled industries and strongly opposes the sort of austerity policies that both the center-left and center-right parties have adopted.

In the Netherlands, Mr.Wilders has focused on what he calls “de-Islamizing” the country. A one-page manifesto he released earlier this year calls for the closure of all refugee centers, mosques, and Islamic schools, and for a ban on the Koran.

One common thread – and one that links European populist leaders not only with each other but also with Trump – is an admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, supplanting Europe’s traditionally close ties with Washington by a new relationship with Moscow.

Trump has often voiced his disdain for the EU, but since winning the election he has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at Brussels. The first foreign politician he met was Nigel Farage, the veteran British anti-EU campaigner, and he has invited to Washington Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has made himself a pariah in Europe by repeatedly scorning “European values.” [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Orbán's office.]

No counter-programming – yet

The various strains of European right-wing populism blend into a style of ethno-nationalism that has so shocked and surprised the traditional political establishment that little thinking has yet gone into how the trend might be countered.

“The perception that this is not business as usual is there, but the ability to translate that into political priorities is not there,” says Mr. Monti, who was an EU commissioner for a decade before becoming Italy’s prime minister.

Monti fears that Europe’s traditional ruling political parties on the center-left and center-right are condemning themselves – and the European Union – to death unless they stop undermining the EU by blaming Brussels for their own faults. “They feel the pinch of populists and respond by imitating their approach and language,” he says.

That risks lending legitimacy to the populists’ arguments, worries Ralf Melzer, an expert on far-right groups with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic party’s think tank. Instead, he argues, “we have to revitalize pro-European discourse, and spread the knowledge that immigration has positive contributions to make to society.”

That may be the case, but it is likely to go unheeded for the time being, says Sanders, who surveyed European “authoritarian populist” trends.

“The liberal establishment in Europe has made the same errors” as its American counterpart, he suggests. “When we talk about immigration we talk about its economic benefits, not its social consequences,” he says. “We have to start rebuilding communities to challenge the feeling that ‘it doesn’t feel like home around here anymore’ that some folk on the front lines have.”

That would have the merit of showing that someone in authority is listening, agrees Professor Berman.

Taking it seriously

In the long term, she believes, only a fairer way of sharing the fruits of economic growth will coax angry and alienated voters back to the political center. In the meantime, for a start, it would help if immigration were better controlled “to allow time for people to adjust.”

Ms. Merkel seems to have got that message. After welcoming so many refugees to Germany last year, she is now stressing the need to deport 100,000 of them who do not qualify for asylum.

Berman offers a cautionary tale from history. “The challenges to democracy are not as serious as they were in the 1930s from the Fascists,” she says, “But we are in dangerous times and there is a lot of flux and resentment.

“We must take it extremely seriously,” Berman warns. “If we don’t, people will continue to look for more and more extreme solutions to their problems.”

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