Europe's far right set for a big 2017 – but how big?

With right-wing parties set to do well in elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany this year, many are concerned about a Europe-wide populist swing. But the EU remains popular.

Robert Pratta/Reuters/File
Marine Le Pen (l.), France's National Front political party leader, embraces Geert Wilders, president of the Netherlands' Freedom Party, during the far-right French party's congress in Lyon, France, in November 2014.

This year has been one of worldwide tumult. For many Europeans, however, 2016 may end up as a precursor to 2017.

The shocks this year, from terrorism to “Brexit,” have been constant, and the fallout will be put to the test immediately during elections in the Netherlands in March, France this spring, and Germany in the fall. The far right has grown in force in each of these countries, coupling anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiment. Yet there are still more politicians who support the European project than don’t, and more people who think the EU is a positive thing than negative.

Here’s a sober look at what’s in store for Europe in the upcoming year.

Q. Why are these elections so important?

The three upcoming elections will test just how powerful populist forces have become in key European nations, particularly France. That is where Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has the best shot of winning. That would put one of Europe’s harshest Euroskeptics at the head of a country that, as a founding member of the EU, is crucial to the bloc’s continued legitimacy.

The first elections are in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders, the leader of the nationalist, right-wing Freedom Party, has surged in polls with a promise to “de-Islamify” the nation.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced a bid for a fourth term, to the relief of those seeking her steady hand. But she finds herself under increasing pressure over her refugee policies, especially after an asylum seeker steered a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin killing 12 people just days ago. A similar but deadlier attack in Nice in July and the bombings of the Brussels airport and metro in March weigh on voters’ minds across Europe. In Germany, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be trying to capitalize on frustration over terrorism and migration.

Q. But how likely is it that the populists will pull off victories?

Given the failure of pollsters to predict the outcome of recent votes like Brexit, nothing is a sure thing. But it is highly unlikely that Ms. Le Pen will become France’s next president. She is expected to easily make it to round two of the vote, but as happened to her father in his run-off bid in 2002, the mainstream electorate would likely band together to beat the far-right.

Mr. Wilders' party is tied with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative party, and has a decent chance to win the most seats in the Dutch parliament. But Wilders would still fall short of a majority, and would need to form a coalition to take power. Mainstream parties have vowed they won’t enter government with him.

And despite Ms. Merkel’s political problems, at this point her conservative party still remains in the lead, and she herself widely popular even after more than a decade in power.

Q. So what happens if the populists are defeated across the board?

Europe still faces pressures from the east, the south, the west, and from within. Even if populists don’t win upcoming races, they are setting agendas and dividing the bloc just at a time when the EU needs to stand together.

From the east, there is mounting concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies are undermining pro-EU leadership, either by supporting Euroskeptic politicians or through media coverage intended to counter the positive EU narrative.

From the south, continued conflict in the Middle East means that the refugee crisis could surge anew and put pressure on Europe's open borders.

From the west, the reality of “Brexit” will start to be felt this year when British Prime Minister Theresa May officially begins the proceedings to leave the EU. And farther west, the inauguration of Donald Trump in the US could undermine the postwar order that Europeans have long depended upon, first and foremost NATO and the predictability that it provides.

From within, the debt crisis in Greece and, more worrisome, a banking crisis in Italy could flare at any time.

Q. Is there reason for optimism?

While it’s not Europe’s most stable moment, the pressures of 2016 may have served as a wake-up, says Ian Lesser, vice president for foreign policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. “And there is some good in that,” he says, especially with the busy electoral schedule next year.

“The large presumption was that this simply could not happen,” he says. “Complacency has been profoundly shaken. … Media, policy institutions, and politicians have realized how out of touch they really are, and that they have to get their finger on the pulse of what people are thinking and likely to do.”

Caroline de Gruyter, a European affairs correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, argues that politicians need to stop chasing Wilders, for example, who even polling at 20 percent, is far from the majority.

“I think what other political parties should say is, 'OK, if you are claiming to be speaking on behalf of the people, we are the other 80 percent. We can listen to all your grievances and complaints, it’s probably high time we do that, but don’t for a second say that we aren’t the public,' ” she says.

Q. So how do Europeans really feel about the EU?

Many Europeans have yet to recover from the financial and debt crisis, with youth unemployment one of the bloc’s most urgent problems. Technological change and globalization have upended communities in Europe just as they have in the US. And Brussels and its bureaucracy stand as an easy punching bag.

But the unraveling of Europe is still not something the majority desires.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey just out, while only a third have a positive image of the EU, fewer (25 percent) have a negative view. Two-thirds of respondents say they feel as though they are citizens of the EU; two-thirds also say they see the EU as a place of stability in a troubled world. When the EU marks the 60th anniversary of its founding Treaty of Rome on March 25, more citizens of the bloc will celebrate six decades of cooperation they want to uphold, not the moment they wish it all torn down.

That's what Ms. de Gruyter says Europeans need to emphasize and what politicians should be bold enough to say. "No one defends Europe anymore,” she says.

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