Can Europe survive the Trump effect?

Story highlights

  • After Brexit and the Trump victory, traditional political expectations lie in tatters
  • Soon voters in France, Austria, Italy and Germany will have their say in national polls
  • The outcomes could change the political map of Europe

(CNN)If Europe's leaders thought Brexit was an aberration, the election of Donald Trump brought the reality of their own vulnerabilities crashing home.

With political norms and expectations shattered, attention is turning to the heart of western Europe -- to France, Germany, Austria and Italy, each of which holds national polls in the coming months.
    For so long, the allies were able to look across the Atlantic at one another and see themselves more or less reflected back.
    President-elect Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric and subsequent election victory has smashed that mirror.
    What really draws down the darkening for Europe's leaders, however, is the realization that there are plenty of other European politicians ready to remake their own image in Trump's.
    They want the mirror effect to work for them, so that their visions can win.
    They are not just on the right, like Marine Le Pen of France's National Front, who predicts Trump's victory will translate to gains for her in the upcoming French presidential elections, but also leftists like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, even though neither rooted for a Trump victory.
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    They all think they can profit from Trump's populist message by similarly tapping into frustrations, anger and nationalist agendas.
    The change in mood and reality was clear when President Obama visited Europe earlier this month.
    Matteo Renzi, Italy's young and charismatic Prime Minister, sat to Obama's right at his farewell roundtable in Berlin, displacing British Prime Minister Theresa May, who might once have expected to take that prestigious position. The Italian will have been fully aware he faces his own denouement at the hands of populists buoyed by Trump's victory.
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    Renzi has called a referendum to push for needed political reforms. That referendum has since morphed into a vote on him, and he has said that he'll quit should the vote go the wrong way.
    Presidential elections taking place in Austria on Sunday -- the same day as Renzi's referendum -- could also point to a "Trump effect." The Austrians currently seem set to hand victory to Norbert Hofer, a nationalist who used Trump-style rhetoric of rigged elections to force the last ballot to be canceled before it was even held. Among other things, he has been trading on fears of migrants.
    Also at the table with Obama in Berlin was French President Francois Hollande, who knows his current approval rating is so low that he is now unlikely to be his party's pick to represent them in the French presidential elections next year. Already, pollsters are tipping Le Pen as a favorite in the first round of voting, and will only be defeated if left and center right join forces in the second round.
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    The mood at the table, aside perhaps from May's, must have been stark. Obama is aware that much that he holds dear could be lost.
    Trump has openly criticized the transatlantic relationship, questioning NATO's relevance, and has praised Britain's decision to leave the EU.
    For many of Europe's leaders, the fear is that this winter may be a long one. Not perhaps of Shakespearian proportions heralded in the opening lines of "Richard III," but nevertheless, one of significant discontent.