Schick: As others gaze inward, Germany will have to lead alone in Europe
More than populism, the EU is threatened by the growing chasm in the Franco-German axis
Editor’s Note: Nina Schick is a European political analyst and consultant based in Berlin. The opinions in this article belong to the author
From the Rust Belt of America to Europe’s populist insurgencies, the “re-nationalization” of politics – or a rejection of globalization and international cooperation that has defined the post-1945 world order – has become the new vogue.
The European Union is teetering. This weekend, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is likely to lose a referendum on constitutional reform – almost certainly forcing his resignation and buoying Italy’s anti-EU parties. Meanwhile, Austria looks set to elect Norbert Höfer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) as president.
Geert Wilders of the anti-Islam and anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV) in Holland has called for a “European Patriotic Spring,” and vowed to “Make The Netherlands great again.” He is on track to rattle The Hague in the Dutch parliamentary elections in March, polling just behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD party.
But the elections that the EU is sweating about the most are those in its two richest and most populous member states, excluding Britain: France and Germany. Drivers of European integration, Paris and Berlin now face right-wing populist insurgencies of their own in the shape of Front National and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
More than populism, however, the EU is threatened by the growing chasm in the Franco-German axis, so integral to the project. It is probable that neither the National Front nor AfD will win their respective elections. But the different directions into which Paris and Berlin are moving will make any kind of strategic long-term vision for the EU almost impossible to agree. France is turning inward, leaving Germany to lead the EU alone – a task made even more difficult due to the fact that the Brits are leaving.
In France, François Fillon, the nominee of the center-right Republicans, is most likely to face Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the second round of the French presidential elections. He will then likely win. Despite Le Pen’s best efforts to “detoxify” her party, the outcome of regional elections in France in 2015 suggest that for many voters, it still is too toxic.
The National Front won over 6 million votes in the first round, but it failed to secure any of the regions up for grabs in the second when voters turned out en masse to vote against it. With turnout for presidential elections usually high, Le Pen will have to fight an uphill battle before she can move into the Elysée.
Fillion – a man who’s already been compared to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – has economic plans that couldn’t be further from Le Pen’s protectionism. However, there is an overlap between the two. Like Le Pen, the former Prime Minister is tough on immigration and Islam, and promises to uplift the French national identity.
He has already rejected the idea that France could be a multi-cultural society. With the National Front at his flank, he will come under serious pressure to continue to re-nationalize French politics.
In Germany, the story will be completely different. Yes, the anti-Islam and anti-immigration AfD will win seats in the Bundestag, with an estimated 11-15% of the vote. But once there, it will be isolated, as none of the other political parties will work with it. The majority of German voters will reject the trend they see in other Western countries.
Angela Merkel will most likely win her fourth term as German chancellor, an astonishing feat after 11 years in power, and following the migrant crisis, which witnessed Germany taking in 1.1 million asylum-seekers and refugees. She will come under pressure to be the “last defender” of moderate, liberal democracy and globalization – not only from voters at home, but also internationally.
As others gaze inward, Germany will find itself in the position that it never wanted to be: trying to lead alone in Europe. And the challenges are many: Brexit, Russia, Turkey, migrants, the eurozone crisis and an unpredictable President Trump.