To the uninformed eye, 2016 seems to be THE year for populist policy in Europe. It seems to be a year of success after success for populism:
- The Ukraine trade agreement referendum in The Netherlands became a
blatant success for the No-camp, which was adamantly against any kind of trade
agreement with the ‘corrupted bunch’ in Ukraine. This left the Dutch PM Mark
Rutte with a huge, political lump in his throat, that he still not managed to
- Increasingly violent protests against refugees from outside Europe
became an almost daily phenomenon all over Europe; not in the Eastern European
countries alone, but also in the more wealthy Western European countries;
- Populist leaders in Eastern
Europe, like Hungarian PM Viktor Órban or the Polish ‘silent man in charge’ Jarosław
Kaczyński, are an enduring pain in the neck for the European Council and the
European Commission, with their neverending battle against the integration of
refugees from Syria and elsewhere in their countries. Refugees, who are now
unvoluntarily residing in Greece semi-permanently: all dressed up, but nowhere
- Alternative für Deutschland, the
new populist “Kid on the Block” in Germany, and rightwing pressure group Pegida
are turning into a permanent nightmare for German Chancellor Angela Merkel;
- Also in the western European Union
member states The Netherlands and France, populist parties as the Dutch Party
for Freedom of Geert Wilders and the Front National of Marine Le Pen seem on
their way to substantial victories in the parliamentary and presidential
elections in 2017;
- And last, but not least: against all odds and European hopes and expectations, the UKIP leadership and a substantial share of the Tory MP’s managed to talk the British population into a Leave-vote during the Brexit referendum, thus forcing their country out of the European Union within a few years.
So all in all it seems that 2016 was one of the most successful recent years for populism in Europe and it also seems that the European Union will have a tough time in surviving the next few years as a whole under this populist pressure.
But the tides might be turning for populism after all, after the European people finally discovered what the Brexit really meant for the United Kingdom and the other European countries.
The “everyone’s a winner” mood of the Brexiteers among the British population, immediately after the Brexit votes were counted, was soon replaced with a feeling of betrayal done by the leading Brexit politicians, when the pro-Brexit Tories, as well as PM David Cameron, and some UKIP politicians soon abandoned ship and left the emerging political mess for others to clean up.
Promises of the Brexiteers about a strongly increased NHS (i.e. National Health Service) budget, paid with the money that was traditionally reserved for the EU membership payments, and other stories that already seemed too good to be true, were imploding like a pierced balloon after the Brexit referendum. They were soon all identified as lies and half truths, only deployed to attract naive voters.
And perhaps for the first time, the British felt a sense of loss with respect to the political relation of the United Kingdom with the EU. This relation perhaps wasn’t very warm and loving, but nevertheless offered the stability and comfort that the British appreciated after all.
Perhaps one of the worst effects of the Brexit referendum, was the growing resentment and violence against the (foreign) EU citizens in the United Kingdom; often from Poland and Bulgaria. These reactions disgusted the moral majority among the British.
And now the UK and the EU are both in a perfect stalemate: the new British Prime Minister Theresa May is loudly banging the drum of populism and harsh measures against immigration – and also against the current EU immigrants already living in the United Kingdom – in order to not lose the populist vote in future elections, but she still need to negotiate the exit criteria with the European Council and Commission.
These most important European institutions on their behalf, are shaking off the initial cloak of indulgence against their former EU partner and are now preparing for negotiations in which they have to put the knife on the British throat, when push comes to shove. No more friendship, only business!
“You want a good trade deal, UK? You want the same trade regulations as the other 27 European countries have and not have to deal with import and export restrictions?! You want to maintain the vital role that the London city plays nowadays in the EU financial system and preserve it until eternity?!
Than you have to accept the pillars of the EU foundation. ALL the pillars, that is, including unrestrained immigration in the United Kingdom for EU citizens from all over Europe! Take it or leave it!
You will lose all influence that you had in the past and you have to swallow all the regulation that the EU serves, without any privileges! That is the deal that we are cooking for you and there won’t be any other deal!”
And of course the Brexiteers could blame the EU for the oncoming hostile atmosphere during the negotiations and they are probably somewhat right about that. But who can blame the EU for not wanting the UK to have the benefits of the EU membership, without having the burdens at the same time?!
To the contrary: as it might turn out, the UK could have the burdens of the EU membership, without enjoying the benefits. They have to pay certain legal and political expenses to the EU and they must abide most of the EU regulations without having any influence on the decision making process. Just like Norway does: “Didn’t you read the memo?!”
And while there are still few signs that the Brexit will immediately shipwreck the British economy (keep the longer term on your retina, however - EL), there is absolutely no sign at all that it will turn into the success story of regained independence and refound British power and might that the Brexiteers promised in advance.
That was blow one for the populists.
And where the populists in other countries, like The Netherlands, Germany and France were celebrating the unexpected victory of “Team Brexit” with cocky announcements about immediate local referenda in their own countries, it took only a few weeks for the European people to wake up from their populism-induced trip and endure the “sobering hangover” from the emerging notion that things would actually become much harder without the EU; not easier.
The political implosion and the economic events happening in the UK after the elections were a clear warning sign for that.
Bold statements about a speedy EU membership referendum in The Netherlands were plummeted by the overwhelming 80-odd percent majority for the No-Nexit grassroots in a representative sample survey. And I would not be surprised, when elsewhere in Europe the tides are also turning for the populists, when the people view the mess that UKIP and the Tories left in the UK.
That may be blow number two.
And perhaps the most sobering notion for many people is, that when you actually vote for populists, like ‘The Donald’ Trump, Marine Le Pen (Front National), Geert Wilders (Dutch Party for Freedom) or Frauke Petri (Alternative für Deutschland), they indeed might rise to political power. And that such is not an instant guarantee for political/economic success, is becoming more and more obvious.
Or do you get a comfortable feeling from a ‘loose cannon’ like Donald Trump with his hand on the red button for the American nuclear weapons arsenal, in his presidential suitcase: “By the way, you’re fired!!!”
And do you think that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were indeed the best Prime Ministers that the world have never seen?!
That must be the third and final blow!
And to place another devastating blow: look at the Phillippines, where "mucho macho" President Rodrigo Duterte, calling himself "Adolf Hitler", has started a killing spree against drug dealers and criminals with a dead count of many hundreds (or even thousands) of people, while calling the American president "a son of a b*tch" and seemingly becoming close friends with the Chinese government.
Perhaps many of those drug dealers were indeed "guilty as charged", but is that a reason to terminate them, without a fair trial? Have we sunk that far, during the last years?! And maybe it gives a feeling of power to call the POTUS an SOB, but is it smart and wise and will it help one's country in the long run?!
Perhaps my gutfeeling is more based upon hope than on sensible and objective information. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the glory days for populism will soon be over and that the European people will start to realize that only a united Europe can protect them from the hazards, the fierce economic pressure and political skintrade of the strong political blocks in the world: China, Russia and the United States.
There will, however, remain one huge lesson from the success of the populist parties all over Europe. If you alienate your grassroots with a cold and technocratic policy, seemingly only working on behalf of the large corporations and powerfull pressure (i.e. lobby) groups… A policy, without vision and without dots on the horizon to travel to...
Than you will lose the people for whom you are working as a European Commission and European Council... and it will be very hard to get them back!
The EU is not a corporation and the European citizens don’t want to have a “chief executive management” as leadership for the EU, but a committed and empathic leadership that fights for the common men and women.
You can bet on that!