By Bhaswati Mukherjee*
Decisive rejection last week in the referendum for reform by 41-year old Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi once again plunged Italy and the European Union into crisis. It underlined the inherent danger in calling for popular endorsement through referendum of any agenda for political or economic change. This was clear after Brexit in UK and now in Italy. Such strategic blunders unfortunately cannot be reversed. They often result in an abrupt end of the political careers of the respective Prime Ministers who gambled and lost.
Political analysts have noted that opposition to the Italian proposals came from the same broad coalition that ensured victory for Brexit: anti establishment sentiments, anger at globalisation, the migrant issue and open borders and increased scepticism on the wisdom of an Europe without frontiers. A broadly similar coalition ensured the victory of Donald Trump. The problem is how to turn the tide before it is too late.
In Italy’s case, the result of the vote primarily benefited right wing parties such as the Five Star Movement which supports a referendum to determine whether Italy should give up the euro. The popular mood in the third largest European economy seems to be to go it alone rather than with Europe.
It was small comfort to the European liberal left wing and socialist parties that a few hours earlier Austrian voters, faced with a stark choice, selected as their Head of State Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party rather than Hofer of the far right Freedom Party which had been established by the Nazis.
Political developments across Europe are worrisome. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, once riding high in the polls, seems increasingly vulnerable in elections scheduled for 2017. In France, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, an incumbent President, Francois Hollande, is not seeking a second term. With his popularity rating in the teens, this was a sage decision. It represents a candid acknowledgement by the French President that he is acutely aware of the inherent danger of the candidature of an unpopular president, handicapped by incumbency, standing for an election which could divide the liberal, left wing vote and ensure the victory of Mme Marine Le Pen. The French political scenario is complex, with the far right national front leader calling for a French referendum on European Union membership shortly after Brexit.
While it seems unlikely that Frexit will happen since France, unlike UK, has always been firmly anchored in Europe and sees EU membership as a way of maintaining its great power status, the result of the French presidential election in 2017 seems disturbingly uncertain. The first round of the vote will be held on 23 April 2017. The final outcome will be decided in a run-off election which will take place on 7 May 2017. While the centre-right former Prime Minister Francois Fillon is being projected by the media as the favourite, having surprisingly humbled former Prime Minister Alan Juppé and former President Nicholas Sarkozy in the primaries, there are many imponderables which still remain. The Socialist Party is presently divided; Manuel Valls has stood down as Prime Minister in order to put himself forward as the Socialist Party candidate for the presidential race. The Socialist Party will hold its presidential primary in January 2017.
One imponderable whose resolution could impact the outcome is how the Socialists would vote in a second round presidential election with a runoff between Fillon and Marine Le Pen. In 02, in the second round, the Socialists had decided to vote for Jacques Chirac so as to defeat Le Pen and the extreme right. While it is hoped that the French voters from the Socialist party would do the same in 2017 and unite against the National Front candidate, this is not certain, given the current popular mood in France. Ultimately, the choice for the French socialist voter would also depend on how Fillon projects himself. Can he can assuage the concerns of the anti globalisation coalition without moving too far right? How does he win over the disenchanted lower middle class white voter? He needs to convince voters across the political divide that he can deliver on his liberalizing ideology, penned in his latest book, of ensuring prosperity as a pre condition for restoring national pride and sovereignty.
Ultimately, the outcome of this election is also a litmus test for the continuing relevance of European liberal democratic politics. To put it starkly, there remains five months for French mainstream leaders and the media to project Fillon as a credible alternative to right wing populism surging throughout Europe. A positive result for Fillon and his party would appear to be far from certain.
There are ominous indications that Europe has already moved to the ideological right, threatening the integrity and future of the EU itself. The 100-mile long chain-link and razor-wire fence on Hungary’s southern border vividly reflects the rising tide of extreme right wing populist politicians across Europe with their retrograde xenophobic, racist ideologies accompanied by attacks on European liberal values, symbolized by open markets and frontiers and free movements of people. If the founders of the EU and its liberal ideals – Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France – also move to the far right in 2017, it could sound the death knell for the Schengen regime and of the cherished ideals of European integration and of the European Union itself.
*Bhaswati Mukherjee is a former Indian Ambassador to the Netherlands and a former Ambassador to UNESCO based in Paris. She can be contacted at [email protected]