The political landscape of Europe is changing rapidly and in ways that are hard to interpret. The recent Italian referendum is a good illustration. Matteo Renzi inherited an agenda to reform the Italian constitution when he became prime minister. He negotiated an agreement with the centre-right on the precise details of the package. He shepherded the agreement through two majority votes in each of Italy’s two chambers of parliament. He then brought the agreement to a popular vote as per constitutional requirement and with an electorate broadly disenchanted with politics and therefore favourable to reform. Nevertheless, virtually every party outside the government opposed the reform package and Renzi lost the referendum vote by a spread of twenty percentage points. Now Renzi is out of office. Italy is without a viable electoral system because of changes made in anticipation of the (failed) constitutional reforms. And it is unclear whether the new government headed by Paolo Gentiloni has sufficient support in the Senate to pass a new electoral law. Most Italians did not want Renzi’s constitutional reforms and yet they are not happy with the status quo either. Disillusionment with politics has grown as a result.
Italy is hardly alone in facing such an impasse. If anything, the situation in Greece is more complicated. The Greeks threw out their traditional parties in favour of a Syriza-led government in January 2015 only to watch that government descend from immobility into crisis. Then they voted overwhelmingly to reject an austerity package demanded by international creditors only to face something more demanding and restrictive. Now they are under pressure to make unpopular reforms in order to face an uncertain future. Greek politicians cannot promise that reforms will make things better via debt relief or less rigid austerity; they can only threaten that a failure to reform will make things worse. The situation in Spain and Portugal is better and yet no less confusing. Spain finally managed to form a minority centre-right government only after repeated elections and a prolonged period of coalition building. Portugal is governed by an unprecedented combination of the centre-left and far-left. The political situation in these countries appears stable at the moment but their direction of movement is not obvious.
The countries of northern Europe are no more transparent. The British are still grappling with the results of their 23 June referendum on European Union membership. The Dutch are heading toward elections where the right-wing Party of Freedom headed by Geert Wilders could emerge as the largest in the Dutch parliament (and where the Party of Labour now in government could lose almost two-thirds of its parliamentary seats). The French will hold presidential elections in which either the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen or the centre-left outsider Emmanuel Macron will face-off against the centre-right’s Francois Fillon (and a Le Pen/Macron second-round cannot be ruled out as a possibility). The Germans will also hold national elections; the questions are how many seats the Alternative for Germany will pull from the centre-right and whether Die Linke (or The Left) will win enough seats to entice the Social Democrats into a Red-Red-Green coalition. In all these cases, we are in terra icognita and not on terra firma.
Then there are the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Victor Orban’s government in Hungary has been through a prolonged cycle of constitutional re-engineering, often to the dismay of Oban’s opposition at home and democrats in other parts of Europe. Poland’s government seems headed down a similar path, but without the support of the European People’s Party and so in the face of mounting criticism from the European Parliament. Moreover, the governments of both countries have expressed a desire to loosen the bonds of European integration and to reassert national sovereignty. As with the rest of Europe, where these countries are headed is unclear. The only known factor is that both countries are in the hands of ‘populist’ governments. Indeed, the influence of populism seems to be the thread running through all these cases. Hence it is tempting to conclude that rather than focusing on where Europe is headed, we should focus on the populism behind recent events.
To help navigate this complicated situation, these articles explore different aspects of populism in Europe. They are only a selection of what the journal can offer the debate.
- Erik Jones, January 2017.