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Optimism on the rise as Far-Right sentiments wane

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Isolated: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, will try to take France out of Europe if she wins the presidential election, which is looking increasingly unlikely. Photo: Reuters

Isolated: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, will try to take France out of Europe if she wins the presidential election, which is looking increasingly unlikely. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

Isolated: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, will try to take France out of Europe if she wins the presidential election, which is looking increasingly unlikely. Photo: Reuters

On the Sunday before last June's referendum on the EU in Britain, this column imagined the history of Europe from the vantage point of June 2021. It envisioned that Brexit had happened and that it triggered the break-up of the EU. That, in turn, led to an exodus of jobs from Ireland as companies that used this country as a base to service the single market had left.

This gloomy vision of how this country and continent would evolve in the medium term was something akin to a worst-case scenario. But in some ways it was not pessimistic enough. It did not consider the wide-ranging consequences of two major changes that took place shortly thereafter in two of the three countries that really count for democratic Europe.

The election of Donald Trump and the aftermath of the failed coup in Turkey in July have made Europe's external environment much more challenging, and even threatening. These events have changed for the worse how both countries interact with Europe and the wider world. This comes on top of the continuing and almost weekly deterioration in relations with Russia, the third of democratic Europe's most important interlocutors.

Just last week, Sweden, a country not known for its war-mongering ways, announced it would reintroduce conscription. The decision reflects the growing military threat Russia is perceived to pose to the Nordic country.

In short, there has never been a time when the leaders in the three countries which could be described as strategic for democratic Europe have shared so few of its values.

But despite these external changes, combined with Brexit and the risk of continued disintegration within Europe, the sense of gloom across the continent may be lifting as economic growth accelerates. There are even a few political rays of hope emerging.

While Brexit is happening, the column postulated last June that demands for similar referendums elsewhere would increase and that mainstream politicians in the Netherlands and France would be forced into agreeing to hold in/out votes in general elections this year. But with election campaigns well under way in both countries, neither looks likely to hold referendums.

The Dutch election is just 10 days away. Not only has support for the reactionary PVV party of Geert Wilders been falling, his call for a referendum on Dutch EU membership is going nowhere.

In France, with four rounds of elections coming up in April, May and June - two each for the presidency and the national parliament - there is little sign of other parties and candidates matching Marine Le Pen's promise of a "Frexit" referendum. And with opinion polls showing a gap of at least 14 percentage points between her and her least-supported rival for the presidency, things would have to change radically in France over the next two months for Le Pen to win and move to take France out of Europe.

One reason for this is that voters in France and across the continent are more preoccupied with matters closer to home than the EU. The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, taken last November, doesn't show that Europe - for good or ill - is one of the issues that concern voters in either France of the Netherlands. And when people were asked specifically about their views on the EU, seven out of 10 people in both countries had a positive view or didn't express a preference. Combined with the low salience of the issue, it does not look as if France or the Netherlands will be holding referendums on membership in the foreseeable future.

If one opposes reactionary parties and believes keeping the EU intact is good for everyone in Europe, recent political changes in Germany, now the continent's linchpin state, also give reason for cautious optimism. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is not as extreme as the Dutch PVV but wants Germany to quit the euro, was polling as high as 15pc at the turn of the year. Now it is winning 10pc or less and is on a sharp downward trend.

Its decline is partly linked to the sudden resurgence of the Social Democrats, which has nosed ahead of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in opinion polls for the first time in more than a decade. With a general election in just six months, there is a real possibility that the party's new leader, Martin Schulz, will unseat the EU's longest-serving head of government. While the bald, bespectacled, former alcoholic is no Justin Trudeau, Schulz's return to domestic politics after his resignation as president of the European parliament has changed the fortunes of his party more than any supporter, rival or observer expected.

If he were to be German chancellor for the next four years, he could be more inclined than the current chancellor to be flexible in Brussels on issues such as budgetary policy and the euro, given his background in European politics. The absence from his party of the (mostly Bavarian) faction in Merkel's party which takes a somewhat narrow view of German interests would also give him more room for manoeuvre in Europe.

None of this means a new-found solidarity is about to break out across the continent or that the centrifugal dynamic of recent years will be put into reverse. But a much-improved economy and defeat for the reactionary parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany could make solutions to the continent's problems easier to arrive at.

Issues around the mechanisms by which such solutions might be reached and implemented were pushed up the agenda last week when the European Commission published a white paper on how the EU might evolve in the future. For the first time I can recall, the eurocrats envisaged a scenario that involves less Europe - with the bloc stripped back to the bare bones of the single market. Such an outcome might be becoming more appealing to official Ireland as support for ever-closer union has waned.

But the Commission is not giving up on deeper integration. In the white paper, and written as fact, is this: "Greater harmonisation of tax rules and rates reduces compliance costs and limits tax evasion." This will do nothing to dispel the notion in politics, officialdom and business in Ireland that Brussels is on a mission to take tax powers from national capitals.

Along with the terms of Brexit, there will be much discussion and debate in the years ahead on how Europe should evolve and what Ireland's interests are in that process. But all of that is for the future. Of all the reasons to be a little upbeat on Europe's political dynamics from the past week was some historical research by political scientists Giacomo Benedetto and Simon Hix.

They have collected vast quantities of data on voting patterns in 31 European democracies over the past century. Among other things, their figures show that in 2016 the radical right had its best year electorally since 1933, the year Hitler came to power. While that sounds ominous, a closer look shows that the hard right remains on the fringes and its rise has been much more modest than much commentary would suggest.

According to the pair's figures on elections in 2016, the radical right won just under one in 10 votes cast in elections in Europe, a rise of 3-4 percentage points on the first decade of the 21st century. It is a cause for concern when any extremists gain support and there is no reason to be complacent, but with the support of under 10pc across the continent we are not in a 1930s scenario as is frequently suggested in commentary.

Sunday Independent