Have we reached Peak Populism? As the Dutch people and a brave American judge say “Enough is enough”, is the Brexit-Trump contagion now quarantined?
The Austrians said No to the hard anti-European xenophobic right late last year. Marine Le Pen has just allowed herself to be interviewed by Nigel Farage – but is the great helmsman of English nationalist populism whose party has never won a seat in Parliament the best person to advise her on how to win an election?
Le Pen has said how much she was inspired by Ukip and Brexit. But there is little evidence of a surge of support for Le Pen populism and although she will get to the second round of the French presidential election, she will not win.
Angela Merkel is to meet Emmanuel Macron and Pierre Moscovici, the French socialist EU Commissioner and former French finance minister, says he will vote for him. It’s clear that Europe’s new Tony Blair – of the 1997 vintage, of course, not the Iraq war PM – gets ready for office. Many on the French liberal left have come to the same decision to put Macron into the Elysée.
In London, Macron filled Central Hall with supporters waving European flags. British Brexiteers were counting on anti-European politics crossing the Channel. But this appears not to be happening. Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, says he wants more Europe, including a banking union. Even the grumpy Euromoaner in Warsaw, Jaroslaw Kazcynski, says Poland will join the euro once Poland’s GDP reaches 85 per cent of Germany’s.
Growth is back and jobs are being created across the EU as Eurozone growth outstripped that of the US in 2016. That year – 2016 – may be the year populism scored well, but, as Britain now officially turns its back on Europe thanks to long years of campaigning against immigrants in the country, the UK now looks like the exception rather than the future rule.
Two weeks ago, the New Statesman devoted eight pages to Geert Wilders as the anti-EU, Islamaphobe revolutionary who would take power in the Netherlands and set European politics off towards a new populist future.
One cannot blame the New Statesman as the London excitement over the arrival of Marine Le Pen and the rise of anti-European, anti-immigrant politics can be found across the media spectrum. But it’s clear that their assumptions were misguided.
The Dutch result is also a warning to Labour. The Dutch centre-left party shares the same name as Labour but it slumped from 33 to 9 seats. Its leader, Lodowijk Aascher, tried to turn his fire on European workers in the Netherlands much as many Labour MPs have produced plans to limit Europeans working in the UK with proposals for Cold War era work permits, regional quotas, passports for London, and other schemes for external control that are archaic, bureaucratic and unenforceable short of a complete shutdown of entry into Britain.
Far better would be stronger internal controls of the UK labour market to promote local employment, training, and protection of workers. But so traumatised is post-Brexit Labour that the party has lost clarity of thought. Labour MPs quoted approvingly the PvdA’s Aascher as he sought to scapegoat European workers in the Netherlands, but Dutch voters are not buying left nationalist populism.
A final judgement on whether populism has peaked awaits the French election. Marine Le Pen’s main policy of quitting the euro to return to the French franc has terrified her core constituency of older conservatives and anti-Muslim voters. Their savings will be ruined by a return to a weak devalued franc and many in France think this was the moment when she lost all chance of power.
On the anniversary of Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May will confront a Europe that has turned its back on 2016 populism. Can she adapt or will she maintain her hard Ukip-stamped Brexit line and risk years of economic confrontation with the rest of Europe as well as increasing political isolation?
In the late 17th century, the English welcomed a Dutch immigrant, William of Orange, and made him king. The Netherlands is probably the continental country the closest to Britain. It even has its own Sadiq Khan in the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Labour politician who is the loudest defender of Dutch plurality and women’s rights against the proselytising Islamism which is now a major European problem.
The Dutch result and the probable new President of France signals an end to Brexit-Trump nationalist populism with its nasty anti-immigrant scapegoating. Such politics will not disappear and it will infect mainstream parties, much as Ukip has now transplanted itself into the Conservative Party and even the cabinet.
But democracies are not yet ready to surrender to their extremes.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and author of 'Brexit: Why Britain Will Leave Europe', published in 2015 by IB Tauris. He is a senior advisor at Avisa Partners, BrusselsReuse content