Checking the winds of populism in Europe
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement on Nov. 20 that she intended to stand for a fourth term as chancellor in the forthcoming elections in September 2017 was welcomed many in Europe. If successful in the elections, Merkel will become one of the longest serving prime ministers in Germany, matching the records of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
As a growing number of established parties are facing substantial challenges from right-wing populist and nationalist parties across Europe, many hope she might be able to check the slide to populism in the West.
Although she labelled these expectations “absurd,” many in Europe and the EU hope she will take a leadership role in keeping the Western political cooperation together after Barack Obama leaves office in the U.S.
There is clear disarray among EU members, struggling with the migration crisis, various economic difficulties, the ramifications of the U.K.’s Brexit decision, and the increasing support for populist movements. The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and his challenging statements about U.S. commitments to its European allies added to these concerns. Amid these challenges, Europe’s longest serving and by far the most influential leader, Merkel’s bid raises expectations as many pundits around the world echo her portrayal by the New York Times as “the last defender of the liberal West.”
As the first woman chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has performed well since 2005 both in domestic and foreign policies, creating a “de facto” leadership role for her country within the EU. Although her decisive stances on austerity policies during the Greek debt crisis and on open-door policy in the face of migration flow to the EU territory have been heavily criticized within her country and the EU, her position as a strong defender of Germany and Europe is not tarnished. While the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party is posed to capture some seats in the Bundestag for the first time, Merkel’s approval rating remains around 55 percent, higher than anybody else after 11 years in office. Low unemployment rates, economic stability and increased wealth favor her.
But if she wins next year’s election, she would face even more complex challenges ahead, ranging from keeping the EU together throughout the Brexit process to securing the U.S. commitment to European security and pressing back the populist wave across the continent. The rising trend of populism across Europe has already revealed that popular expectations such as anti-immigrant, more protectionist and nationalist policies are quite different than what mainstream parties of today offer. Starting with Merkel, all parties and candidates will be under pressure to respond to these expectations in the forthcoming elections in Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands, as well as in the December 2016 referendum in Italy on whether to restrict the power of the Italian Parliament’s upper house.
Though none of the populist parties in Europe - the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Austria - yet have majority support in their respective countries, polls show that they nevertheless have the potential to shake the harmony in Europe. It is also clear that any possible change in the largest economies of Europe would have serious repercussions for the fate of the EU and global politics.
As the prevailing wind of populism continues to blow strongly on both shores of the Atlantic, we will anxiously watch Angela Merkel take leadership in the EU against - as the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has put it - the possibility of the death of Europe.