Europe’s malaise deepens; it is probably chronic and might be incurable. The continent ends the year much as it began: in disarray, devoid of any vision for the future and united in hardly any sense at all. One day before the Dec. 2 anniversary of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-crowning in 1804, the current French president, François Hollande, his approval ratings sliding as low as 4 percent, announced that he would be the first sitting president since the Fifth Republic was founded under Charles De Gaulle in 1958 not to seek re-election.
A silver two-franc coin, displayed in London’s British Museum, marks Napoleon’s rise to power; its design is thought to be based on coins of the Roman emperor Augustus (31 B.C.-14 A.D.). Napoleon’s rise to supremacy and eventual defeat and ignominy symbolized the huge difficulty of enacting in practice the ideals of the French Revolution, the republican government having collapsed after the 1799 coup d’état that opened the way for Napoleon’s period of autocracy. François Hollande’s failure similarly highlights Europe’s 21st-century fragmentation and weakness and increases the likelihood of the far right gaining power in contemporary France.
Elsewhere on the continent, other opportunities for the far right are opening up. The informed consensus now is that the wave of populism, as elsewhere in the world, reflects a widespread anger against the political establishment mixed with rage at the effects of globalization on ordinary people. Yet there may be early signs of a reaction to the current right-wing populist, anti-immigration surge, seen in so many places in Europe this year.
Austria drew back from the brink in early December by refusing to elect Europe’s first far-right head of state, as the relatively moderate Alexander Van der Bellen, standing as a pro–European Union independent, trounced the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer. The new president had won an earlier vote in May, but that was annulled by the constitutional court citing voting irregularities. (That can happen in some democracies!) Acknowledging his win, and despite the fact that the post is largely ceremonial, Mr. Van der Bellen promised to lead as an “open-minded and above all pro-European President.”
Look south toward Italy and you will see a very different outcome on a referendum that had proposed major constitutional change. Italy’s prime minister, Mario Renzi, resigned upon losing a vote for political reform that he had emphatically backed. In Italy voter turnout was high, as it had been in Austria. The leader of one of the parties that united to oppose Mr. Renzi’s plans, Matteo Salvini, had heaped praise on the Trump campaign’s U.S. victory. He emulated his American hero and took to Twitter. As the exit polls revealed the extent of Mr. Renzi’s humiliation, Mr. Salvini tweeted unstinting praise on Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and France’s Marine Le Pen.
Italy’s referendum result could be taken as further populist rejection of establishment politics, but there were local and national issues at play as well. Mr. Renzi’s proposed reforms would have given more power to the prime minister’s office and reduced that of the nation’s Senate. Yet it is likely that the vote included at least some element of judgment on Mr. Renzi, not least because of immigration. Italy has accepted huge numbers of immigrants making landfall in Italy from the Mediterranean.
Before the campaign, Mr. Renzi had always insisted it was the country’s moral duty to accept these refugees and economic migrants, while criticizing the European Union’s lack of a coherent policy on migration. Some in Italy are now saying that this vote could add momentum to a growing movement to leave the European Union or to withdraw from the single currency. While there is as yet no consensus forming around an “Italexit” campaign, a senior figure in the German government, admitting a “general crisis” in Europe, said that Germany was watching Italian developments “with concern.”
As France gears up for its next presidential election, some polls suggest that a possible runoff could include right-wing and a far-right-wing candidates, namely François Fillon and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. The latter has campaigned for some time on an anti-E.U. platform, proposing both a referendum on French participation on the single currency and a Brexit-like poll on E.U. membership. The first round of voting will be in April.
Retiring President Hollande’s Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced his plans to run for the presidency on Dec. 5. How his candidacy fares could be a good indication of the current state of nation-state populism in Europe in 2017. Will it continue to surge or will there be a counter-reaction?
There will be other indicators, as no fewer than a dozen European nations go to the polls in the next few months in either elections or plebiscites, all of which will be contested by the parties of the new nationalistic and xenophobic populism. In Germany, the burgeoning far-right “Alternative für Deutschland” party, or A.F.D., will likely enter Parliament, opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-borders policy that has seen Germany accept around one million refugees. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Freedom Party is already level with the sitting government. In the Czech Republic, a new party based on the populist “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” movement got a surprising 19 percent in October’s parliamentary elections.
The idea of Europe might be on life support, but there remain small positive signs. In addition to Austria’s rebut of the far right, a by-election in Britain saw a shock return to prominence of the Liberal Democrats, thought to have been consigned to decades of oblivion after voters overwhelmingly rejected their failed coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
The winners had campaigned on the growing voters’ remorse over what Brexit might actually mean, hastened by the government’s recent admission that the cost of Brexit to the British economy could be as much as £57 billion. The new support for the Liberal Dems suggested voter dissatisfaction with the government’s stumbling, incompetent steps toward enacting the Brexit vote.
Still the clear strength of right-wing populism suggest that the European elite need to listen to voters and take stock of the new reality. A re-reading of the founding principles of the European project, deeply rooted in the radical Catholic social teaching of the 20th century, would be a good place to start.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.