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Populism, The Fall of the EU?
Lim Hyon Yoo  |
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승인 2017.05.02  14:41:25
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“Trumpocalypse!” groaned Europe after Donald Trump was elected as the president of the United States (U.S.). Their press described the incident as, “the weirdest election in modern history.” Only a few months have passed from the United Kingdom’s (UK) decision to leave the European Union (EU), which was also considered improbable. Yet now, the unthinkable has started to spread even within the continent. More and more countries are witnessing the rise of far-right parties, some even attempting to echo the case of the UK. 

The year of renewal has arrived in Europe. Several huge elections have already happened, with more yet to come. Starting with Austria’s second round of its presidential election held at the very last month of 2016, the Dutch, French, and German election have been scheduled consecutively. All the countries are going through great upheaval, with their people’s desperate demand for change.

Many Europeans feel that the EU is not working, that the elites in charge have too often ignored the average citizens’ problems and concerns. One leader feeling their anger is Angela Merkel, the Prime Minister of Germany and de facto head of Europe, who is facing opposition in her run for a fourth term. Many Germans are agitating for a new face, like Martin Schulz, a rival prime minister candidate.


▲ Demand for Brexit. Provided by Business Insider

Of course, change of powers is an inevitable process of the political arena, but there is something slightly different this time from before. After the U.S. election of Trump, signs of isolationism and nationalism are easily witnessed. Junior Trumps appeared from everywhere, like Pauline Hanson of Australia, and extreme self-protective attitude prevailed all over the world.

Europe was no exception, and last year the UK pulled the trigger. The outcomes of the plebiscite led to the absolutely most shocking event of 2016—Brexit—which brought a huge disturbance among the countries of the EU. An incident that seemed unlikely to happen has turned true, and the community spirit of the Union started to crack. The populist wave of the U.S. has landed, greatly shaking the EU and leaving its future utterly impossible to predict.

Right! Right! Right!

The change intensified slowly. The spread of populism progressed under the surface, hardly being noticed by the outsiders of Europe until recently. However, now the wave has grown monstrously, and is even threatening the dynamics of the elections. Political pundits identified four key elections that will reveal the popularity of far-right domination. They suggest to keenly observe the outcomes of the Austrian, Dutch, Italian, and French election.

The Austrian election, held in December 2016, was the first of the four. Although the presidency is a mere honorary position in Austria, in which the Prime Minister effectively exercises power, the fact that a far-right politician might come to power for the first time in decades drew the eyes to the recent election. Norbert Hofer, a candidate of the farright Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe), was the eye of the storm.


▲ Emmanuel Macron of En Marche. Provided by 112 International.

Norbert was critical of the EU, stating he would want Austria to hold a referendum on its membership of the EU if the European parliament were to assume more powers, or if Turkey acceded to the bloc. He earlier had proposed that South Tyrol, an autonomous Germans peaking province administered by Italy and formerly part of Austria-Hungary, should be absorbed into Austria. Norbert lost to Alexander Van der Bellen, his rival, but did receive 46percent of the vote.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders took the baton and continued the wave of far-right invasion. The Netherlands has more than ten parties competing for seats in its parliament; thus, there was no expectation that Mark Rutte, the reappointed prime minister, and his moderate People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) could win a majority at this election. The fear was that with nationalism raising its ugly head in Europe, Wilders might win a majority and form his own government.

Wilders and the PVV—which has only one official member, Wilder—did win 20 seats, making it the secondlargest party in the Dutch House of Representatives, but were unable to make Wilder Prime Minister. Wilder ran on similar themes to Norbert, opposition to immigration, a distrust of the EU, and a call for traditional Dutch culture, focusing on Judeo-Christian and humanist traditions, to remain dominant. These obviously struck a chord with many Dutch voters, but in the eyes of many, including Merkel and the EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, it was a relief that rationality has belatedly prevailed.


▲ Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherland. Provided by CNBC.

Still More to Come

The Italian election, which is scheduled for next year, is also raising concerns. Matteo Renzi, current Prime Minister and the head of the Democratic Party (PD), is uncertain of victory in the upcoming general election. The Five Star Movement, which has a 32.3 percent approval in polls, highest of all parties, is campaigning on leaving the Eurozone and has made the election unpredictable.

The progress of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini as its head, is also to be reckoned with. Popularly known as a big fan of Trump, Salvini promised his supporters to exit from the EU and restrict immigration. Like Trump, he has stressed the importance of always putting the interest of Italy first. The Austrian and Dutch had managed to prevent the far-right’s triumph, but the whereabouts of Italy’s election is completely unpredictable.

This May, the French will vote in what is the most important of the four national elections. Many believe that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and her party hold the key to the future of international relationships. Francois Fillon, the current nominee of the Republicans—previously known as the Union for a Popular Movement and the country's largest center-right political party—was a front-runner until he was accused putting his wife on the government payroll as his aide. Since then, Le Pen has taken the lead, winning 26 percent of the approval rate.

Emmanuel Macron, former Finance Minister, is now the choice of former Fillon supporters and is only one percent behind Le Pen. As the leader of En Marche, his new moderate party, Macron attracted the ones who repulsed the strong arguments of Le Pen but was too disappointed to stay faithful to Fillon. He and Le Pen currently lead the election together, but their stances are showing strikingly distinctive characteristics.


▲ Professor Park Sung Hoon. Photographed by Kim ji Won.

As reported by the Herald Corporation, the two candidates’ differences can be identified in three points. Regarding the EU, Le Pen has voiced the need for a Frexit, while Macron rather insisted on strengthening the cooperation within the Union. Like fellow far-right leaders of Europe, Le Pen has concluded that the time of the EU has passed and that it is turning into more of a leash to France. One of her main pledges was to put the possibility of Frexit to plebiscite, and allow the people to decide the fate of the alliance.

Also, in contrast with Macron’s assertion on the need of a retrenchment, Le Pen assured the people of securing budget for welfare benefaction. Unlike Macron’s approach to cut government spending sharply and instead focus on job creation, Le Pen has strongly opposed on cutting welfare budgets. She, in contrast, argues to rather increase the budget and cover the money by the expense saved from exiting the EU and banning immigrants.

Commenting on Le Pen’s politics Professor Park SungHoon (Graduate School of International Studies) said, “It is an excellent example of the European concept of farright politics. Le Pen attempts to gain the approval of her people by emphasizing the importance of welfare policies, and constantly calls for the exclusiveness of the French job market.”

Finally, Like Trump, she strongly demanded to initiate protective trade policies. She has pointed out that protecting French corporations must be the prime task of the government. Macron’s policy of attracting foreign capital is less appealing to many, especially smaller companies battling foreign competitors. Instead of following the failing trend of globalization, it is Le Pen’s intention to encourage internal growth. 


▲ Syrian Refugees. Provided by YouTube

Why the Rush Out?

The two big issues, these far-right leaders articulate, is the importance of securing their country’s ethnic integrity and financial independence. Practically, this means banning Syrian and other refugees and exiting the EU and the Eurozone. The problems caused by the great number of refugees, along with the economic difficulties many EU members are struggling with, and that the EU policies seem to be making worse rather than better, have resulted the current swing to the right.

The refugee crisis, that has come to fore since 2011, is one of the main targets of the far-right’s complaints. Indeed, it was a humane act of the EU, to graciously welcome the refugees who lost their homes, and offer ample support for them to settle down. However, the financial burden that was given for this, and the antisocial crimes few refugees committed, were somewhat too much for the original citizens to bear.

Professor Park points out the fact that the acceptance of the refugees was a supranational decision may have amplified the uproar against the matter. He explains that if their acceptance was thoroughly discussed within each country, then the people would have agreed on a reasonable decision. “To the Europeans, everything being decided by a supranational organization, must have felt as if their sovereignty was violated,” said Park.

Another factor is the bankruptcies in Greece and Spain, and possible in Italy. “The use of a single currency had a big defect,” Park said. “It only acted smoothly when the economy was flourishing, and when the situation started to go bad, the merits of it backfired.” This is because counties on one currency—the euro—cannot devalue their own currencies to reduce their sovereign debt burdens. One obvious solution left for the countries is to leave the EU.

Yet Professor Park reflected a rather positive view on this matter. Although the monetary unification is going through a hard time, Park assures that they shall find salvation within their union, and will be back on track soon. Strengthening their cohesion still more, will be the key to this salvation. By the cohesion that has been admired by many, Park believes that the EU will once again overcome this crisis—wave of Isolationism and Populism—and rise to be the model of globalization. 

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