After Holland, Where Does Europe Go From Here?

The recent elections in Holland drew a turnout of an astonishing 82%.  This was considered the first of three very important elections in Europe this year with the French elections in April/March coming next, and the German elections in September.  All the attention in Holland was over the party of Geert Wilders, how it would perform, and what this meant for the apparent spread of nationalist populism in Europe.  To be sure, that bloc of politician was heartened by two events: the Brexit vote in June, 2016, and the election of Trump in November, 2016.

Rutte will likely serve a third term as prime minister of Holland.  But, much of the reason for his party maintaining #1 status in parliament is due to the fact that he stole much of the thunder of Wilders given the standoff with the Turkish government over allowing two Turkish ministers to address a pro-Turkey rally in Rotterdam.  This gave Rutte an opportunity to flex his newfound nationalist persona.

For his part, Wilders campaigned on a platform of closing the borders to Muslim migrants, closing mosques and taking the Netherlands out of the EU.  Despite his party only getting 13% of the national vote, they gained seats in parliament and are now the #2 party in that body.  However, the 13% tally was well below expectations.  Given the turmoil in Europe since the last election, Wilders may have missed his best opportunity.

About 12 parties hold seats in parliament in Holland.  No one party has ever won a majority on its own.  Hence, ruling coalitions must be formed.  Despite Wilders’ party being the second largest in parliament, Rutte will freeze them out of negotiations in an effort for the centrist parties to keep power.  The only problem with that is the centrist parties performed terribly.  The Labor Party got 26% of the vote last time out and that dropped to 6% this year.  This allowed the smaller parties at either end of the spectrum to gain, particularly the GreenLeft Party which is very Left.

But a couple of things are apparent.  First, the centrist parties have shifted their rhetoric, if not policies, to the Right.  There is a serious angst in Holland about the influx of Muslim migrants changing the nature of Dutch culture.  Second, the centrist parties basically banded together to counter the populist parties thus splintering them in the process.  In effect, all the parties defined themselves through Geert Wilders.  This serves to further polarize Dutch politics since there is very little left of a true center.

The new government will, then, just be an anti-Wilders coalition of Rutte’s party and smaller parties.  As recently as 1986, the top three parties accounted for 85% of the vote making it much easier to form a stable coalition.  In 2003, that percentage dropped to 74%.  This past week, the top three parties garnered a paltry 45% of the national vote.

These trends possibly foretell elections later this year in Europe.  There will be increasing pressure to possibly look into anti-migrant policies with the primary goal not policy-driven, but pure politics: keep the populists out of power.  In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front consistently polls at 25%.  She is trying to woo the supporters of conservative Francois Fillon currently embroiled in a political/financial scandal.  Centrist Emmanuel Macron is benefiting from Fillon’s demise.

There are two rounds of voting with the top two advancing to a runoff on May 7th.  Thus, the big question is who those two will be.  One will likely be Le Pen.  Voting in the second round is often predicated upon who the ousted candidate endorses and there is no way they will endorse Le Pen.  Polls indicate that Le Pen would lose in the second round despite winning the first round.

Complicating the scenario is the Fillon scandal.  The main beneficiary has been Le Pen since Fillon, being the conservative in the mix, has policies that more closely align with Le Pen.  As for Macron, he is center Left who is new to politics.  His lack of experience may be a strength (see: Trump) or a weakness.  Although he claims some outsider status, he was an adviser to Hollande and served in his cabinet.

As for Germany, it is believed that Angela Merkel will win a fourth term.  However, the Bundestag elections in September are of most interest and the Merkel victory may not be so sure.  The center left Social Democrats have been surging in the polls led by Eric Schultz.  He is an open critic of the EU who wants to form a coalition with the Greens and some more far Left German parties.  The AfD- an anti-immigrant new party that gained some local seats setting off worries in Berlin- have dropped in the polls although they are expected to get some seats in the Bundestag.

Most German economists do not believe there is much of a difference between Merkel and Schultz.  One described Schultz as “Merkel with a beard.”  Another noted that weariness of “Merkel fatigue” may be a factor in the elections.  They also note that despite the apparent surge by the AfD, Germany is a little behind in the populism game.

Italy is not scheduled to have elections until 2018, but they are a political basket case right now.  Some are calling for new elections this June.  The failure of Matteo Renzi has made the previous collapse of Italian governments look like child’s play.  He has simply destroyed what was left of the center Left coalition worse than Berlusconi did to the center-Right.

Despite the infighting and scandals, Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement rises in the polls and he may just be the last man standing.  The Italian political elite aided by the Italian media continue to criticize Grillo, much the same way Trump was treated in the United States.  We all know how that turned out and, in fact, Grillo is rising in the polls.

However, like most European nations, should Grillo succeed, he would need to form a coalition government.  That would include looking to the Far Right and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and the Forza Italia led by Berlusconi.  They could easily form a majority according to most polls.

The bottom line is that despite the populist setbacks in Holland and the anticipated loss of Le Pen in France and whoever wins seats in the German Bundestag, populism in Europe is not going away.  At the heart of their persistence is the view by many in Europe that an out-of-touch political elite are forcing a globalist, multicultural policy agenda upon the rest of Europe from EU headquarters in Brussels.  They are tapping into the the very sentiments- right or wrong- that propelled Trump into the White House and Great Britain out of the EU.