Having made a remarkable run from the 1950s to the early 2000s, the project of European unification suddenly appears in danger of falling apart. After Brexit, the surprise British vote of June 2016 to leave the European Union, will there be other EU Exits was well?
A Grexit nearly took place in the summer of 2015—avoided only after weeks of acrimonious negotiations between Greek and EU leaders. In the end, the heavily indebted Greeks received a new package of loans, but at a steep economic and political price: a leftwing Greek government that had vowed never to accept new austerity measures did just that. The Grexit drama is far from over.
Meanwhile, a potential Frexit looms. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, is likely to be one of the two candidates competing the final round of the presidential election this spring. If she is elected President of the Republic, a distinct possibility in this season of populist success, she could lead France out of the European Union. (Le Pen was photographed at Trump Tower in mid-January.) According to a recent Pew Research poll, more than 60% of the French people have negative views of the EU.
Elsewhere, other Eurosceptic parties are on the march. They’re fueled by opposition to immigration—especially from Muslim countries—by a persistent economic malaise, and by the uneven effects of globalization and Europeanization, which have cost blue-collar jobs. Although the Netherlands has no explicitly anti-EU party, the extremist Party of Freedom could exploit the strong EU skepticism of the Dutch public, more than half of which have expressed the desire for a referendum on a potential Nethexit.
In Austria, the extreme rightwing, anti-EU Norbert Hofer came within 0.6% of winning the presidential election in April 2016. The result was so close and the vote-counting so sloppy that the courts ordered the election to be re-run. This time (December 2016), Alexander Van der Bellen, the pro-EU candidate, won decisively. It’s not impossible that the election of Donald Trump a month earlier had helped put Van der Bellen over the top. Austria’s mainstream electorate saw from the American election just how successful hard-edge populism could be and voted in larger numbers this time. Still, Hofer received 46% of the vote, having won just under 50% the previous April. Neither result bodes well for the EU’s future: an Austrexit could be on the horizon.
The country that has raised the most immediate Exit concerns is Italy, where the centrist coalition government lost a December 2016 referendum intended to make Italy’s political system more functional. Although the referendum didn’t explicitly refer to the EU, the strong negative vote was widely seen as a rejection of a political establishment closely identified with the European project, of which Italy was a founding member.
Anti-establishment the election may have been, but it seems unlikely to produce an Itexit—or is it Italexit? Prime Minister Metteo Renzi’s opponents on the right and left saw the referendum as a power grab by Italy’s central government, an attempt to deprive Italy’s traditionally important regions of their authority. Members of Italy’s two houses of parliament understood the vote in similar terms. But these sentiments, powerful as they are, don’t translate into a widespread desire in Italy to leave the EU. The far-right Northern League, with just 12% of the vote, stands alone among Italy’s major parties in calling for an Itexit.
Italy’s second biggest vote-getter, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), founded in 2009 by a comedian and an IT guru, is skeptical of the EU but expresses no intention to lead Italy out the door. The EU, says the M5S, is corrupt and undemocratic, and it has failed to nurture the Italian economy. But the movement’s goal seems to be to reform the EU, not to abolish it. It may, however, seek to dismiss the euro in favor of the lira, Italy’s traditional currency. The M5S now has the support of about 30% of Italy’s voters, and most of them say in opinion polls that they want to remain in Europe. Italians seem less enamored of the Eurozone, which deprives member states of control over their monetary policy and thus straitjackets them in the face of economic recession.
Although the M5S has won recent mayoral elections in Rome and Turin, long a stronghold of the left, it’s by no means a given that it can win a national election; Rome’s M5S mayor Virginia Raggi has made a hash of her tenure so far. But if her party ultimately succeeds at the national level, it could put some salutary pressure on the EU, which needs to reform its sclerotic bureaucracy and address the economic needs of southern European countries struggling with soaring debt, high unemployment, and low growth. Brexit has done little for EU reform and perhaps has made it less likely. Eurosceptics in Italy could have a more positive effect.
Featured image credit: leuchtkasten shield output by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.