By Axel Krause
Paris, December 7, 2016
Until Sunday, what the BBC’s European editor Katya Adler described as « screeching headlines » evoked a far-right, Nazi-inspired candidate for president swooping to power in Vienna, with some of Italy’s banks collapsing over a referendum on constitutional reform amid calls from Italian, Trump-inspired rightist populists for the nation’s withdrawl from the euro.
She also rightly observed « fears of a tsunami of nativist populism sweeping through Europe in 2017 » – with elections looming in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy – but as events in Austria, Italy and France proved in the past few days, future election victories for Europe’s divided populist, right-wing parties are by no means inevitable ; though anti-establishment resentment and distrust regarding Europe’s established leaders, including those at the European Commission in Brussels, is widespread.
Take Austria – landlocked in Central Europe, with a population of some 8.7 million, heavily dependent on tourism, having joined the European Union in 1995 and the euro four years later ; with a NATO partnership and governed by a Socialist-led coalition of left-leaning parties, it seemed very possible but not sure that Norbert Hofer, leader of the far-right Freedom Party founded by former Nazis, would defeat for the presidency the 72-year-old, calm, former professor and Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen.
But Hofer lost to him – 53.3% to 46.7 %.
And though Hofer, according to the NewYork Times international edition, had boasted that Trump’s victory was helpful, the Freedom Party’s parliamentary deputy admitted on Saturday while « people (Austrian voters) followed Trump with curiosity, shock, fear, jubilation, I don’t think they drew any conclusions. »
Added Wolf Petritsch, a veteran diplomat and author, who termed the result « unbelievable, » proclaiming that Austria « saves the world » from right-wing populism.
Some of the reasons for the victory: fear of a tarnished image internationally, smart, grass-roots campaigning by Van der Bellen ; support by young, pro-EU people (the voting age is 16) and, as the Times’ Alison Smale reported from Vienna, Britain’s « tragic » vote to leave the EU had many Austrians thinking twice about an EU, or a euro, exit being advocated by right-wing, protectionist leaders.
What next ? The confrontation over the largely-ceremonial post of president will now it seems most certainly be transformed and refocused under Hofer’s leadership, with a view to his influential Freedom Party again winning the far more-important parliamentary election expected in 2018.
Meantime, take Italy – far-larger, influential and a founding member of the European Union, whose government since 2014 has been led by Matteo Renzi, former mayor of Florence, who was the nation’s youngest prime minister when he took office ; is a Socialist and admirer of President Obama, who reportedly told him during a visit to the US in October that he hoped Mr. Renzi would « hang around for a while, no matter what. »
At stake was a controversial, national referendum proposing significant streamlining of the nation’s complex system of governance, which would reduce significantly the size and powers of the senate, and of Italy’s regions, shifting them in favor of the central government.
What may have been his single most-fatal proposal was to resign if he lost, somewhat resembling the proposed resignation of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron who had linked his immediate future to a Yes or No regarding the question : leave or remain in the European Union ? When British voters said leave, Mr. Cameron resigned.
So likewise, a tearful Mr. Renzi submitted his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who had the option to either pick a new prime minister with a mandate to form a new government, or call for early elections, being urged by opposition leaders of Italy’s two most-powerful right-wing, populist, euro-skeptical parties : the former film and stage comic Beppe Grillo, leader of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement.
And Matteo Salvini, a strong admirerer of Trump with whom he has met, and who heads the Northern League party who yesterday said, according to Italy’s news agency ANSA, that Sunday was « a day of national freedom » and that he and his party are ready for new elections as soon as possible.
But that option seems to have been ruled out for the time being by Mr. Matterella, a former defense minister, close to the centrist Christian Democrat party and dubbed tonight by France’s Le Monde newspaper as the « gardien de la sabilité .»
That seems to have inspired his possible, immediate decision – no new elections now ; asking Mr . Renzi to not step down for several days and to be prepared for an interim government and the naming of a successor until new elections are called ; the latter an option apparently favored by Renzi and those in his Democratic Party, which currently controls the parliament.
Several leaders have been mentioned to replace Renzi, notably president of the senate, Sicilian Pietro Grosso, and close to Renzi’s party. Cited more repeatedly is Pier Carlo Padoan, a respected economist, currently finance minister and is a former deputy secretary general of the Paris-based OECD. Italian sources said it looked as if we will possibly see emerging a « technocratic » government, with a mandate to reflect and support law, order and particularly stability for the financial markets that fell quickly Monday only to bounce back later.
As we have reported in this space, the Italian economy and noably several important banks are in very weak, vulnerable shape. And that a No vote would as Politico Europe reported, « result in significant political instability, clearing the path to government » for Grillo and Salvini with their parties.
But so far that hasn’t happened. Yet. For as Eurogroup Dutch President Jeroen Dijsselbloem said, according to ANSA, « It doesn’t change the economic situation in Italy, or the banks. The problems that we have today are the same as yesterday and it is necessary to tackle them…a future government will have to address the economic situation. » In a it’s-business-as-usual perspective, Megan E. Greene, chief economist and managing director of Manulife cited by today’s Politico Europe, noted that in her opinion « the biggest threat is long-term. Tackling stagnating economy with high unemployment…any strucural reforms to liberalize produce or labor markets, reform the judiciary or address the embattled pension system (as Mr. Renzi had proposed) will go on the back burner. »
France’s European Commissioner for economic affairs, Pierre Moscovici, formerly Socialist finance minister, also brushed off the widespread talk of a financial crisis in Italy. « We have faith in the Italian authoities, he said. « It’s a solid country we can count on…it’s a domestic Italian political affair with important consequences. » Added Germanys outspoken Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier « I think what Renzi did was right and necessary, but he was not rewarded for this by the voters. »
Meantime in France, in a vaguely similar vein, Prime Minister Manuel Valls today resigned to focus fulltime on his bid for the presidency in a two-round election that begins next April ; following the announcement by the highly-unpopular president, Francois Hollande, that he would not seek re-election.
Yesterday evening, Valls was was replaced by the strict, hands-on widely-admired interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who is a former European Affairs minister, and has led the government crackdown, on Islamic-inspired terrorism.
His task will not be easy as he is not alone in his planned bid, and is risking failure in a planned Socialist primary in January. But he is ranked well ahead of his challengers, according to a poll published Sunday by the weekly newspaper Journal de Dimanche, scoring 45% support for his candidacy among Socialists ; Hollande’s former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg came in second with a 25% score.
Also expected to make a bid for the presidency is Montebourg’s successor at the finance-economy ministry – Emmanuel Macron, a leftist-leaning, harddrving business-friendly centrist, among others.
Whoever is picked as the leftist candidate, he or she will face former prime minister Francois Fillon, a diehard conservative and far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who welcomed the resignations, but not the vote in Austria.
Mr. Valls, hoping to capture support of her backers, among others, said yesterday that under his presidency France would remain a bastion of of progress. « I want an independent France, inflexible in its values…to face the China of Xi Jinping, the Russia of Vladimir Putin, the America of Donald Trump, the Turkey of Erdogan. »
A PS to readers who want to learn more about Europe’s populist parties, I strongly recommend a full-page report in today’s New York Times inernational edition, which presents eight of them and their leaders, on page 6.
Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic who for decades has covered Europe for Business Week and the Internationao Herald Tribune in Paris, Moscow and Washington. He is author of Inside the New Europe.