The notion that 2016 was a uniquely terrible year is now well established. The failure of pollsters to identify the populist tsunami on the horizon meant that when the waves hit, in the form of Brexit and Trump, astonishment and panic spread among those who had assumed neither outcome was possible.
It has become commonplace to draw a parallel between the early 1930s and the current political climate; the impact of economic crisis, the rise of nationalism, political disillusion and the escape from international entanglements. A depressing comparison to make, given that war and genocide followed soon after.
History oft repeats itself; this we know. But the likelihood of armed inter-state conflict as in the 30s seems remote. We will undoubtedly be witness, however, to a prolonged and bruising struggle to achieve reconciliation between the idealism of the young and the attachment to traditional identity of older generations. A balance between liberty and order.
This political conflict we are now living with is a battle over the location of the real majority, jostling between the idealism of the educated and the reality of most people’s lives; a tussle between liberalism and order; an appeal to common people over elites. The silent majority in this battle stand for tradition, for law and order, for the flag, for a robust response to a liberalism from which they felt excluded and against an elite discourse they found irrelevant, alienating and threatening. The silent majority being the throngs of Trump supporters, of Brexiteers and now the anti-EU movement sweeping the continent.
Despite Europe being in dire need of a calm, settled year after the tumult of 2016, it won’t get one. Four of the six founding members of the European project will hold elections this year. Populism is on the march in each one.
In the Netherlands Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, a party which defines itself by antipathy to ‘Islamification’ and a desire to quit the EU, regularly leads in the polls by double-digit margins. Similarly in France, the contest will be Marine Le Pen versus the rest. Like Trump, she will pander to protectionist instincts and campaign on the issues of ‘Islamification’ and immigration. In Italy, both main opposition parties are anti-euro. To have an anti-single currency government come to power in Italy could be an even bigger shock to the EU project than Brexit. With the IMF predicting that it will take Italy until the mid-2020s to return to its pre-crisis peak, however, one can see why voters there may regard a leap into the unknown as preferable to the status quo. With a 57% approval rating, Angela Merkel is well-placed to secure another term as German Chancellor, but Alternative für Deutschland, the most vocal opponents of her handling of the refugee crisis, look poised to win seats in the Bundestag for the first time. A less dramatic prospect, perhaps, but no less haunting given that one of the potential leaders of this party and challenger to Merkel has been dubbed ‘Adolfina’.
All of this noise could, of course, amount to nothing. Voters could shy away from populist leaders when faced with the reality of voting for them, and the ceiling on their support could turn out to be much lower than anticipated. But if Brexit taught us one thing, it is not to underestimate the strength of the populist tide. The ripples of the financial crash are still being felt in European politics. The recovery was marked by a great stagnation in living standards which has led to alienation, dismay and anger. Those unhappy at the situation often have only new, populist parties to turn to, so European elections will come down to a battle between insurgents and defenders of the existing order – as was the case in the US. For Trump, the storms of the campaign will soon seem as nothing compared to what he has inherited; a nation divided as never before.
Even if populist bark proves bigger than bite on polling days across the continent, they will undoubtedly see out 2017 in a stronger position; that much closer to winning someday.
2016 was just the warm-up then, folks. 2017 will be the main event.