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Is Europe’s rising rightwing a wave or a populist halt ?

Published: Updated:

The results of the elections in Holland last week surprised most political analysts who for months had warned against a triumph of a far-right movement in one of the six EU founding members.

News networks around the world had prepared their coverage accordingly, ready to explain how the populist wave in the Western Hemisphere – initiated by the Brexit vote and prolonged by Donald Trump’s victory in Washington – would sweep away the tiny Netherlands before threatening the coasts of France and Germany in their respective elections.

Commentators discussed at will the likelihood of a “Nexit” and the end of the Dutch model of liberalism at the heart of a crumbling regional integration.

Yet, the Dutch proved the doom prophets wrong. The country massively confirmed on Wednesday its commitment to the European Union as 82 percent of the population casted their vote containing the announced surge of Geert Wilders and his far right movement. The charismatic politician whose objective was to turn his “Party for Freedom” into the first political force in the country, suffered a stinging defeat and is now isolated with barely 13 percent of the votes.

The Dutch gave a clear mandate to incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte who now seeks to build a coherent coalition with his traditional allies (the Democrat D66 party and the Christian Democrat CDA). Yet Rutte will also have to open his majority by establishing a unique alliance with the Green Party. The novelty however is indeed the collapse of the Labor party and the emergence of the Groenleft, a pro-European party led by a young 30 years old Congressman Jesse Klaver.

Jesse Klaver, whose father is Moroccan while his mother has Indonesian origins, is one of the spearheads of a generation of new European politicians who boast proudly their multiculturalism and strong intellectual training to oppose the simplistic arguments of populist and xenophobic parties.

Klaver is indeed one of the few who challenged head-on the leader of the Party for Freedom. During the campaign, he said that the Netherlands was "a land of immigration" that should be proud that populism "did not break through".

Often compared to the likes of Justin Trudeau because of their physical resemblance and a common voluntarist optimism, Klaver called on his country to continue to welcome refugees in the name of tolerance and the understanding that people should not to be judged on the basis of their origins but "for their (desire to build a better) future”.

A strong advocate of climate change mitigation and of the deepening of the European Union, Klaver dared to speak about Europe in a country flooded by anti-EU rhetoric from domestic politicians too eager to blame their own failure on the supranational organization. If the EU indeed has to be reformed and improved to address the needs of its weakest citizens, the cowardice of politicians who renounced to explain its contribution to continental peace and economic growth is the first cause of the rise of extremism.

Europeanism and populism

This fundamental debate between Europeanism and populism is likely to take center stage in the upcoming French elections where another new generation politician, 38 years old Emmanuel Macron, is expected to face Marine Le Pen in a heated contest. During the first presidential debate, the two opposite visions were clearly exposed.

Le Pen wants a Frexit while Macron defends the European Union. Often wrongly caricatured as a die-hard liberal, Macron’s European political project is in fact much more ambitious than the other mainstream candidate Francois Fillon.

Far from the sterile isolationism advocated by Le Pen, both Fillon and Macron want France to remain at the heart of the European construction but with obvious distinctions. Fillon still backs an outdated version of an intergovernmental European Union paralyzed by a limited budget.

Macron is a federalist who defends the idea of European New Deal and whose ambition for the EU is supported by the likes of former Green and Democrat presidential candidates Daniel Cohn Bendit and Francois Bayrou.

The Macron candidacy finally offers a credible path to victory for an ambitious European project based on investment rather than austerity, a vision that France failed to carry over the last few decades. The moribund two-party system – characterized by the alternation of corporatist socialist administrations and market-prone right wing leaderships who opposed any European “supranationalism” – has been the very cause of European stagnation and ensuing legitimate frustration among citizens.

But Macron’s European project can only be implemented if it is powered by a strong Franco-German cooperation, a constant condition to advances throughout European integration modern history. Angela Merkel has always been prone to pragmatism and prudence, which makes her a less than ideal partner for Macron.

But for the first time in twelve years, the German Chancellor is trailing in the polls in her bid for a fourth mandate next June. Her opponent, the former European Parliament President Martin Schulz runs on a strong pro-European platform that would provide the EU with the financial and institutional means for its ambitions.

Therefore while political analysts have regularly speculated over the end of the European Union wrecked by a populist storm, the outcome of the Spring elections in Holland, France and Germany might very well be the exact opposite. Already in Austria last December, the Green Party leader and pro-European Alexander Van der Bellen had inflicted a lashing defeat to the local far right.

The following elections are likely to result in the same outcome: far right parties beaten by a new generation of pro-European leaders. If it is indeed the case, Emmanuel Macron, Martin Schulz and the likes of Jesse Klaver will be able to build a stronger more sustainable European Union, able to withstand the dangers of populism and finally answering the needs of its citizens.

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