This article is part of a series in which we have asked our contributors to imagine that populist movements continue to gain influence in the coming years – what do western democracies look like in 2025?
The year is 2025. The death toll in Syria has exceeded one million. We have come a long way since March 2011, when 15 boys were detained and tortured by Syrian authorities for writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. The hopes of the western policy establishment that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad would return the country to ‘stability’ – flatteringly known as the ‘realist’ position – have proven illusory. Aside from the horrific death toll, nearly 10 million Syrian refugees have fled the country as rebellions against the dictatorship have continued to flare.
It is a grim irony that the impetus for inaction in Syria on the part of the international community was based on the forlorn hope of containing the conflict. Yet a willingness to let Assad remain in power – at an exorbitant human cost – has created a refugee crisis the scale of which European nations have been forced to confront. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, European electorates may not be interested in war, but war is interested in them. The globalisation of refugees is a reality whether or not the isolationists of Left and Right care to acknowledge it.
Welcome to the populist decade
If the European project teeters on the brink of collapse it is due in part to this willingness to acquiesce in Assad’s slaughter. As millions of desperate people have sought refuge outside of Syria’s borders, many hundreds of thousands have ended up in Europe. Sections of the European media have been running a steady stream of articles over the past decade blaming the new arrivals for all of society’s maladies. Indeed, populism’s appeal on European soil stems in large part from its single-mindedness in running against the spectre of the newcomer.
The eurozone has also been dragged down by the increasing unwillingness of some of its member states to adhere to the bloc’s fiscal rules. While the worst fears of many pundits have not been borne out – predictions of the impending collapse of the European bloc have been receiving ample airtime since 2008 – in recent years nearly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.
Ground zero of the latest crisis is not in one country but spans three: Italy, Germany and France. In Italy, the right-wing Lega (led for more than a decade by Matteo Salvini) has ridden to power on the back of frustration with the compromises of its larger coalition partner, the Five-Star Movement (M5S). First elected in 2018 after a meteoric rise, the M5S movement has progressed from ramshackle upstart to another spoke in the wheel of the status quo. Much of this rests on little more than the fact that the M5S – like all governing parties – has been forced to compromise with political and fiscal reality.
For all of its pretence at partnership, the Lega sought to undermine its senior partner at every turn, pushing for a much stronger line on immigration (echoed vociferously by much of the press) while blaming Italy’s economic problems on the vacillations of M5S. Record numbers of refugees arriving on Italian shores – mainly from Syria – have driven an even more virulent wave of anti-immigration sentiment, which the Lega has done little to quell, instead fanning resentment at newcomers and adopting the Putinist line that all opposition to Syrian dictator Assad is Jihadist in nature.
Somewhat paradoxically, the Lega has toned down its anti-European rhetoric just as it finds itself on a collision course with Brussels. Along with several continental parties of the hard-Right, the Lega has never been as anti-European as common parlance suggests. Indeed, in the mid-90s the party sought to join the Euro, a position that would be unthinkable for hard-line Eurosceptic parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
How the populists have united Italy
However, it is the Lega’s approach to the economy that has facilitated the gravest concerns in Brussels. In the past seven years Italy’s budget deficit has ballooned to 8% of the country’s GDP. Much of the deficit was accumulated during the Lega’s period in coalition with M5S, when the two parties sought to mollify two radically different constituencies with an anomalous and at times incongruous set of policies. Tax cuts, the scrapping of pension reforms and the introduction of the universal minimum income scheme have all precipitated the crisis at the Italian treasury.
As a consequence, Italy has broken the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, sending risk premiums on bond markets soaring. As the Lega’s war of words with Brussels has grown increasingly vituperative, financial markets have begun to soberly contemplate Italy dropping out of the Euro altogether. This would arguably facilitate a severe economic crisis in Italy – and so the Italian government has opted instead to flagrantly break the eurozone’s fiscal rules.
Elsewhere, particularly in Germany and France, migration has had the greatest impact on the political weather. Emmanuel Macron narrowly lost the French Presidency to National Front leader Marine Le Pen at the 2022 elections, sending shockwaves reverberating around European capitals. Macron had led in most opinion polls leading up to the vote, though the two candidates switched places after a terrorist attack rocked Paris a fortnight before France went to the polls. Le Pen responded predictably with a fiery speech denouncing ‘non-European barbarians’, charging them with ‘polluting’ Europe, an accusation which seems to have captured the revengeful zeitgeist of a country living in fear of the next attack.
Yet only a fool would claim that the crisis in France has nothing to do with economics. Public sentiment in France has undoubtedly been made more susceptible to anti-refugee rhetoric by a bourgeoning economic crisis, driven in part by instability across the eurozone. As incomes in France have stagnated – and as the country has been gripped by industrial strife stoked by Macron’s attempts to push through pro-market reforms – a sense of chaos has prevailed. The French have sought someone to blame, and someone to follow. Moderation and managerialism have been eclipsed by the familiar search for scapegoats. The trite buzzwords of the centre – ‘forward not back’, ‘progress’, ‘on the move’ – have been replaced by an increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric which brings to mind splashes of petrol sprayed on a bonfire.
Since coming to power three years ago, Le Pen has threatened – albeit sporadically – to withdraw from the European single currency (though few take the threats seriously). Perhaps more ominously, the French President has set in motion plans for a 2026 referendum on France’s membership of the European Union.
Some 65% of the French public now have an unfavourable opinion of the EU, the highest recorded figure since 2016. France’s exit from the EU would precipitate the end of the European project in theory if not in practice. The 26 other members states will still be signed up to a host of European treaties, but the ideal – of a supranational foundation anchored in Germany and France – would lie in tatters.
Why rural France is fertile ground for Le Pen
Germany no longer remains at the epicentre of European moderation either. Angela Merkel finally stepped down as German Chancellor in 2021 after nearly two decades in power. Her successor – both as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and as German Chancellor – is 44-year-old Jens Spahn, the former Federal Minister of Health.
Spahn’s main challenge seems to be to fend off the hard-Right Alternative for Germany (AFD), now the second largest party by vote share. Spahn has achieved a modicum of success in this regard by stealing the AFD’s policies: Spahn has banned the niqab and rejected in toto the pro-refugee policies of his predecessor in the Bundestag.
But it is Spahn’s economic worldview that has potentially greater repercussions for Europe. Beyond his obsession with law and order, Spahn is an uncompromising free-marketeer who has little sympathy for southern Europe’s inability or unwillingness to pay its way. Germany still desires to be the European project’s hegemon, but not at any price. Eurozone GDP is shrinking while Germany powers ahead. And while Germany can prosper without Europe, the inverse is by no means guaranteed.
It is true that Germany remains the euro zone’s largest creditor, meaning it has much to lose if the euro collapses. Yet with Spahn in office, pragmatic attempts to shore-up the Euro at any costs are undermined by the prevailing view in the Reichstag that southern Europeans are feckless and lazy. It is ultimately a battle of ideology versus common sense, and it is ideology that is on the march.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, many pundits have been making apocalyptic pronunciations forecasting the end of the eurozone. Every commentator wishes at some level to be an actor in an epoch-defining era (see the characterisation of former American President Donald Trump as a fascistic return to the 1930s), yet very few are. Institutions rarely walk headlong into disaster. Catastrophe, when it occurs, is usually the result of a steady accumulation of blunders that build up over decades.
As far as the European project is concerned, we have likely progressed beyond the end of the beginning and are approaching the beginning of the end. There will be no big bang, no Sarajevo moment in which Europe collapses cataclysmically into poverty and strife. Instead, Europe as we know it will probably expire quietly in the offices of the continent’s parliaments and chancelleries, as weary bureaucrats rush back and forth clutching reams of glistening white paper. Given the awful historical precedents, it is what happens next that should concern us.