On the march. (Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images)

December 11, 2023   5 mins

Over the last decade it has become an inevitable cycle: every election that shocks the interests and expectations of the EU’s technocrats is met with predictions of the bloc’s inevitable break-up. I’ve been guilty of this myself — even though, in every case, the EU has survived or at least lingered.

Despite this trend, the shock victory of Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch general election last month feels different. More than anything, it suggests a malaise more profound than the normal run-of-the-mill economic shocks that have previously imperilled the existence of the EU and, more specifically, the European Monetary System.

The traditional source of instability within the eurozone has been economic: the austerity policies imposed by the European Commission on the so-called periphery countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain. While these measures have usually contributed to a degree of political backlash (frequently accompanied by the threat of leaving the currency), the European Commission and the bloc’s core members have generally concocted technical solutions that kick the fundamental problem down the road. Their instinct is always to mitigate and salve rather than resolve the prevailing political anger. Occasionally, the populist parties elected on the back of this discontent are even co-opted by Brussels and become willing handmaidens of neoliberal policy. Italy’s new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, is a striking example of this process in action.

But as the latest round of elections throughout Europe have illustrated, this frustration has now taken root at the very heart of Europe: places such as the Netherlands, France and even Germany, long considered core eurozone countries. In France last year, President Emmanuel Macron was re-elected in France, but the election also marked the best-ever result for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and Macron’s party then lost its majority in parliament. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats are currently polling in third place in Germany behind the Right-populist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which has increased its share of the national vote to 21% in the latest polls.

Exacerbating Germany’s political fragmentation is Sahra Wagenknecht, who previously served as a member of the German Bundestag for the hard-Left Die Linke. She has since announced both her departure from the party, and officially formed a new populist party of the Left, Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. Early polls give the party an average of 14% support nationally, likely drawn from the same pool of voters currently attracted by the AfD. But what is most noteworthy from a polling standpoint today is this new Left-Right rebellion could potentially secure more than one-third of the total votes. As Brave New Europe’s editor Mathew Rose has noted, add to those numbers the 25% of German voters who do not even bother to cast their ballots in most elections, and it suggests that the combined vote of the establishment parties in Germany comprises less than half the country’s total population.

Then there is last month’s result in the Netherlands. The PVV has been led by 60-year-old Geert Wilders, a Right-wing firebrand long known for his aggressive anti-Islam, anti-immigration, and anti-EU rhetoric. After last month’s election, Wilders now leads the biggest political party in the Netherlands, winning 37 of the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house (and almost a quarter of the popular vote). While some commentators have suggested that it will be hard for Wilders to form a governing coalition, the leader of his centre-right rival, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, has already indicated some willingness to “tolerate” if not support a PVV-led minority government in parliament. And the cordon sanitaire around Wilders may not last forever: Sweden, whose mainstream parties had previously collaborated to exclude outsiders from government, is now governed by a coalition that includes the far-Right Sweden Democrats.

The difference between this populist revolt and those of the 2010s is that it is not a primal reaction to economic dissatisfaction; it is a symptom of a broader realignment in European conservatism. Europe’s populist leaders are not only challenging the political mainstream (and their corresponding ideology). More like Donald Trump’s effect on the Republican Party, these figures are moving to transform a conservatism defined by traditionalist instincts into an anti-establishment, nativist and, in many instances, profoundly xenophobic and racist movement.

The perception that the continent is facilitating uncontrolled immigration is the major driver behind this trend. In 2022, there were just fewer than 1 million applications for asylum in the EU, 52% more than in 2021 and the highest level since 2016. Further contributing to the problem is the fallout from the Ukraine conflict, a conflict which Washington has apparently decided to leave Europe to finance, as well as the reconstruction of an increasingly dysfunctional, enervated nation from which millions have already emigrated to other parts of Europe. The arrival of large numbers of refugees and irregular migrants has placed the EU asylum system under great stress, particularly as member-states have failed to agree on a balanced method of sharing responsibility for the asylum-seekers.

Additionally, the unequal burden of the costs of climate mitigation policies has also played a major role in fomenting discontent across the EU. This started with France’s gilets jaunes protests, and has more recently manifested itself in the Netherlands where the incumbent government appeared to scapegoat Dutch farmers for the big increase in nitrogen emissions, which in turn led Rutte coalition to propose significant cutbacks in agricultural production to meet climate change obligations. This, despite the fact that government policies for decades had encouraged farmers to intensify production, no matter the environmental costs.

Ultimately, these are structural social problems, and they are not easily rectified via mere technical economic adjustments to the currency union, or softening the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the European parties of the Left have become the avatars of economic austerity and are increasingly viewed as aloof from the problems faced by ordinary citizens. European voters have been offered nothing but “There is no alternative” politics from both the mainstream Left and mainstream Right over the past several elections. And no matter which party citizens in Europe vote for, policies remain unaffected, which is increasingly encouraging a shift toward more radical populist political groupings.

Rather like the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (and the growing possibility of his return to the White House in 2025), the political tremors experienced today in Europe are decades in the making, a systematic failure to address rising public anger about the nature of civic society across Europe. The populist Right has so far been the greatest beneficiary: its leaders have strategically positioned themselves as political outsiders and as critics of the “ruling elite”, enabling them to easily tap into the gulf of popular anger that has been directed at the EU and the national governments viewed as its intermediaries.

Consequently, the material fact and the idea of Europe is fragmenting, and the EU is facing a situation not unlike that of post-communist Yugoslavia. In that case, once the organising genius of Tito’s government disappeared, the delicate bonds between the country’s states together became frayed and eventually dissolved, often violently. Similar types of fractures are now emerging throughout the European Union — which has no such charismatic figurehead to speak of — and even within its richer countries, which long felt as if they were being unfairly burdened by the so-called Mediterranean “profligates”. The threat to the Union is very real, and compounded by the temptation its leaders might have to push once more for “ever closer union”, further alienating the voters who they have failed to interpret or understand. For once, predictions of the European Union’s demise do not seem to be overwrought.

Marshall Auerback is a market commentator and a research associate for the Levy Institute at Bard College.