Domino Effect

Populists Jump on Brexit Bandwagon

Marine Le Pen (L), France's National Front political party leader, kisses Netherland's Geert Wilders, president of PVV (Party for Freedom) during the far-right French party's congress in Lyon November 29, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4G2I4
Marine Le Pen, National Front leader, with Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Britain is the first member state to leave the European Union, but it may not be the last.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Geert Wilders of Holland’s Party for Freedom, and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega Nord have all called for E.U. referendums.
    • In Germany, some members of the Alternative for Germany are also calling for a referendum, though the party doesn’t have a unified position.
    • In 2005, the French people voted against a constitution for Europe in a referendum. In 2007, the Lisbon Treaty was ratified by the French parliament.
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    Audio

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Once dismissed as “fruit cakes and loonies” by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Nigel Farage and his U.K. Independence Party have soundly and shockingly defeated the establishment.

Britain has voted to leave the European Union, defying expert predictions, and Mr. Cameron has been forced to resign. Mr. Farage, for his part, has triumphantly declared June 23 as Britain’s “Independence Day.”

The leader of UKIP, who did more than perhaps anyone else to bring about Britain’s historic referendum, isn’t the only anti-establishment politician celebrating these days.

Right-wing populist parties across Europe have lined up to congratulate Britain on its decision to leave the European Union after more than four decades of membership.

Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front, called Britain’s decision to say adieu a “victory for freedom.” In the Netherlands, leading euroskeptic Geert Wilders congratulated “the British people for beating the political elite in London and Brussels.”

Ms. Le Pen, who leads incumbent Francois Hollande in the polls for France’s first-round 2017 presidential election, was quick to draw consequences from Britain’s vote for the rest of Europe.

“I believe Ms. Merkel drove the Brits out of the European Union with her open borders. ”

Alexander Gauland, Co-Founder, Alternative for Germany

“As I’ve demanded for years, we need the same referendum in France and the E.U. countries,” Ms. Le Pen tweeted.

On Saturday, Ms. Le Pen put her demand to Mr. Hollande when she was invited along with other party leaders to his office at the Élysée Palace to discuss the French response to the Brexit vote.

After the talks the National Front leader said that her demand for a referendum had been rejected.

The prospect of a French referendum is certainly no joke to the German government. Berlin is genuinely concerned that France could go the way of Britain, according to Handelsblatt sources.

Skepticism of the European Union is not a fringe phenomenon in France. In a 2005 referendum, 55 percent of French voters rejected a constitution for the Europe Union. The document was later renegotiated as the 2007 Lisbon Treaty and ratified by the French parliament – not the people.

While Britain’s commitment to the European Union was always halfhearted at best, the Franco-German partnership has been the central driving force of European integration since the 1950s. A referendum in France could jeopardize the entire European project.

Ms. Le Pen is not alone in her call for a vote. In the Netherlands, which also rejected the E.U. constitution in a referendum, Mr. Wilders is demanding the same: “Now it is our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum,” he said.

Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy’s euroskeptic Lega Nord, echoed Mr. Wilders.

“Hearts, brains and pride beat lies and threats,” Mr. Salvini said. “Thanks U.K., now it’s our turn.”

As Europe’s conservatives and social democrats recover from the shock of Britain’s historic vote, one thing is already clear – they can longer afford to ignore or dismiss the Continent’s euroskeptics. Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, has already had to respond to Mr. Wilders.

“I don’t think the Dutch are interested in a referendum about it at this time,” Mr. Rutte said. They understand that cooperation between countries in a common market is vital for the country, he said.

Even in Germany – which arguably profited the most from European integration after its defeat in World War II – skepticism is on the rise. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party senses an opportunity and is becoming bolder in its anti-Brussels rhetoric.

“By leaving the E.U., the Brits have left the path of collective madness and chosen democracy and sovereignty of the people,” said Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia. “I know that the majority of the German people want out of E.U. slavery,” he said.

The polls, however, tell a very different story. The day before Britain voted, a survey by the pollster Forsa found that 82 percent of Germans would vote to remain in the European Union, while 14 percent would vote to leave.

27 p5 Large Majority of Germans Against E.U. Exit -01

The AfD was founded primarily by economists and academics who opposed German participation in the E.U. bailouts for Greece. It has since pivoted its focus to immigration, challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy during the refugee crisis.

The AfD won sweeping victories in March regional elections and is now represented in eight of the 16 state parliaments. It is polling at 12 percent nationwide, well above the 5-percent threshold needed to win representation in the Bundestag in Germany’s 2017 federal elections.

Mr. Höcke’s call for an E.U. referendum is not the party’s official position. Alexander Gauland, a co-founder of the AfD, said he doesn’t currently support a German referendum. But Mr. Gauland welcomed Britain’s vote and didn’t miss a chance to take a swipe at Ms. Merkel.

“I believe Ms. Merkel drove the Brits out of the European Union with her open borders,” Mr. Gauland said. “I think that the Brits have chosen direct democracy. I believe it’s good that they’ve done that.”

 

Donata Riedel covers financial policy from Berlin.  To contact the author: riedel@handelsblatt.com

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