What Sunday’s Elections Mean for Europe

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Populist parties are on the march across Europe. 2017 could be another game-changing year for politics.

  • Facts


    • Austria’s far-right presidential candidate was defeated in elections Sunday, but a “no” in Italy’s constitutional referendum forced the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
    • The results followed a year of populist victories from Brexit to Donald Trump in the United States.
    • Key elections in Europe are coming up next year in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year could decide the fate of the European Union.
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M5S leader Beppe Grillo campaigns for No in referendum
Five-Star leader Beppe Grillo is among those who will profit from Sunday's referendum result. Source: EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MARCO

The defeat of right-wing populist Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election on Sunday was a badly needed victory for Europe’s establishment political parties, after a bruising year in which Britain voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the White House.

Europe’s establishment parties, however, had little time to celebrate. Just a few hours after former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen was declared the winner in Austria, Italians voted down constitutional reform backed by center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The referendum in Italy has forced the resignation of Mr. Renzi, a staunchly pro-European leader, and has given renewed momentum to the populist, euro-skeptic Five Star movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo.

Europeans from Athens to Stockholm are now trying to read the tea leaves and decipher what Sunday’s mixed results mean for a continent where upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year could decide the fate of the European Union.

Jahresrückblick 2016 – AfD-Bundesvositzende Frauke Petry
Frauke Petry, leader of the German Alternative for Germany party, among the many populists hoping to profit from Italy's referendum result. Source: DPA

The German Alternative

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of many establishment politicians to express “sorrow” on Monday, through her spokesperson, at the result of Italy’s referendum the resignation of Mr. Renzi that followed.

“This certainly is not a positive contribution during one of the most difficult times for Europe,” came also the response from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will become Germany’s president next year.

Their reaction is also largely because Germany’s political class, like so many in Europe, knows that populists are knocking on their own doorsteps too.

While they are still a ways from a strong power base at the federal level in Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has also tried to latch onto the new populist wave. It welcomed the Italian result as a fundamental rejection of the political class. The clear result showed the “rejection of the establishment through ordinary people who are extremely unhappy with their government,” Alice Weidel, a member of the party’s federal leadership team, told the German news agency DPA.

While the anger being tapped into by the AfD is the same as in other European countries, the causes of the party’s rise here are a little different. Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies and a wave of immigration into Europe have been a key source of concern, but fears about inequality have also been directed at the European Central Bank, which has cut interest rates to record lows that have helped southern Europe but hurt ordinary German savers in the process. Ms. Weigel blamed “catastrophic monetary policy” for the erosion of the middle class and said Italy should exit the euro currency.

The AfD already scored some major victories in state parliaments in the past year. The party and its leader, Frauke Petry, are hoping to take the next step – entering the Bundestag – in federal elections next year. They will face a chancellor in Ms. Merkel who is running for a fourth term, and has perhaps her toughest challenge yet.

Europe Greece Bailout
And then there were two. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Source: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Greece’s Isolation Grows

Outside of Italy, the consequences of Mr. Renzi’s botched referendum will reverberate the most in Greece. Mr. Renzi’s resignation will leave Greece’s left-wing prime minister, Alexander Tsipras, even more isolated in Europe.

Mr. Renzi wasn’t publicly allied with Mr. Tsipras, who is an enfant terrible to most European leaders. But the Italian prime minister, faced with a debt and banking crisis in his own country, was sympathetic to Greece’s calls for debt relief and a relaxation of austerity measures.

Greece has lost two important sympathizers in a week. Mr. Renzi’s downfall comes just days after France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande, announced he wouldn’t run for a second term. Mr. Hollande is viewed in Greece as a counterweight to Germany’s insistence on austerity.

There’s also concern in Europe that Mr. Renzi’s resignation will lead to an extended period of political uncertainty in Italy during which the country is unable to address its banking crisis. Should the euro-zone crisis erupt again as a consequence, debt-stricken Greece would be hit the hardest.

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader, visits the Horse show in Villepinte, near Paris
Marine Le Pen, the next likeliest populist winner?

French Far-Right Anxious

France’s right-wing populists, on the other hand, are celebrating Mr. Renzi’s loss. Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front, said the Italian prime minister’s defeat was a “sign of hope” and a “signal for France” as presidential elections approach in the spring.

A constitutional referendum in Italy, however, has few parallels with a presidential election in neighboring France. The outcome of the Austrian presidential election is more relevant to Ms. Le Pen and the National Front’s future.

The defeat of the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer by former Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen in Austria has taken the wind out of the sails of Ms. Le Pen’s National Front, which was riding high after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.

Had he won, Mr. Hofer would have been the first far-right figure to serve as a western European head of state since the Second World War, a political coup that would have given even more momentum to Ms. Le Pen and Europe’s other populists.

Instead, his defeat portends difficulties for Ms. Le Pen in France’s presidential election, where she is projected to face the conservative politician Francois Fillon in a runoff vote.

Britain has already had its change of government. Source: DPA

Britain Contemplates ‘Italexit’

Mr. Hofer’s defeat in Austria made front page news in the country that kicked off the populist wave this year with its vote to leave the European Union.

“Austria says Nein to far-right,” Britain’s daily Metro declared, while the Guardian predicted a “turn of the tide” after Mr. Hofer’s loss.

The Daily Mail led with the Italian referendum and Mr. Renzi’s resignation, speculating about whether Italy might follow Britain’s example and seek to leave the European Union in an “Italexit.”

The Guardian also drew parallels with the Brexit vote, saying the United Kingdom learned the hard way that holding a referendum in difficult times often creates more problems than its solves.

Podemos party leader Iglesias attends a protest by Coca-Cola fabric workers in front of the PP’s headquarters in Madrid
Spain's Podemos and party leader Pablo Iglesias hope to profit from the populist wave. Source: Reuters

Spanish Right, Left Praise Austria Result

Political leaders in Spain largely avoided commenting on the Italian referendum on Monday. Madrid, which received a bank bailout in 2012, faces many of the same problems as Italy.

Instead, center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the leader of the left-wing populist Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, both hailed the result of Austria’s presidential election.

“Congratulations to van der Bellen for his election victory and the Austrian people for chooising moderation and a united Europe,” Mr. Rajoy said on Twitter.

Though he may be a popolist, Mr. Iglesias comes from the other end of the spectrum. The Podemos leader said the rise of the far-right remains a concern in Europe.

“The result in Austria is good news, even if the power of the ultra-right continues to be cause for concern,” he said on Twitter. “Europe should take a pause and reflect.”

Spain is one of the few major European countries that hasn’t been swept by right-wing populism, perhaps due to the country’s recent experience with fascism under Francisco Franco.

Italian PM Renzi smiles as he meets Russian President Putin at the Expo 2015 global fair in Milan
Vladimir Putin may have an interest in sowing discord in Europe. Source: Reuters

Russia’s Notable Silence

President Vladimir Putin hasn’t commented on the results in Italy and Austria. Sometimes, however, silence is louder than words. Mr. Putin, who has been accused of supporting far-right groups in Europe, didn’t congratulate Mr. van der Bellen on his victory.

In Russia, public reaction to such events often comes lower down the political totem pole. Alexei Pushkov, a senator and foreign policy expert, predicted that Italy might choose to leave the European Union after the failed referendum, or at least drop out of the euro zone.

The head of Russia’s senate foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said the referendum Italy signals a political crisis not just in Rome, but in the entire European Union. An “ultral liberal project” has failed again, Mr. Kosachev said.

“The time in which voters could only choose between liberal parties with small differences is over,” he said. “A new period of political turbulence is beginning and the Italian referendum is only the first act of this possible drama.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Johnson and his Finnish counterpart Soini attend a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels
In Finland, the nationalists are already in power. Timo Soini, leader of the Finns Party, is the country's foreign minister. Mr. Soini and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (right) have plenty to discuss. Source: Reuters

Scandinavia Breathes Sigh of Relief

The Austrian presidential election was followed closely in Scandinavia, where far-right parties in Denmark, Finland and Sweden have had parliamentary representation for years.

There was concern that victory by Mr. Hofer would re-energize the far-right parties, which have grappled with declining support recently. The Finns Party, for example, have seen their support drop by half since they entered a coalition government and started making compromises.

Mr. Hofer’s defeat was welcomed with a sigh of relief in Sweden and praise for the center-left victor, Mr. van der Bellen.

“I congratulate van der Bellen,” Sweden’s center-left foreign minister, Margo Wallström, said on Twitter. “His campaign was built upon European values and that’s something we need very much in these times.”

Swiss People’s Party faction chief Amstutz speaks during the lower house parliament session in Bern
The Swiss People's Party is perhaps the populist party with the longest tradition of governing in Europe. Source: Reuters

Nothing New Here

Few European countries have become as accustomed to dealing with populist movements as Switzerland, the neutral and mountainous country that borders both Austria and Italy.

Switzerland has long had a strong nationalist streak. The People’s Party, the SVP, has been the largest faction in parliament since 1999, though citizens here rarely speak of them as a populist party.

It’s hard not to see them in the same vein as other such movements in Europe, however. The party has led legislative initiatives including a ban on new minarets in 2009, tightening asylum laws and limiting immigration into the country.

Perhaps given that background, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper on Monday remarked that Austria’s election would provide little more than a breather for Europe.


Gerd Höhler in Greece, Thomas Hanke in Paris, Sandra Louven in Spain, Kerstin Leitel in London, Andre Ballin in Moscow, Helmut Steuer in Copenhagen and Ozan Demircan in Zurich, Spencer Kimball in the United States and Christopher Cermak in Berlin contributed to this piece. To contact the authors: cermak@handelsblatt.com

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