Can the EU survive nationalist sentiment?

Anyone foolish enough to foretell the break-up of the European Union five years or so ago would have been viewed as a crank on the fringe. Not so today when everything we thought we knew is being challenged, a world on the cusp of great change of the kind no pollster or expert is qualified to predict because the past is no longer a predictor of the future.

Forget the idea of shadowy “deep states” manipulating events, such as Britain’s exit from the EU and Trump’s mind-blowing presidential win! Social media has been empowering. It permits people to coalesce behind ideas or causes, allows their voices to be heard as never before and has stripped the mainstream media of its monopoly on shaping thought.

People who always believed their aspirations were forgotten have risen en masse to take on the establishment and they are gaining ground in the UK and the US to the consternation of elites. The question is whether or not Europeans have been bitten by the same revolutionary bug. France’s presidential election, the first round scheduled for April 23, is the first and most important test.

Dyed-in-the-wool racist

The latest polls suggest Emmanuel Macron, a centrist candidate running as an independent is slightly ahead of his main rival, leader of the National Front Party Marine Le Pen. She is the daughter of the party’s founder, a dyed-in-the-wool racist. She may have turned her back on Papa and softened her party’s message, but its isolationist core ideals remain.

However, given that some French voters are hesitant to admit their newly-found penchant for the far-right, poll results are likely to be skewed. Le Pen promises to liberate France from the tyrannies of globalisation, Islamist extremism and the European Union; seemingly forgotten is her earlier pledge to renegotiate France’s membership.

Her rhetoric, at times down to earth, at others grandiose, stirs emotions. “The French have been dispossessed of their patriotism . . . The divide is no longer between the left and the right, but between the patriots and the globalists,” she’s quoted as saying. “From the US to Italy and Austria to the UK, the people are waking . . . The tide of history has turned.”

If she is right—and there is a good chance that she is—the backlash could see the EU either emerging as a smaller, poorer, less influential entity or be doomed to die a slow and financially painful death.

We may have an indication of the way that tide has turned within hours of this column’s publication. Tuesday, Dutch voters cast their ballots and the polls put the party of Geert Wilders, a far-right, anti-Islamic, anti-immigration, anti-EU politician, ahead. Wilders has hailed Donald Trump’s travel ban and his slogan ‘Make Netherlands ours again’ speaks volumes.

But despite his popularity, the reins of office are likely to be elusive because Dutch governments are inevitably coalitions. No single party achieves more than 50 per cent of parliamentary seats. Nothing is impossible, but it’s doubtful that any party would wish to tar itself with the Freedom Party’s extremist brush and Wilders isn’t someone who warms to compromise. Nevertheless, if Wilders’ party succeeds in capturing a substantial number of seats, that should serve as a wake-up call for Brussels.

Even more crucial is Germany’s election in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel blotted her copybook in the eyes of many of her supporters by putting out a welcome mat for refugees.

Nipping at her heels is the EU’s former president Martin Schulz, representing the Socialist Party and the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) that’s proudly allied with France’s National Front. Schulz is doing well but it’s too early to guess which way Germany will swing.

With Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May poised to trigger Article 50 and in the unlikely event Le Pen gets to the Elysee Palace, the European Union should loosen its stranglehold over member states and revise its charter to give countries greater leeway to handle their own problems.

In short, the EU needs an urgent makeover to counter this nationalist wave threatening to sweep it away. A leaner, nippier, less intrusive EU, rather than one with its eye on a United States of Europe complete with its own army, could preempt the Union’s ultimate demise.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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