Europe's Populists Aren't the Threat You Think

Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant parties are slipping in polls and may not win any major victories this year.

And if they all lose?

Photographer: ROBERTO PFEIL/AFP/Getty Images

For more than a year, the big scare out of Europe has been that populist movements, often far-right and euroskeptic, would win elections across the continent. But electoral landscapes are shifting fast, and it's time to consider a different scenario -- in which the populists lose everywhere.

It's more than wishful thinking. In the Netherlands, nationalist Geert Wilders' party, PVV, polled to win at least 40 seats in February 2016; it was down to 30 a month ago. Now, polls average out at 25 seats for Wilders, one behind the ruling center-right party, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. This dynamic has to do with a peculiarly Dutch behavior when answering pollsters' questionnaires: Where in some other countries people will hide their intention to vote for a far-right party, the blunt Dutch will sometimes exaggerate their protest intentions just to send a signal. Come election time, they want to make a rational choice rather than an emotional one. 

It's common knowledge that even if Wilders gets a plurality of votes, he won't take part in governing because other parties don't trust him after a failed attempt at cooperation in 2011. But if his PVV comes second, after all the hand-wringing it has caused among centrists internationally, it will be a symbolic defeat as well as a practical one.

In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front polled 30 percent and more at the time of Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. Now she's down to 26 percent, a few percentage points ahead of center-left upstart Emmanuel Macron. In the second round of voting, Le Pen stands to lose to any mainstream candidate by a landslide. She is likely to do better than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did in the runoff in 2002 -- but her performance won't do much for the French far right, always a powerful strain in the country's political life but never the governing force, unless one counts the Vichy regime.

In Germany, the anti-immigrant, anti-euro AfD polled 15 percent in September 2016. It's down to 10 percent to 11 percent now, which technically still makes it the country's third-biggest party, but that means little when the top two poll above 30 percent each. Barring some unexpected event, it will get into parliament on Sept. 24, but it will be a marginal force, shunned by everyone else. In Italy, the euroskeptic M5S (Five Star Movement) polled at 30 percent and above in the middle of last year. It's down to about 27 points, which still puts it in a head-to-head race for leadership with the ruling Democratic Party, but then there is still time; an early election appears less likely than it did when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned in December 2016 following a referendum defeat.

There's always a chance, of course, that the polls are all wrong. That's the default option after the Brexit referendum and Trump's victory. But even if one ignores the pollsters' track records -- better in much of continental Europe than in the U.K. or the U.S. -- the Brexit and U.S. presidential races were extremely tight, and the pollsters' mistakes, catastrophic as they may seem, fell within the margin of error. If that's how the elections play out in Germany, France and the Netherlands, the far right will be put firmly in its place. With support from a tenth to a quarter of the population, these forces will be kept from governing by the eminently reasonable European multiparty model, which avoids putting stark binary choices before confused voters.

That may be just what these forces want. Taking part in government is usually not their strong suit, as Timo Soini, leader of Finland's nationalist, anti-EU party has discovered. Soini, who is also Finland's foreign minister and whose party has plummeted in the polls, has announced his intention to step down in June.

Protest voters want to see rapid change because populists promise it to them. But the dynamics of coalition governments -- and often common sense, too -- make that impossible, and the populists lose support. That already happened to Wilders after a previous electoral success in 2010, when his party spent most of its time bombarding the government with questions about immigration, drafted almost no legislation and sank the governing coalition with which it had pledged to cooperate.

Still, these parties perform a useful function in giving voice to real concerns within societies. Wilders' persistent fight against Muslim immigration has shifted the centrist discourse to the right and resulted in stricter immigration policies over the last decade, even though the PVV may not have taken part in drafting them. Le Pen's pull has forced Francois Fillon, the unlucky center-right candidate in the current election, to act tough on immigration, and it will probably play an important role in the legislative election, which will take place in June. There's no ignoring the demand for better-protected borders and more limited immigration -- but it's a demand that can be satisfied without wild experiments like the election of Trump as U.S. president.

Continental European polities are stronger, more stable and more inclusive than many U.S. and U.K. commentators would have their audiences believe. Since the end of World War II, these countries have done a decent job of ensuring representation to all kinds of extreme forces -- from Communists to far-right parties -- without catastrophic consequences. So far, only post-Communist nations have failed to keep the balance -- but that may not be a harbinger of things to come but rather a sign that these countries may have joined the EU a little earlier than they were ready for what the membership implied. If one has to look for harbingers, the December election in Austria, which a Green politician won comfortably over the far-right one despite months of preceding commotion, may work best this year.

If that's how things pan out, it may signal the start of a new era in which continental Europe, not the U.S., will be the global center of reasonable democratic governance and the biggest source of the kind of soft power that comes with it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.