Never a dull moment. After the shocking elections of 2016, which gave us Brexit and Donald Trump, 2017 didn’t deliver on the dramatic expectations hyped by the media, but still showed that European politics has not returned to normal yet, whatever that might mean in the 21st century. Populists of the radical right set new electoral records in the Czech Republic, France and Germany and achieved close to record scores in Austria and the Netherlands.
At the same time, insider-outsiders like Sebastian Kurz and, in particular, Emmanuel Macron wreaked havoc at the established parties, with especially center-left parties being hard hit. The once dominant social democratic parties of France and the Netherlands are mere shells of their glorious past, while they are licking their wounds in Austria and Germany. Center-right parties mainly try to keep up by adopting nativism lite, which Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte successfully sold as “good populism.”
So, what does 2018 have in store for Europe? At this moment, all eyes are on Italy, which will hold legislative elections on March 4. There will be no lack of drama, as we have come to expect from the Italians. The elections will be held under a new electoral system, which is untested, and polls consistently show that no party (block) will be able to gain a parliamentary majority. With the issue of immigration dominating the political debate, radical right parties like the Brothers of Italy (FdI) and the (formerly Northern) League (LN) are expected to do well, but they remain dependent upon Forza Italia of four-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Together with the small center-right Us With Italy (Nci), the right-wing block is polling some one-third of the vote.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Matteo Renzi is trying to get back into power after squandering his premiership in a 2016 referendum, but the center-left block around his Democratic Party (PD), which is still in government, is polling around only one-quarter of the vote. Even if they could come to some type of coalition agreement with the left-wing Free and Equal (LeU) party, they would remain well under the roughly 40 percent needed for a parliamentary majority.
This also applies to the biggest party in the polls, the idiosyncratic populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which polls close to 30 percent of the vote. Led by the eccentric Beppe Grillo, a former political comedian who created the most popular political website in Italy, M5S rejects collaboration with everyone, but has started to take up governing in local governments, including in the capital Rome, with so far fairly dramatic consequences. While the party still defies easy categorizations, it has consistently become more right-wing in terms of immigration and integration.
Barring a miracle, neither of the three ‘camps’ will get a parliamentary majority, which will make coalition building across blocks necessary. While some speculate about a possible, secret deal between the right-wing block (probably minus Nc) and M5S, a coalition of Forza Italia and PD, without Berlusconi, Renzi, or most of the smaller block parties, seems more likely. Whatever the outcome, Italy will remain economically and politically unstable. However, given that this has been the case for decades, it is doubtful it will significantly shake the European Union. While some parties have floated the idea of a referendum on membership of the Eurozone, Berlusconi and others have backtracked, which hinders the chances of such a move.
The real challenge to the EU, in terms of values rather than institutions, comes not from Italy but from Hungary. On April 6, Hungarians will go to the polls in what will certainly not be a fair election. After almost eight years in power, the ruling party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, has transformed itself and the country. Orbán has converted Hungary into, in his own words, an “illiberal state” in which courts and media have been neutralized by cronies and opposition parties have been marginalized by internal strife and state harassment. Moreover, in response to the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, Orbán has become the most vocal populist radical right voice in Europe, openly challenging German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s policies and position within the EU.
All polls show a divided and weak opposition and a strong and triumphant Fidesz. Among decided voters, more than half support Orbán’s party. The second-biggest party is the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), which used to be an openly anti-Semitic and racist populist radical right party, but which has moderated in light of Fidesz’s move into their political space. At this moment, Fidesz campaigns as the populist radical right party, targeting Muslim immigrants and the (Jewish) Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, while Jobbik has a mostly mainstream right-wing campaign targeting the rampant corruption in the Fidesz government.
There is virtually no chance that Orbán will not continue as prime minister, possibly again with a constitutional majority. This will by and large put an end to liberal democracy in Hungary, which has already become at best a thin shell. So far, Orbán has not faced major pressure from the EU, as he is protected by the most powerful political group in Brussels, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and has overall voted loyally with them. But the “Budapest Model” has spread to other countries in the region, from Croatia to Macedonia to Poland, and the latter in particular is causing headaches in Brussels . But while the EU has responded fairly forcefully to illiberal provocations in Poland, Budapest has vowed to protect its brethren in Warsaw, leaving the EU relatively powerless.
Europe’s political leaders have been divided over the illiberal turn in some Central and East European countries. While Kurz and Rutte are either neutral or slightly sympathetic, Macron has been critical and vocal. As always, the keys are in the hands of the Germans, whose economic and political power could break Orbán. But the new German Grand Coalition, if it is to be approved by the SPD members, holds both opponents (SPD) and supporters (CSU) of Orbán, while Merkel, despite her ideological and personal dislike of Orbán, seems not overly concerned with him.
Whatever they decide to do, or not do, it will define the EU for years to come. The European project has its roots in the nationalism that caused the Second World War. While Orbán’s Hungary is world’s apart from Hitler’s Germany, it is still the kind of regime that the EU was founded to stop. If it continues to enable – and subsidize – such an illiberal state as Hungary, it no longer is the “Community of Values” it was meant to be. The increasingly ineffective liberal democratic rhetoric inside and outside of the EU will ring hollow.
Cas Mudde is an Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and a Researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He is author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction and The Far Right in America and tweets at @casmudde.