For about five years, those longing for a centrist restoration have been declaring that the madness is on its way out and the sensibles are back. Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen: all of them were just temporary horrors. In Poland’s recent election, Donald Tusk was returned to power, with his whole entourage of Europhiles and progressive foundations. Europe can breathe once more. Or so the argument goes. But it’s becoming harder to make the case.
Look around and we see Trump not only the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination but also on short odds for the presidency itself. Polls for the European parliament elections in June show Le Pen comfortably ahead in France. Giorgia Meloni is consolidating power in Italy. Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) recently won the most seats in the Netherlands, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) leads the polls for this year’s German state elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. Meanwhile, populists are helping to govern Finland and Sweden.
Anyone seeking to understand the coming shift in Europe should examine an incident that took place at a bal populaire in the French countryside, three nights before Wilders’s surprise victory. Four of five carloads of young men, all of them apparently from a crime-ridden housing estate in the old shoe-making city of Romans-sur-Isère, burst into a village dance hall eleven miles away. They reportedly shouted anti-French insults and stabbed several party-goers; one, a sixteen-year-old rugby player, died on the way to hospital. The following weekend, dozens of French youths marched through the housing project shouting: “Islam out of Europe.”
When there are crises in migration, voters take it out on the EU
This is not exactly an immigration problem. The killers, though of immigrant descent, were French citizens. But public opinion took it for an immigration problem. Pressure mounted on President Emmanuel Macron to harden an immigration law passed in December that he had hoped to use to shore up his party’s prospects before June. He wound up needing the votes of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally to gain a majority for it — an unprecedented collaboration.
When there are crises in migration, voters take it out on the EU. The wave of refugees walking overland from the Syrian war zone in 2015 brought Brexit a year later, and an Italian government led briefly by a coalition of two Euroskeptic parties (the Five Star Movement and the League) two years after that. This year an immigration problem of continent-wide dimensions faces Europe once again, and it comes accompanied by other crises that intensify worries over immigration — in particular the wars in Gaza (disturbing to Europeans for its brutality) and Ukraine (disturbing to Europeans because their side appears to be losing it).
The anxiety over immigration has revived the long-sagging fortunes of Wilders. Having called the Quran a “fascist book” and a “terror manual” for decades, Wilders is what the hip-hop world might call an OG (“original gangster”) among populists. He has been under police protection more or less constantly since the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was eviscerated by an Amsterdam Islamist on the day of the US presidential election in 2004. Ten years later, Wilders roused a crowd by asking whether they wanted more or less of the EU and more or less Moroccan immigration. “Less! Less! Less!” they chanted.
But there is another element to Wilders’s appeal. As a young man, he spent time on a kibbutz in Israel and was smitten with the place. He speaks about the Jewish state in ways that would make most of its citizens sound lukewarm. There was a lot of tortured analysis by pundits about the PVV’s “paradoxical” Zionism: was Wilders trying to compensate for his unsavory right-wing politics by saying something tolerant about Jews?
There has never been anything paradoxical about his support for Israel: Wilders thinks it is OK for Jews to claim a state for their culture and religion and to defend it against outsiders because that’s his idea of what a state is. He thinks it is OK for Dutch Christians and atheists, too. His longtime top aid Martin Bosma (now chairman of the Dutch lower house) feels the same. As the world polarized around Hamas’s October 7 raid on the one hand and Israeli’s reprisals on the other, Wilders’s support for Israel became a proxy for a world view that was widespread (and popular) among Dutch voters.
Wilders is skeptical about climate change policy. He has proposed pulling the Netherlands out of the Paris climate accords. This view, too, proved a big draw. Last year, the Dutch government went into senate elections having put forward an anti-nitrogen pollution plan that called for the elimination of half the country’s livestock — and thus of half the country’s 27,000 livestock farms and farmers. The fledgling Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) — led by a chain-smoking, half-Irish ex-journalist named Caroline van der Plas — blocked highways with their tractors. They became folk heroes of a sort and the top party in the senate.
This does not mean that European voters are as skeptical of climate change as Americans are. But they are every bit as skeptical about the costs associated with climate change abatement. The way these costs get fobbed off on automobile-dependent rustics rather than on urban bike-lane agitators is bringing victories for populists in one country after another. Marine Le Pen now comes in tops when voters are asked whom they would like to be the next president of France. She is partly benefiting from her position on immigration, but she is also harvesting the discontent over energy taxes that five years ago made the gilets jaunes movement a threat to Macron’s power.
Even in Germany, environmentalism goes down poorly. Last summer the ruling coalition passed a law mandating heat pumps and banning certain repairs, putting German homeowners on the hook for thousands of euros should their boilers fail. In mid-November, the country’s constitutional court ruled that the government could not use COVID emergency rules to hide off-budget $65 billion that it was spending mostly on green subsidies. The result has been a series of steep cuts and tax hikes. None of the three parties in the ruling coalition has poll numbers as high as the AfD’s.
What about Poland, the scene of the centrist restoration? Last October, voters ousted the Catholic corporatists of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party, handing back power to Tusk’s Civic Platform. It was the migrant crisis of 2015 that originally brought Law and Justice to power. Back then, voters punished Tusk’s party for accepting a Brussels plan to distribute into Poland many of the Middle Eastern migrants Angela Merkel had invited. Once they came to power, Law and Justice rigged the justice system to favor sympathetic judges. Civic Platform lobbied Brussels and Washington to force Poland to restore the rule of law. Last fall, the story goes, the Polish people triumphed over populism.
That story doesn’t really hold up. For one thing, the Civic Platform’s strongest issue was immigration, of all things. Tusk’s people turned the tables. They latched on to a Law and Justice scandal involving the sale of work visas to non-Europeans, and turned it into a series of Clash of Civilizations television ads that would have brought a blush to the face of an old segregationist senator from the American South.
Brussels then used its influence to give Civic Platform an advantage in the campaign. Next Generation EU — the trillion-euro emergency fund passed at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 to bind the bloc’s countries more tightly to Brussels — became a powerful partisan tool.
Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary) had smelled a rat from the outset. Before backing NGEU, which required a unanimous vote in the European Council, both received assurances that Brussels would not use the money for ideological leverage. But it then did just that, sequestering $65 billion of Poland’s money until the Kaczynski majority restored the “rule of law” in accordance with Tusk’s party’s wishes. So October’s election took the form of a bribe: we have $65 billion of your money that we’ll keep if you vote for Kaczynski and let you have if you vote for Tusk. The money has now started flowing back.
The victory the EU carried off in Poland has been, to say the least, Pyrrhic. The Kaczynski government resisted the temptation to veto every measure in the European Council until it saw its money restored. It could have played games with EU military aid to Ukraine, but did not, so earnestly did it take the Russian threat. Orbán’s Hungary felt no such qualms, and did better. In mid-December, Orbán told Brussels that, until the restitution of tens of billions that were being withheld from Hungary, Ukraine could wait.
France and Germany saw this coming. Last September their working group on EU reform issued a plan to eliminate such vetoes, ensuring that no Eurosceptic country could gum up the Brussels works this way again. This was the philosophy of Michel Barnier, the French diplomat sent by the EU at the end of the last decade to ensure Britain’s departure be made as painful as possible. “The EU today is no longer the EU that the UK left,” he told the FT hopefully in mid-November. “We have begun to draw the lessons of Brexit.”
For Brussels, the lesson of Brexit has not been that citizens need more self-determination. It has been that Brussels needs more instruments for bringing citizens to heel. The EU faces a reckoning in June because the citizens have noticed.