by Zheng Jianghua:
BRUSSELS Belgium (Xinhua) -- The
traditional political establishment in Europe is challenged as
never before as the year 2018 draws to an end.
London, the mess of Brexit deadlocked the Parliament, cast
shadows over the political future of Prime Minister Theresa May,
and left almost everything hanging in uncertainties.
Across the English channel, French President Emmanuel Macron
is now seen as out-of-touch and roiled by the anger of the
"yellow vest" protesters for weeks.
In Berlin, Europe’s moral compass Angela Merkel resigned as
the ruling party chief and has been rendered a lame-duck
In each of the leading countries, discontent has been
brewing, with rifts in society on migration and livelihoods
Across the Atlantic, the leader of Europe’s traditional ally
has gotten in the face of every one of them—publicly undermining
May, lambasting Merkel and openly tweeting at Macron.
Voters of Italy, another big economy on the continent,
shunned traditional politics and propelled to power
populists—the Five Star Movement and the League—who until
recently engaged in a clash with the rest of the eurozone over
Rome did not back down until deficit sanctions were
threatened by Brussels.
A chilling iceberg of revolt lurks below all the disarrays as
the major capitals in Europe have in one way or another fallen
into uncharted territory.
The programs and the objectives of the "yellow vests" in
France and the Five Star Movement in Italy have many in common,
Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission and
prime minister of Italy, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Il
Both movements chose objectives that are easily shared by a
majority of citizens and that garner popular consensus because
of injustices and errors that have accumulated over time.
These mistakes, Prodi wrote, along with unprecedented
technological development, have sparked the serious difficulties
facing the European leaders.
The Paris versus periphery is the mirror of a widening gap
between the haves and the have-nots.
The entrenched unemployment and the ever-higher taxes in face
of stagnation, on top of regressing benefits and the discomfort
brought by inpouring immigrants, were all awaiting ignition by a
The anger did not just ransack the Champs-Elysees.
Long before that, the populists have changed the political
landscape of Europe in what experts said would impact politics
The impact has already been felt this year.
In Rome, populists in their first year of government went
into a two-month budget standoff with the European Commission.
The row was settled only last week after commissioners said
the Italian government’s most recent set of cutbacks was enough
for the country to avoid economic sanctions.
Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies
at the China Institute of International Studies, said it is in
this Italian government’s populism nature to cater to the voters
on spending and make them feel fulfilled.
Riding on anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment, the far-right
and Eurosceptic party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) became
the third largest party in the Bundestag, the German parliament,
"Eurosceptism is no longer just about institutions in
Brussels, or sovereignty or fiscal union ...
"How people think about the EU is increasingly being wrapped
up with how they think about migration, the refugee crisis and
border security," said Professor Matthew Goodwin of the
University of Kent in a recent Chatham House talk on national
But populist political forces rose beyond particular
issue-driven agendas and now reach a more general repudiation of
politics-as-usual in Europe.
Christina Tillmann, director of Future of Democracy, a
program of the German think tank Bertelsmann Foundation, said
AfD sympathizers were, unlike in the case of populism in the
United States, not the "blue-collar whites," "less educated" or
"people of low incomes," with about 40 percent of them above the
average income and 30 percent belonging to the middle class.
Some of them opted to support AfD not because of its
political opinions but rather to punish the mainstream parties’
"mediocrity," Tillmann said.
"It was rather about people having more control, about
wanting to know outcomes, to feel like they actually have a
state that is in control and can manage the situation," she
The populists are unapologetically optimistic about their
chances in the European Parliament elections next year, with a
high-ranking AfD member forecasting "a landslide for the new
conservative, Eurosceptic parties."
The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), a populist
Eurosceptic political group to which AfD belongs, holds 43 seats
in the currently 751-seat European Parliament.
The EFDD, which includes Italy’s Five Star Movement, will
emerge much stronger, said Petr Bystron, a senior AfD lawmaker
with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag.
Experts have sounded the alarm for such a scenario.
Petri Koikkalainen, an associate professor of political
science at the University of Lapland in Finland, said a further
rise of populist parties in the EU elections may deadlock
"The EU could end up in a situation that resembles current
U.S. domestic politics.
A remarkable increase in the seats for populist,
nationalistic parties in the May 2019 election could bring bloc
politics that would make wide-based cooperation difficult," he
"European idealism and positive steps have been largely
attributed to the cooperation of Christian democratic and social
democratic parties," Koikkalainen said.
The Eurosceptics are currently split into three factions in
the European Parliament: the EFDD, the Europe of Nations and
Freedom (ENF) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).
"We hope to combine as many of these parties as possible into
a strong, conservative, Eurosceptic group that will be able to
exert real power in Brussels," Bystron said.
Koikkalainen, who does not believe that the populist parties
could create enough cohesion among them, said that beyond their
joint opposition to immigration, there are wide differences
among the populist groupings.
"Populists, whether right- or left-leaning, are likely to try
to affect EU decision-making internally, toward giving more
space to member states," he said.