How many more European elections before Brits and Americans stop projecting Brexit and Trump on to Europe? Ever since British voters stunned the country, the world and – probably – themselves by voting to leave the EU, the British press has all but reduced politics in Europe to the “who’s next?” question. After Donald Trump’s election those parts of the American media still interested in the EU joined the fray: surely if America and Britain can bring populists to power, this must now be a trend that the rest of the west will follow?
But then Europeans started to vote. First Austria chose a Green president over a nationalist one. Then the populist PVV party of Geert Wilders received a paltry 15% of the vote in the Dutch general elections. And now the unapologetically Europhile Emmanuel Macron has come out on top in the first round of the French elections, setting him on course for victory against Marine Le Pen next month. The next European elections are in Germany, where all traditional parties are solidly pro-EU. The new Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland is mired in divisions, infighting and confusion.
In other words, after Germany has gone to the polls in September, four European countries will have voted not to leave the EU. Could this then be a good time for American and British opinion makers to consider the possibility that, at least for now, the centre in Europe is holding? That perhaps Britain and America are not trend setters but rather victims of two perfect political storms?
Which is not to say that the EU is in good shape, of course. Quite the contrary, and the big story across the continent is not so much the explosive rise of populism but the collapse of the traditional mainstream parties that always defined and upheld the post-second world war consensus. Wilders has been hovering around 15% for a decade, while Marine Le Pen went from 17.9% in 2012 to 21.4% – a good result but hardly a landslide. In Germany, AfD polls no higher than 10%. Meanwhile, Dutch voters last month flocked to the pro-EU Green and D66 parties, reducing the once-proud and powerful social-democratic Labour party to fringe-party status. In France neither the centre-left socialists nor the centre-right republicans even reached the second round.
What this means is that the centre is holding, but the parties that have traditionally defined and upheld that centre are imploding (except in Germany). For the EU and the eurozone to solve, or at least manage, its many structural problems, strong political leadership is necessary. But this is all the harder when politicians have to work without a solid party base. Italy was the first country to see its traditional parties collapse in the early 1990s, and the country’s instability and political paralysis ever since is clear evidence of what can come next.
Still, after the relentless drip-feed of doom scenarios for the EU and the euro bandied about by the majority of the anglophone press in recent years, it is time for Europeans to find their own voice in the global conversation to highlight the many reasons for cautious optimism. Greece has not crashed out of the euro. Russia has not invaded a Baltic country. The refugee deal with Turkey is holding. And many parts of the EU and eurozone economy have not looked this healthy in years or even decades.
Europe is not out of the woods, but it is not about to go up in flames either, let alone, to quote the Daily Mail on the day of the EU referendum, “broken” and “dying”. The work is only just starting for Europe’s leaders, but at least voters are giving them the opportunity to try.