5 takeaways from Koblenz far-right populist conference

5 takeaways from Koblenz far-right populist conference

They proclaim themselves as the leaders of the New Europe. A “free” Europe against Islam, one which calls for the death of the European Union and lauds the victory of Donald Trump. It is a future of Europe that is yet to be realised of course, regardless of the rhetoric in this year of decisive national elections across the continent.

Marine Le Pen was the headline act of a meeting of far-right European populist leaders from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria in the German city of Koblenz, under the banner of a “vision for a Europe of freedom”.

The figures gathered under great security as thousands of demonstrators outside showed their opposition to their right-wing policies with banners and colourful protests.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
Far-right populist leaders gather at summit to call for a “Europe of freedom”

Here are some takeaways from today’s summit:

1. The Trump effect

It’s been no secret how much far-right party leaders have idolised Donald Trump’s victory in the US and his inauguration yesterday merely buoyed spirits and gave hope that their anti-establishment message will lead to an awakening.

That is to forget the swathes of protests against Trump across the world and his relatively narrow victory which has led many to call him the inheritor of a “disunited” States of America.

Marine Le Pen talked of a “domino effect” after Brexit and then Trump to “bring down Europe”, she said, prompting the return of the “nation state”.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz

“Yesterday, a new America. Today… a new Europe!”, Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands

It would be fair to say the mainstream of politics is apprehensive of Trump’s as yet unclear foreign policy, especially on NATO and Russia relations, and by contrast his absolutely crystal clear nationalist policy of “America first”. Be under no illusion: Trump’s protectionist pledge is likely to put trade with the EU – and hopes of a significant UK deal – towards the back of the queue, behind US jobs for US firms. This would not be any gift to EU of course, so how will the populists respond exactly to a US president who is at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of the world’s second biggest trading area, the European Union?

Trump said the UK was “smart” to leave the EU, warning other countries will leave the bloc. For the moment though, there is little sign of any referenda to come – not least for the fact these parties face obstacles to grabbing power (see number 3).

Donald Trump’s “America first” slogan was accompanied by a depressing outlook of the world’s largest economy, and like his inauguration speech, far-right leaders in Koblenz painted a similarly bleak picture. Wilders complained that “women can no longer show their blonde hair without fear” on Dutch streets. It’s as broad a brush stroke as Trump in his address yesterday, with an appeal to emotions rather than respect for the facts.

2. Angela Merkel isn’t going anywhere

There were shouts of “bye bye Merkel” and “Merkel must go” by the energised crowd in Koblenz.

“Europe needs Frauke, not Angela”, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, in support of his far-right German counterpart.

Angela Merkel at a gallery opening in Koblenz on Friday

But look at approval ratings, and although Merkel has been hit by her migrant policy, which Le Pen branded a “daily disaster”, and they tell a different picture. Merkel is on 56%, her AfD counterpart Frauke Petry, on 10%, and the chancellor is virtually certain to stay on as leader after national elections at the end of September.

This would likely come at the expense of a smaller majority and Petry’s AfD entering the German parliament for the first time. The AfD is polling third (see tweet below) behind Merkel’s governing coalition parties, but she remains an incredibly popular leader and will have been at the top of Germany for 16 years if she wins.

Merkel’s standing on an international stage is far less certain amid speculation surrounding Trump’s moves with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Merkel will be pushing for an early meeting with the new US president, an anthesis of nearly everything she stands for as a politician. Her red lines on trade, NATO and the EU will be clear, so how well will Trump take to her, after already criticising her open migrant policy as a “very catastrophic mistake” in a recent interview.

In a couple of acts of great symbolism, as Donald Trump was inaugurated, Merkel was taking in some culture during a visit to the opening of a new gallery in Potsdam. But be under no illusion, she is no doubt already strategising her first move with Trump.

Obama meanwhile used his final phone call with foreign leaders as President to speak to Merkel, as a close ally and “reliable” partner. It was as if to say the German leader is now the standard-bearer of Western liberal democracy.

3. Are the populists “winners” yet?

Marine Le Pen walked on the stage to rapturous applause, embodying the greatest hope for the European populist movement in the French presidential elections in April and May.

But as it stands, though she’ll make it past the first round, she’ll be pummelled by her opponent in the second. Where will the tide of populism stand after that likely defeat?

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
FN leader Marine Le Pen addressing the crowd in Koblenz

Le Pen has been the most recognisable face and voice of discontentment with mainstream politics. In France, her rise has increased due to an unpopular Hollande government, and a series of Islamist terror attacks which has benefited her identity politics staple message. So the stakes are high and the pressure is on to capitalise finally on her more mainstream appeal.

The Austrian far-right MEP Harald Vilimsky called his populist allies “winners”, adding that protestors outside have merely helped, not hindered, the far-right ascent.

But with a Merkel win, a probable Le Pen defeat and a tough ride for Wilders to gain a governing majority in this year of significant elections, populism may be on the rise, but it has yet to gain enough traction yet in political systems that fundamentally inhibit their power.

Populism isn’t going away and will influence political words and deeds for years to come – but the prospect of gaining tangible powe already looks to be falling like dominoes.

4. The “family”of populism isn’t a one size fits all

While the far-right leaders of the FN, AfD, PVV and Northern League are all political bedfellows- they form part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European parliament –  concerns in each country are not one and the same, which makes it difficult to believe their claim of cross-national cooperation and a single European movement.

Worries in France about security are not matched in Germany, after a recent poll showed even after the Berlin Christmas market attack that people there aren’t worried, unlike in France which put the issue of security second to unemployment, with 63% of French people concerned.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
Protests outside the summit in the ancient German city of Koblenz

On the topic of migrants, it is even less important for Germans this year, down 26 points to 40% in a national poll in January. The migrant issue was a key issue for presidential elections in Austria last November, which was won not by the far-right but ultimately a Green candidate.

Finally, Germany’s economy is faring very well, unlike in France and in Italy, where unemployment is still high and growth low.

The links holding together European populism, while similar in many ways – the distrust of politics and the frustration with globalisation, expose many country-specific dynamics, which make claims of the year of the “patriotic spring” across Europe raising eyebrows.

5. Nazi comparisons aren’t far away

Activists set up images of far-right leaders Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin & Pétain

It was a day of old Europe meeting the supposed New Europe.

An old Europe that was highlighted by protestors cheering on a “colourful and not brown” politics, an allusion to the Brownshirts of the Nazi party.

And there were signs of the new Europe, that in 2017 centres around only one thing: the persecution of the media, with criticism of the “lügenpresse” or “lying press”, a term which pre-dates Nazism and brings back reminders of its use as an anti-democracy slogan against Jews and communists. 

The theme of attacking the press, in a Trump-like manner, will only grow as elections approach.

The run-up to the summit was marked by complaints from German mainstream media, including state broadcaster ARD and newspaper Die Welt, after they were banned from attending because they had not “met journalistic standards in past reporting”. ARD is even considering taking legal action against an attempt to stifle their “freedom to report”.

By banning certain media, far-right parties are surpressing the of attention they crave, stifling the means by which most people get to hear of their arguments.

As one political analyst put it, the summit was “just good PR”. Timo Lochocki was skeptical of the co-operation the parties had promised: ““This is largely to increase media attention”, he said.

And there lies the contradiction.

As Donald Trump enters the White House, just how much the new US president seeks to provoke and sow disunity within the European Union will be closely watched.

The revolution has long begun but the big battles are still ahead for populist parties under pressure to reach the heights of leadership.

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

If 2016 was the year of the unpredictable and the rise of populism, 2017 looks to be the year that much of that ground work now plays out.

It will be likely dominated by Donald Trump as the world watches his move into the White House and tears up the rule book of how to govern with a new style of shock politics, protectionism, straight talking and Twitter diplomacy.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be determined to prove to her critics that she can start the UK’s exit from the EU – one of the biggest earthquakes of 2016 – in an orderly fashion when she triggers divorce proceedings through Article 50 by the end of March.

Will Mrs May finally lay on the table what exactly she wants – membership of the single market, staying in the customs union, and so on? These are monumental decisions that will affect every one of our lives.

She will have to be ready for the reaction of EU leaders, who will no sooner be ready to throw down any whiff of “cherry-picking”. Each country will each have their own grievances, least of all a need to keep their own popularity in check back home.

Brexit hitting the headlines across Europe last year

May has the impossible task of pleasing those in her party and across the country who voted not only leave but remain, and across Europe she’ll be trying desperately hard to get allies to back her Brexit wish list.

But the EU will be determined to show that Brexit isn’t the only priority – the continent after all is still nursing the hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and trying to muddle its way through its policy on migrants – which has all but disappeared from the headlines.

There will likely be a lot of back and forth – concession on one hand and demand on the other – which could mean 2017 is the year of inaction, even anticlimax, for Brexit.

This has always been classic EU territory though – the approach of just about getting by.

The prime minister will first need to see who will be those leaders around the negotiating table, following decisive elections in some of Europe’s biggest democracies.

All eyes will be on France for the next five months to see how the political mood there will determine the results of its presidential election.

The expectation will be that while populism is exerting great pressure on the political conversation, it’s yet to yield truly significant results in the biggest national elections.

The far right in France has been boosted by many different factors, least of all an historically unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, who has ruled himself out from running for a second term. His Socialist party looks disunited – with no clear frontrunner in its own primary elections – and all opinion polls indicating it won’t make it past the first round of France’s presidential vote.

France’s likely new president from May – centre-right François Fillon

The surprise candidate could be former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to capture the tricky centre-ground of politics. His unconventional style – never having been elected to office or joined a political party – is gathering momentum, but has he simply laid the ground for a more serious run next time round? In such a crowded political spectrum, it may prove difficult for Macron to unite traditional left voters around his start-up campaign.

But the focus will be firmly on the Front National, for whom a victory has always been seen as impossible. Everybody has always said the two-round voting system is fundamentally rigged against the FN. Both left and right merely gang up in a tactical move to prevent the far-right from gaining enough ground.

But we’re living in very different times, and while the polls give centre-right hopeful François Fillon two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen in the second round, her softening of the party image, a longstanding disaffection with mainstream politicians and the feeling that globalisation has bred great inequalities mean her party is gathering support like never before.

Le Pen’s focus on identity politics at a time when more than 230 people have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last 18 months has growing appeal for some French voters who want a hard line on Islam, immigration and security.

le pen tweet.JPG
Marine Le Pen said Donald Trump’s victory gave hope for her presidential campaign

If you still believe the polls however, France will elect centre-right former prime minister Fillon – keenly labelled a Putin supporter and Thatcher admirer. He has promised a liberal economic policy, huge cuts to the public sector and a ‘shock’ at the top of France’s sclerotic political system. His main priorities will be to shore up a failing economy, bring down relatively high unemployment and an unmanageably large government debt – and more challenging yet, make French people feel safer.

We could well be in for a surprise result in May. Be sure to mind that gap in the opinion polls for the months to come. Fillon is a skilled, experienced politician who thinks he knows how to administer the medicine of change to France – but don’t underestimate the rogue nature of polling and those who don’t even normally vote who could sway the result in Ms Le Pen’s favour.

A Le Pen victory would have unknown consequences politically across Europe. It could spell the end as we know it for the EU which she says has made French people poorer and under threat from terrorism.

The stakes existentially for the union this year could not be higher on this one election alone.

Over in Germany, voters in elections in the autumn of this year will in all probability realise Angela Merkel is the only candidate capable of steering the EU’s largest economy – and arguably the 27 other member states – through still turbulent waters. But as we’ve seen with her recent announcement to ban the full-face veil and criticism of her domestic migrant policy, Merkel is feeling the pressure like never before from both outside her ranks with the buoyant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and within her coalition government.

Angela Merkel will be hopeful of a fourth term in office


The right-wing nationalist AfD party, founded in 2013 as merely an anti-euro party, has turned its focus to the surge in immigration in previous years and frames Islam as ‘not German’. It has so far made strong gains in regional votes. Polls suggest it has around 12% support nationally, and it looks set to play the security card even more after December’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, which killed twelve, and other jihadi-related terror on German soil last year which has left some Germans seeing refugees as the problem.

Angela Merkel’s popularity is some way ahead of her European counterparts and despite saying this election will be “tough like no other”, her likely election win will bring her to an unrivalled sixteen years in power.

Yes, she will lose seats to her majority, and yes, the AfD will enter the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, but Merkel will escape largely unscathed with the promise of more security measures for Germans, a call for greater unity domestically and across Europe, as well as more strong leadership by not cowering to populist rhetoric.

On the global stage, however, with a clear Putin and Trump alliance to come, she will find herself much more isolated.

The Netherlands too will be heading to the polls with the peroxide populist Geert Wilders hopeful that growing momentum in past elections will finally provide electoral victory in March’s vote – offering another political earthquake to a nervous Brussels establishment.

Dutch far-right politician Gerry Wilders

The PVV party, which he founded in 2004, became the third-largest party in elections in 2010. It has captured support from an unease about growing immigration, a pledge to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, a lack of trust in the ruling government and his promise to take the country out of the European Union.

The latest polls show the PVV as the biggest single party in the country – and Wilders seems to be pushing himself as the candidate saying to voters – “I’m the only one listening to you”. At the very least he’ll have a powerful voice in the Dutch parliament, and at most he could become the country’s next prime minister.

Populism in Europe so far has proven it isn’t a “one-size fits all” – it has been difficult for any commentator to neatly categorise and accurately predict this burgeoning phenomenon.

Austria overwhelmingly rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer last November but the populist tide there looks set to shape parliamentary elections and the political discourse for some time yet.

In Italy, a referendum on the political system and on the country’s own leader Matteo Renzi both adhered to and confounded expectations. Voters said no to the changes but the political chaos that was expected didn’t come to pass with the swift appointment of Paolo Gentiloni. He will need to bring strong governance – something Italy isn’t used to – at a much-needed time for stability – through a commitment to reform its vastly expensive parliamentary system and mend its ‘sick-man’ economy which has scarcely grown in the past 20 years.

Turkey’s President Erdogan will be fearful of more attacks this year

Leaders from around the world will be fearful of more violence in Turkey on its doorstep after the most turbulent and bloody year there in recent history, given its crucial geography as a border post to the Middle East and a hotbed for terrorism inside and outside its boundaries.

It will take a lot for President Tayyip Erdogan to convince European leaders he is placing Turkey’s security first, in front of any personal leadership ambitions to become more autocratic by increasing his executive powers (which he’s putting to a referendum). It comes after a year of mass arrests of people from across society following a failed coup attempt in July and an ongoing state of emergency from countless acts of terror.

Support from Erdogan’s nationalist voters will only isolate him in Europe and the Middle East, exacerbating security, political and economic risks. His tight grip on power will equally put the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey into question, which spells trouble for EU leaders up and down the continent.

The person to watch closely this year will be none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – the newest – and strongest – global alliance?

With ongoing military provocation in Eastern Europe, his continued support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and suspected cyber interference in the US elections, the strong man of Russia looks set to be a big winner in 2017 – but a figure at the very centre of more global uncertainty.

Russia’s place as a resurgent global superpower has been well and truly cemented after what is seen as a successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s involvement there will be entrenched further throughout 2017, leading Putin to gain even more influence in Middle Eastern events.

With the US under Trump on-side, Putin will in short be given a lot of room to show his political and military muscle in 2017 and beyond.

2017 will be a year marked by nail-biting elections, as millions of people across Europe decide at the most crude level what sort of politics they want. The backdrop of populism as a march against globalism means strong leadership in Europe will be in much demand but in short supply.

The status quo for a trouble-burdened European continent looks more shaky than ever – and the potential for surprises ever greater.

But could populism be the wake-up call the European Union has needed?

Catalonia’s independence plans at a crossroads

Catalonia’s independence plans at a crossroads

As the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the singularly most important event of the 21st century so far, many hundreds of thousands of people packed streets and squares in Catalonia to celebrate their national day.

The excitement surrounding last year – that Catalonia was on the cusp of independence and tangible change – contrasted with a much more uncertain feeling this time round. With the backdrop of nine months of political paralysis in Madrid, talk of independence is still very much around, but far from being shouted about the tone is noticeably more muted with numbers attending events across the region down from 2015.

Few would have imagined a year ago the possibility of a third round of national elections should political parties fail to come to an agreement by the end of October, a prospect that three quarters of Spaniards are against, according to a new poll released today. The political blockade is by far the biggest obstacle for leaders in Catalonia – they simply don’t know who will be across the table in Madrid to negotiate a break-up from Spain.

One demonstrator holding up a placard symbolising a heartbeat “ready” for independence

Madrid is predictably standing firm, so much so incumbent Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said on Saturday that an economic crisis or even a terrorist attack was preferable to the irreversible break-up of Spain.

Similar fractures in the ruling Catalan coalition are slowing down the secessionist process. The pro-independence Junts Pel Sí coalition, formed of centre-right to left wing parties, and the CUP, an anti-EU and anti-euro party, could lose its majority if elections were held according to polls. It reflects the thoughts of some analysts that the independence movement is losing steam, ultimately delaying the declaration of independence pencilled in for sometime next year.

Demonstrators gathering in front of the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona

Anti-independence parties have criticised the national day, or Diada, for being hijacked by supporters of independence, not a day for all Catalans to enjoy regardless of politics.

You only have to listen to Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau to understand the complexity of the issue of independence. Somewhat ambiguously she voted “yes” to independence in a de-facto referendum in 2014, but Colau says she is not in favour of independence. She joined Catalans on the streets for the first time this year, together with members of Podemos, a party which is pro-referendum but at the same time, anti-independence.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont attending the Diada ceremony this morning

The prospect of yet another round of elections, which Catalan president Carles Puigdemont hopes to call before this time next year, looks set to be a sort of end game. He said the vote will be “a transition period between post-autonomy and pre-independence”.

Puigdemont has said he will make use of a confidence vote in the Catalan parliament on 28th September to put a referendum on the table to Madrid.

Heralded as a once in a lifetime opportunity a year ago, independence in Catalonia looks to still be in its infancy. The momentum is still there, but with the roadblocks of coalition disagreement and no certainty as to who will be running Spain, there are many factors that can still derail the delicate independence process, compounded by a feeling of impatience that political leaders need to deliver results more quickly.


France’s Socialists survive another day

France’s Socialists survive another day

There were smiles on the faces of France’s Socialist MPs today. During a time of division, talk of leadership battles and polls that show the party falling behind the right and far right in next year’s presidential elections, you’d think there isn’t much to be happy about on the left of French politics.

Yet in this time of survival for the government, it didn’t come as a surprise that they saw through the defeat of a vote of no confidence on a controversial labour reform bill, seen as too pro-business by some, which has now been fast-tracked through to the Senate.

For governments in France, the number 49.3 is more often than not a sign of desperate times. This part of the constitution allows bills proposed by the government to avoid a vote by French MPs, making it closing to becoming law.

The last time it was used was last year to allow a package of disputed economic reforms, nicknamed the Loi Macron, after Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, to be pushed through parliament.

France’s reformist Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron

Even yesterday the party was under attack from within, as rebel backbench Socialist MPs put forward a vote of no confidence – a way of putting an end to this constitutional backdoor, before it was narrowly defeated.

It served as a crystallisation of just how difficult it is proving to enact reforms, loosening France’s unwieldy regulation and complex bureaucracy and kickstarting the country’s perpetually ailing economy.

The legislation aims to weaken the power of unions, make employers able to extend working hours beyond 35 hours and make it easier for them to fire and hire workers.

Scenes of tear gas, vandalism and violence on the streets of Paris and several other cities across the country, told a different story. Despite polls showing relatively low membership of worker’s unions – perhaps surprisingly given France’s long history of the worker rising against the rich and powerful elite – the influence of the unions can’t be underestimated.

Their voice may be loud, the scenes of their mobilisation great fodder for journalists, even that doesn’t seem enough to derail this government’s determination to make the economy more flexible and put it on a stable growth footing with unemployment hovering around 10 per cent.

The reform bill has set out to bring a more laissez-faire approach to the labour market, doing away with the current government-central diktat dictating regulation to employees in the form of a nearly four thousand page tome.

France’s labour code

The Loi Travail, or Loi El Khromi – named after the labour minister, will continue through to the Senate next month, on 13th June. It could well be changed before it returns back to the lower house, when the government could once again dodge a bullet by resorting to its 49.3 constitutional back door.

The centre-right Les Républicains party voted against the government, with one of their MPs calling François Hollande’s five-year term as president “beyond all hope”.

Such a tense time for the left means it is open season for electioneering and exposing the Socialist party’s vulnerable position, which rests on Hollande’s promise to grow the economy and bring down unemployment. It’s a pledge which he made last year that only then will allow him to stand for election next year.

But with determination from France’s unions and an increasingly impatient mood for signs of economic prosperity, opposition to the bill means this headache for the French government is far from over.