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.
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”.
“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.
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?
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.
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
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.