12 month period of political turbulence awaits western world

By the time that the results of the German federal elections are announced in Autumn 2017, the political landscape of the western world could look remarkably different to how it does today. By then, there could have been changes of government in Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany and most likely new Presidents in place in France, and Austria and definitely in the United States, all of which could have huge implications for co-operation amongst some of the world's most important political and economic players. Populism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment and the far-right will feature heavily in most, if not all of these elections, where the liberal political and economic order will be tested to the maximum. This should not come as a surprise.

The glue which has held the fabric of western societies together since the second world war has been fraying for some time - a hang-over from the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent economic and social crises which it spurned. This has played into the hands of populists and nationalists across the European Union and in the United States. In the case of the EU's member states, this has been further aggravated by the ongoing refugee crisis, where far-right parties have jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon, as well as by the terrorist attacks over the past 21 months in Paris, Brussels and in Germany. The fear of immigration has already taken its first big scalp this year, playing a prominent role in the victory of the 'leave' campaign in the UK's EU referendum.

With national elections or referenda taking place in no fewer than 4 of the G7 countries and coming in the wake of the EU referendum in the UK (also a G7 member), it is hard to think of a time when so many key western countries faced so many electoral and political challenges at all once. Events in smaller and medium-sized European countries will also impact on the wider, global political set-up.

On 2 October Hungary will hold a referendum on whether to accept EU-quotas for the distribution of refugees across the EU. Polls suggest that the vote will be to reject these quotas, where the Hungarian government has taken a tough "anti-immigrant" stance since the start of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015. Austria’s presidential election – a re-run of the 2nd round run-off from May 2016 - will be held prior to Christmas, with Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate looking, - just like the Hungarian government - to capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiment to win the vote.

The US Presidential election takes place in November where Donald Trump could emerge victorious, calling on deporting Muslims, looking to build a border fence with Mexico and possibly reconsidering US NATO-obligations. Even if Hillary Clinton were to win, we can expect a more-inward looking United States to emerge over the coming years, with a rejection of the interventionism of the 1990s and 2000s taking hold. Separately, Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister has called a referendum on Italian parliamentary reform and if he were to lose, there is a possibility that he might not stay on as Prime Minister and fresh elections might have to be called. The Movimento 5 Stelle, an anti-establishment and anti-€ party is projected to do well if elections were held, having already won the Rome mayoralty earlier this year. There is also a distinct possibility of a 3rd general election in Spain, in the space of a year, being held in December, where the four main parties have so far been unable to overcome their differences to form a government. Although Spain has been able to avoid the rise of the far-right, its political paralysis has marginalised it in Europe over the past 9 months.

2017 sees elections in the Netherlands, France and in Germany, where the far-right of Geert Wilders Freedom Party, Marine Le Pen's Front National and Frauke Petry's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) are all projected to do well. Wilders’ party could end up holding the balance of power in the Netherlands, Le Pen is projected to make it through to the 2nd round Presidential run-off and the AfD are likely to enter the Bundestag for the first time. These will be testing times for both President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, neither of whom has so far declared as to whether or not they will run for election next year. Hollande would most likely lose at the first-round of the French Presidential elections but Merkel, despite criticisms of her handling of the migration crisis by other EU member states and from within her own CDU-CSU party, may well stand to fight another day, albeit with a possible loss of votes to the AfD.

All of these events will take place with the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, where the UK government is still unclear as to what kind of Brexit it wants to achieve or when exactly in 2017 it will look to trigger article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union. On the issue of Brexit, the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union had called a meeting for 16 September in Bratislava - the so-called Bratislava summit in order to address the results of the UK referendum. Brexit discussions at Bratislava may never even take place, where disharmony currently exists between EU member states on the approach of how to tackle the migration crisis. On 13 September the Luxembourg Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, went so far as to call for Hungary to be chucked out the EU, due to its tough stance on refugees.

Taking all of this into consideration, the western liberal order faces a crisis of confidence and huge uncertainty in the coming year. It could well take a massive beating. The next 12 months will be turbulent and could well impact the future direction of the Euro-Atlantic area for years to come. If by Christmas 2017, the United States and Europe emerge unscathed, it should be seen as a huge success.

Thomas Cole is a former YPFP staffer. From April 2012 until April 2016, Tom was a desk officer at the European Commission, working on the EU’s neighbourhood and Enlargement Policies. He is now an independent political analyst based in London and blogs on international affairs at: http://international-political-analysis.blogspot.co.uk/

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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