One of the most striking images of this week was not recent but taken back in April. A photograph of David Cameron, Matteo Renzi, Barack Obama, François Hollande and Angela Merkel chatting on the balcony of the Herrenhausen Palace in Hannover, Germany, during a summit was shared thousands of times Monday on Twitter for the neat way it summed up how quickly power can fall away.
Cameron is already gone, Renzi is halfway out the door and Obama and Hollande are seeing out their final weeks in office.
Only Merkel remains in power, but embattled as she is by the issue of immigration, it is becoming easier to see her failing to win a fourth term in next year’s German elections.
As we try to make sense of 2016’s surge in populism, of the unexpected, anti-establishment outsiders overturning the ruling class, it is all too easy to see everything through the prism of Brexit and Donald Trump. The way to make unpredictable events become predictable is to make them fit a pattern. So in the run-up to Sunday’s Austrian election and Italian referendum, we readied ourselves for victory in Vienna of the far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer and for a resounding defeat of Renzi’s plans for constitutional change.
Yet the results did not quite fit the populism pattern. Hofer was defeated, to the relief of liberals across Europe. Renzi did lose and is resigning, and his defeat was due to a backlash against establishment control — two parties who backed the No side are anti-immigration, right-wing movements that want Italy to withdraw from the euro.
Yet this winning side, backed by nearly two-thirds of voters, was for the status quo, not in favor of a populist tide. Renzi’s defeat was as much about his hubris than anything to do with immigration or the European Union.
It is incorrect — and dangerous — to say that the far-right in Europe suddenly has carte blanche to win elections and speak for, collectively, hundreds of millions of voters. And there are significant differences between populist movements in each country.
Last month, Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence Party leader, said he admired National Front leader Marine Le Pen but found her party’s far-right iteration of populism unpalatable. Farage believes the EU is dying, yet Hofer disagrees. Euroscepticism in Greece is a whole different ballgame to Euroscepticism in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader in Britain, sees Brexit and Trump as an opportunity for his party to overturn the establishment in the UK 2020 election, but he is from the left, not right, and has been unashamedly pro-immigration.
Even hooking Trump and Brexit together is too simplistic an interpretation of what has happened to Britain and America in 2016: Brexit was the outcome of decades of British voters’ slow-burning unhappiness at a remote elite in Brussels ruling their lives, as they saw it; Trump’s path to power was shorter and more dramatic. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will be permanent; Trump’s grip on power is temporary — no matter how far away 2020 — or even 2024 — may feel right now.
This year, hundreds of millions of people in Europe and America have voted for populist parties or politicians. Their sheer number means that they cannot all want the same thing.
This is not to say that something is happening to the way voters regard their governments, particularly those who don’t take seriously the pressures of globalization. It would be wrong to dismiss each of these elections as isolated events.
Yet as the different results Sunday attest, one political upheaval does not have to follow another. The pattern does not have to repeat itself in the same way. The current version of the EU is being rejected, but it does not mean European unity is dead and buried.
It would be wrong, then, for liberals in Europe to accept that populism is winning everywhere, to see Le Pen as president in France or her fellow far-right leader Geert Wilders seizing victory in the Netherlands as self-fulfilling prophesies.
Instead there is an opportunity for centrist politicians to, in the words of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign, take back control — of the arguments, at least.