Matthew Rae Society, Culture, and Security

The Rising Populist Tide Across Europe

Many members of NATO are facing existential crises in 2017. General elections will be held in the Netherlands (March 15), France (May 7) and Germany (September 24), which present an opportunity for far-right populist leaders to finally form governments in the heart of Europe. The challenge before for the Transatlantic Alliance is how to weather the coming storm.


In both the Netherlands and France the far-right populists’ leaders lead in their respective national polls. The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), lead by Geert Wilders, currently leads opinion polls with 17 percent, only slightly ahead of the governing pro-business Liberals. It is unlikely that Wilders will be able to form a coalition government if he does secure victory on March 15. The other four major parties in the Netherlands have ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders, because they believe his party policies are either offensive or unconstitutional. However, even if the PVV cannot gain the support necessary to form a coalition government, the political discourse will change. It has already begun. The current Prime Minister Mark Rutte has only been able to gain ground on his rival by matching some of Wilder’s anti-immigration rhetoric.


Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party, is in an even better position than her Dutch counter-part. An OpinionWay poll recently found that in a first-round vote Le Pen would receive 27 percent, with her competitors Macron and François Fillon only receiving 20 percent each. Le Pen’s lead quickly disappears when OpinionWay showed a second-round vote. In a run-off vote independent candidate Macron would defeat Le Pen by 58 percent to 42 percent, but this advantage has been halved in less than two weeks. The momentum is with the National Front.


Marine Le Pen has been able to tap into the French people’s unease after more than 200 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in just over two years. The National Front Leader is winning votes on the security question.


The epicentre of Europe, both politically and economically, will go to the polls this fall. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) currently leads in opinion polls with 34 percent, but the German Chancellor is losing ground to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Under the leadership of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, the SPD has surged to historic levels, polling at around 28 percent nationally. However, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) remains at 10 percent in a recent Bild am Sonntag poll. The AfD could still shape of the discourse in the general election surrounding immigration and security, as the CDU attempts to fend off a resurgent left by appealing to its more conservative voters.


The rising populists tide across Europe possesses a significant threat to the strength of NATO. In an interview with Greek newspaper Dimokraita, Le Pen blamed NATO for meddling in Eastern Europe and expressed her belief that the organization has become outdated. In 2015, France was the third largest contributor to NATO’s shared budget. France funds 11 percent of NATO’s total military operations.


Germany covers 14 percent of the shared military budget, while the United States covers 22 percent. German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen and member of the CDU, is committed to reaching the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target. However, this goal does not have bi-partisan support in the Bundestag.


Rainer Arnold, defense policy spokesman for the SPD, recently said that the Munich Security Conference that it may be “unrealistic” to increase defense spending to 2 percent. If Martin Schulze and the SPD were to form a coalition government in September, it is unlikely this target would be met.


Paradoxically the lack of robust support for NATO has not translated into an increase in anti-American sentiment. Frank Hansel, a representative of AfD, told CNBC that “we have to change a little bit the climate regarding the United States of America in Europe and I think the election of Trump helps relax the situation.” This paradox appears to be the result of Trump’s position on a key trade deal.


The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has become deeply unpopular in Germany, were support for the proposed trade deal between the US and EU fell to 17 percent, down from 55 percent in 2014. With the election of President Donald Trump the TTIP is viewed as being effectively dead.


During the height of the Iraq War, European opinion of American leadership declined drastically. A survey conducted in 2007 by GlobeScan and the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes found that European views of U.S. leadership in world affairs had declined to 37 percent, from 64 percent pre-Iraq War.


It is still too premature to gauge the current level of support for American leadership in Europe under President Trump, but it appears to be a mixed bag. Many in the European establishment expressed concern over Donald Trump’s election. President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said “the events of the last months and days should be treated as a warning sign for all who believe in liberal democracy,” referencing Brexit and Donald Trump’s inauguration.


Many of the far-right populist leaders praised President Trump’s inauguration. Wilders said “Americans are taking their country back,” and Le Pen called it “good news for our country.” It remains to be seen whether the views of these populist leaders extend to their supporters and the larger European population.


The political landscape of NATO’s European member states will most likely change in 2017. It is not whether populist leaders will gain more political power, but how much. The Transatlantic Alliance and its’ institutions have survived for almost 68 years. To remain relevant to both Europeans and Americans, NATO must ensure that each of these electorates understand value of the Alliance to the international system.


Photo: Angela Merkel Among World Leaders (2015), by via Flickr. Licensed Under CC by-SA 2.0

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Matthew Rae
Matthew Rae is from a small town, Harriston, in rural Ontario. He completed his Bachelor of Arts Honours at the University of Guelph in Political Science and International Development. Matthew has recently completed his Masters Degree at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, in Vienna, Austria. He has worked at both a national and international level, which has allowed him to attend various conferences and working groups at different international organizations, such as the OSCE. His research interests are centred around the Middle East region and the emergence of a multi-polar world system. Matthew can be reached at