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European Populism: Across Europe, populists drag moderates to the right-by Tony Barber

Populism on the rise
Speaking at a congress of her ruling Christian Democrats earlier this month, chancellor Angela Merkel told delegates that next autumn’s Bundestag elections would be the party’s most formidable test since German unification in 1990. Similar challenges lie in store for France’s Republicans and the Dutch VVD, two like-minded parties that face elections in 2017.

It is not that the centre-right risks defeat at the hands of its traditional centre-left opponents. On the contrary, opinion polls put the CDU, Republicans and VVD comfortably ahead of their social democratic or socialist rivals.

True, Germany’s elections may deliver a legislature splintered into six parties, making it hard for Ms Merkel, if she wins, to construct a coalition government. But in Germany and France, as in Britain and Spain, the left is split, demoralised and buried in a crisis that mixes short-term unpopularity with long-term structural decline.

In fact, the most difficult and delicate task for the CDU, Republicans and VVD will be to stem the advance of the radical right. In an earlier epoch, before Britons voted to leave the EU and Americans elected Donald Trump as president, the centre-right would have hammered home the message that rightwing extremists offer dangerous, simplistic solutions to complicated economic and social problems.

But in 2017 this approach will not be enough. Likewise, recent warnings from mainstream politicians and national security services that Russia may meddle in the elections for the purpose of discrediting western democracy, and even influencing the results, may go largely unheard.

Arguably, the radical right has almost no prospect of actually winning power in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Still, it is riding a wave of popular support. Superficial or inflammatory to the ears of moderate voters, some of the radical right’s anti-establishment slogans nevertheless resonate with parts of the electorate.

Now it is clear that much of the European centre-right intends to address this challenge by adopting policies that echo far-right themes. On Islam, immigration, national identity and attitudes to the EU, the centre-right is becoming less centrist and more rightist. The CDU’s party congress illustrates this tendency. Against Ms Merkel’s wishes, the party voted for stricter laws against dual citizenship. Jens Spahn, a CDU minister tipped as a future chancellor, demanded lower barriers for deporting migrants without refugee status. Even Ms Merkel called for a partial ban on full-face veils, which almost no Muslims in Germany wear.

These initiatives do not push the CDU far to the right. But rank-and-file party activists want more robustly conservative policies. The populist Alternative for Germany party benefited in 2016 from Ms Merkel’s previously open door to refugees, as well as sexual attacks and robberies in Cologne and the murder in Freiburg of a student by an Afghan asylum seeker. Because of the AfD’s electoral threat, the centrist path of Ms Merkel’s 11-year chancellorship no longer satisfies the CDU faithful.

France’s Republicans have gone further down this road by choosing Fran├žois Fillon as their candidate in next spring’s presidential poll. Mr Fillon published a book with the title Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism. He wants a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On Islam, national security and foreign policy, almost nothing distinguishes him from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front.

They part ways on economic policy and the EU. He promises to slash public spending, shrink the welfare state and cut business taxes. In complete contrast, she resembles some Jacobin revolutionary of 1793 in her call for sweeping economic controls. Under Ms Le Pen, France would quit the eurozone and EU. Under Mr Fillon, France would stay in but — tellingly — put more emphasis on national sovereignty.

In the Netherlands, the VVD is threatened by the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU PVV party of Geert Wilders. Under Mark Rutte, the prime minister and VVD leader, parliament’s lower house has passed a limited burka ban.

It is not only electoral pressures that are forcing the hand of the centre-right across Europe. Social attitudes are hardening, too. According to a YouGov survey in November, liberal values are losing ground in countries such as Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Poland, while anti-immigrant sentiment and impatience with the EU are rising.

These deeper forces are propelling the radical right’s advance. The AfD seems certain to win seats in the Bundestag for the first time. It may even end up as the German legislature’s third-largest party.

Ms Le Pen is set to sail through the French presidential election’s first round. She would probably lose against Mr Fillon, her likely opponent in the run-off. However, few expect her to do as badly as Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father, who took 17.8 per cent of the vote when he fought the centre-right Jacques Chirac in the 2002 contest.

Some recent Dutch surveys have put the PVV ahead of the VVD. Yet the Dutch practice of forming coalition governments that exclude extremists makes it improbable that Mr Wilders and the PVV will be in the next government.

In all three countries, the question is what price the centre-right will be prepared to pay in order to neutralise the radical right. On present trends the price is getting higher.

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