[SCMP Column] Perilous Day in Europe

December 03, 2016

For those of us sideswiped by the upsets of June 23 and November 8, there is every possibility that tomorrow – December 4 – will be another dismal landmark in a dismal year.

Forget “Black Friday” last week celebrating the Thanksgiving shopping orgy in the US, and instead think about a “Black Sunday” that may confirm Europe sliding down the same populist, xenophobic slope seen among UK and US voters over summer.

It seems our own Asia-Pacific region will soon be the only part of the world able to report moderate growth, and encouraging openness to trade and investment as a means of sustaining it. And since the Asian region accounts for only a minority of global GDP and an even smaller minority of global consumption (even with China’s strong growth over the past three decades) the prospects of a depressive, protectionist contagion from Europe and the US hobbling our own region seem horribly real.

The first black challenge tomorrow comes in tiny Austria, with a population barely larger than Hong Kong, where the very real danger exists of the “Sound of Music” burghers voting into office the first far-right head of state since Hitler and Mussolini and the second world war. The handsome Norbert Hofer, head of the nazi-founded Freedom Party, is running favorite to win a presidential election – an election re-run from May, when Hofer lost by a whisker to the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen. That May result was declared invalid by Austria’s constitutional court after it was found there had been hanky panky with postal votes.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s referendum tomorrow to change the Italian constitution – to reduce the powers of the country’s Senate, and of municipal governments across the country – shows every sign of backfiring on him, and becoming another black day for Europe. A referendum originally intended to reduce bureaucracy, improve decision-making efficiency, and trim the nepotism and corruption that pervades municipal politics, has become a national referendum on Renzi’s own government performance – and a protest against persistent economic hardship, high unemployment levels, and angst over the 160,000 sub-Saharan asylum seekers that have come ashore in Italy this year.

Renzi has said he will resign if the vote goes against his proposed reforms – raising the very real possibility of new national elections, and leading to political chaos and turbulence for the whole of the Euro-zone. Without the slightest hint of hyperbole, a leading Financial Times commentator said last week: “Europe could wake up on December 5 to an immediate threat of disintegration.”

Some have been encouraged by the fact that Renzi has hired Jim Messina, President Barak Obama’s former campaign manager, to help him win the referendum. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Mr Messina was also hired by David Cameron in the UK ahead of Brexit, and we all know where that left Mr Cameron.

If alarming dominos fall in Austria and Italy tomorrow, the stage is set for numerous other dominos to wreck political and economic momentum in Europe over the coming year. First, in March, in National elections in Holland, pollsters currently forecast a victory for Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom. Mr Wilders is currently on trial for inciting racial hatred, in particular against Dutch Moroccans and against Moslems in general. The unrepentant Wilders simply said in a television statement on the last day of the trial that if he is convicted, “millions of Dutch citizens will be convicted with me.” Such is the rising confidence of extremist politicians in Europe today. And Holland is a country that has always in the past been seen – along with the UK – as a champion in Europe for openness and free trade and investment.

The next domino – and perhaps the most alarming of all – will be the French national elections in May, where the extreme right wing Marine Le Pen and her National Front party are already shaking up French politics. It seems that the election last Sunday of Francois Fillon to lead the Republican Party into the May election was direct tactical positioning for a battle with Ms Le Pen. M. Fillon is seen in France as a “Thatcherite” – essentially as far to the right as the Republicans are able to go to fend off a Le Pen-led threat from the country’s increasingly confident right wing.

The final domino – perhaps far too early days to make dire predictions – is Germany’s national elections in autumn next year. No-one is yet forecasting the emergence of an extreme right government, but it is widely recognized that Angela Merkel has paid a heavy electoral price for her courageous but controversial decision to offer safe haven to asylum seekers from conflict in the Middle East.

And just weigh this: she could be wading into an election campaign just when ferocious Brexit haggling is coming to a climax from the UK, with anti-EU referenda from an extreme right government in France and Holland, and economic chaos in Italy threatening to undermine the integrity of the Euro. Note that after Germany, these are Europe’s largest economies. This turbulence is not “ring-fenceable” as the Grexit crisis was in 2012. This cuts to the heart of the “European project”, and threatens the very economic and political integrity of the European region.

Speaking to a leading Dutch newspaper earlier this week, Ami Horowitz, a US political commentator, correctly noted that Trump, Hofer, Le Pen or Wilders are “certainly not a majority” in their respective economies: “But they are driven by certain trends similar both in the United States and Europe … the fact that mainstream politics and mainstream media are simply not finding answers to the demands that people across the world have today.

“People are sick and tired of not being represented by the mainstream politics. They simply want solutions to the vexing problems we have in the world today, whether it be economic stagnation or spectacular immigration problems.”

At present, sitting here in Asia far from this action, these traumas may seem remote. My sense is that they will not stay remote for very much longer. Tomorrow’s “Black Sunday” may be a day to be nervous about wherever in the world you live.
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