The end of the EU: how the dominoes could fall and bring about the political collapse of Europe as we know it

By Peter Foster

France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen. Photo / AP
France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen. Photo / AP

Until it actually happened in the small hours of June 24, even some of those who had campaigned hardest for Brexit did not seriously believe the UK would vote to leave the European Union.

To judge by the polling-day demeanour of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, both wings of the Leave campaign were resigned to defeat. After six weeks of unremitting 'project fear', they assumed the British public would vote for safety and the status quo.

Downing Street and the Remain camp believed the same thing. But they were wrong, and as dawn broke the British electorate delivered them a historic surprise.

Five months later, Donald Trump's US election victory over Hillary Clinton put Brexit in an entirely new light. No longer was it the product of a confluence of political circumstances unique to Britain, but the transatlantic echo of a much broader, more primal anti-establishment politics.

Even now, if the insurgent voices of politicians like Farage, France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Beppe Grillo are to be believed, the global and European political elite has still not fully understood what is happening.

The next 18 months presents the European Union with a series of potentially existential challenges that - if they are right - could lead to the beginning of the end the EU as we currently know it.

Here we look at why that could never happen... but then again, like Brexit and Trump, why it just might.

December 4 2016: Austria elects EU's first far-Right head of state

What:

On December 4 Austria will hold a re-run of its presidential election between Norbert Hofer of the far-Right Freedom Party and a 72-year-old Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. If elected, Mr Hofer will become the EU's first far-Right head of state.

Alexander Van der Bellen, left, candidate for presidential elections of the Austrian Greens, and Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE. Photo / AP
Alexander Van der Bellen, left, candidate for presidential elections of the Austrian Greens, and Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE. Photo / AP

Why it could never happen:

Because Austria will surely remember its history. Recall that in 2000, when Jorg Haider of the far-Right Freedom Party (FPO) won a share of power some 150,000 Austrians took to the streets of Vienna to protest, while the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions.

Today Mr Hofer is stirring equally powerful memories. His election posters are being daubed with swastikas and been attacked by a former Auschwitz survivor whose appeal for Austria not to succumb to the "lowest aspects" of the nation has been viewed more than 2m times online. The Centre will hold.

Why it just might:

Because there are clear signs that Austria is apparently forgetting. When opposition parties called for a protest against Mr Hofer's candidacy last June it attracted only a few hundred people. His anti-immigrant, nativist message is clearly resonating in a country were a recent poll found only 23 per cent of Austrians were optimistic about the future.

And while liberals in the cities might deface Hofer posters with swastikas, in rural Austria he is lauded for straight-talking. At the same time Mr Van der Bellen is a weak opponent who doesn't have the full backing of Austria's mainstream party machines.

Back in June, before the result was overturned by the Austrian supreme courts over concerns of possible irregularities in postal votes, he only managed to 'win' by 31,000 votes. This time around, no one should bet against Mr Hofer.

December 4 2016: Renzi defeat opens door to Five Star Movement

Protesters march past a poster depicting Italian Premier Matteo Renzi during a demonstration ahead of a referendum over a constitutional reform, in Rome. Photo / AP
Protesters march past a poster depicting Italian Premier Matteo Renzi during a demonstration ahead of a referendum over a constitutional reform, in Rome. Photo / AP

Event:

Italy's centrist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, holds a referendum on constitutional reforms he says will streamline Italy's sclerotic government. He has promised to resign if he loses and Italy's populist Five Star Movement (5SM), led by former stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo is campaigning hard against him. Defeat would land another blow on Europe's beleaguered political establishment and potentially trigger a Italian banking crisis.

Why it could never happen:

Because even if Mr Renzi loses, which polls suggest he well might, Italy's president, Sergio Mattarella will step in and create a technocratic government that will quickly calm the markets. Italy is well used to chaotic government and will not be spooked if Mr Renzi does resign.

Mainstream parties have also promised to make reforms to the Italian electoral system will ensure a proportional representation system makes it almost impossible for populists like Mr Grillo and his Five Star Movement (5SM) to take power.

Why it just might:

Because a defeat for Mr Renzi will deliver another centrist scalp for the forces of populism and give massive national impetus to the 5SM. Earlier this year the Five Star Movement proved itself as an electoral force by winning the mayoralties of Rome and Turin (a stronghold of Mr Renzi's PD party) but a big 'No' vote against Mr Renzi's reforms would hand them a victory on a national scale.

At the same time, plans by the established political parties to reform the electoral system to keep parties like Five Star from gaining power only risk deepening the populist backlash and furthering Mr Grillo's rabble-rousing, anti-establishment platform.

Then there is the potential for a fresh banking crisis in Italy if Mr Renzi's resignation derails plans to use private sector to recapitalize several major Italian banks that are laden with bad debts. That, in turn, could mean rescuing Italy's banks under EU 'bail-in' rules that could force ordinary Italian retail investors to take painful haircuts.

Even if Europe tries to mitigate that pain, the fury against German-imposed austerity is only going to grow, and with it the power of populists like Mr Grillo.

March 15 2017: Islamophobe Geert Wilders wins power in Netherlands

Event:

The Netherlands holds a general election. Geert Wilders, another populist in the mould of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, is currently leading in the polls, mixing anti-Muslim sentiment with economic populism. He is a supporter of Trump and wants to hold a 'Nexit' referendum on the Netherlands' EU membership.

Populist anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders is currently leading in the polls in the Netherlands. Photo / AP
Populist anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders is currently leading in the polls in the Netherlands. Photo / AP

Why it could never happen:

Because even though he is topping the polls, Mr Wilders would still need the help of some of the other 10 political parties to form a government - and they have already clearly ruled out sharing power with a politician who was recently fined 5,000 euros for anti-Muslim hate speech.

If Mr Wilders turned his current polling performance into votes at the ballot box, he could win around 35 seats, 10 more than the current polls suggest would be won by the ruling Liberal party led by prime minister Mark Rutte - but that is still have less than half the 76 seats needed to form a majority government.

Fear not. The bouffant-haired Islamophobe - sometimes referred to as the 'Dutch Donald Trump' - is going nowhere.

Why it just might:

Because if Mr Wilders wins big, becoming the largest party in the Dutch parliament by, say, 10 seats, it will be much more difficult for the other parties to unite together to keep the clear winner of the Dutch election out of power.

Excluding Mr Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) from government will be tantamount to ignoring the democratically expressed will of a significant portion of the Dutch people. Even if it succeeds, it will only deepen anti-establishment anger.

Mr Wilders know he must win big to make that argument stick, but with Trump in the White House and perhaps Norbert Hofer holding the Austrian presidency, his brand of Islamophobic economic populism may prove harder to keep down than the establishment realises.

May 7 2017: Marine Le Pen wins the Elysee Palace

France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen. Photo / AP
France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen. Photo / AP

Event:

With the Left in disarray after four years of Francois Hollande in government, the French presidential election is expected to come down to a run-off between the mainstream conservative candidate Francois Fillon and the Front National's Marine Le Pen. Current polls predict that Mr Fillon will beat Ms Le Pen 70 per cent to 30 per cent.

Why it could never happen:

Because the Le Pen brand is still simply too toxic, despite Marine Le Pen's effort to broaden the FN's appeal by expelling her anti-semitic father Jean-Marie from the party. Ms Le Pen might emerge as the candidate with the most votes in the first round, but in the run-off centrists of left and right will unite to defeat her.

That's what happened in 2002 when Jean-Marie reached the run-off vote against Jacques Chirac, losing 82 per cent to 18 per cent. The same thing happened in December last year at the regional elections when Ms Le Pen went away empty-handed after a strong first-round showing. Patrick Buisson is right. Le Pen simply can't win.

Why it just might:

Because if Trump can win, then in these times when the political paradigms in the West are shifting faster than the mainstream political establishment can comprehend, so can Ms Le Pen, whose personal style is earthy and authentic.

On the stump she has re-branded herself simply "Marine", divorcing herself from the Front National's racist past while selling a brand of nostalgic "True France" nativism that blends identity politics with powerful economic populism that promises to shield French workers from the impacts of globalisation.

By contrast Mr Fillon - like Hillary Clinton - is a quintessential establishment figure. A former prime minister for Nicolas Sarkozy who - just like Mr Sarkozy - is promising sweeping economic reforms that a cynical French electorate has heard too many times before from both the Left and Right.

If the over-arching theme of the 'new' politics is anti-establishment fury, then Ms Le Pen cannot be counted out. And if she wins, then the Europe Union as we now know it - driven these last 40 years by its beating, Franco-German heart - will cease to exist.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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