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During the fifteen months following the UK’s EU referendum, voters in the Eurozone’s four largest countries will also head to the polls for a number of key ballots that could change Europe’s political landscape quite significantly. Open Europe’s Vincenzo Scarpetta looks at what is at stake for each individual country and the EU as a whole.
27 May 2016
If you are currently based in the UK, the EU referendum debate can easily swallow you like a black hole and make you temporarily forget about what is going to happen in the rest of Europe in a matter of months (or even days) after June 23. Key ballots are due to take place in the Eurozone’s four largest countries – meaning that Europe’s political landscape may look quite different by the end of next year, beyond the obvious question of whether the UK votes to leave the EU or not.
Let’s take a look at some of the dates to circle – in chronological order.
Only three days after the UK’s EU referendum, Spain will hold a re-run general election – made inevitable by Spanish parties’ inability to form a new government after last December’s inconclusive election. The outcome is again very uncertain, as no party stands a chance of winning an outright majority in parliament. The big novelty is that the anti-establishment party Podemos and the hard-left Izquierda Unida (IU) have agreed to run as a joint ticket this time around – and are currently polling in second place, ahead of the Socialist Party (PSOE).
While the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) of caretaker Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is also making gains in the latest opinion polls and is again likely to be the most voted for, the Podemos-IU alliance ultimately translates into a higher chance of a left-wing, anti-austerity government taking over in Spain. Such an outcome would no doubt reignite the never-ending debate over austerity within the Eurozone – in principle shifting the balance of power further away from Germany. The fact that the European Commission is widely expected to fine Spain for breaching Eurozone fiscal rules – although it has delayed the decision until after the June election – would add some extra fuel to the fire.
The exact date is still to be announced, but at some point in October Italians will be asked to approve or reject in a referendum the major constitutional reform tabled by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government and recently approved by parliament. The reform is far from perfect and has already raised quite a few eyebrows among constitutional experts. Nonetheless, it does achieve the overarching objective of curtailing the powers of the Senate – the upper chamber of the Italian parliament. This means most bills would no longer need to be approved by both chambers, and future governments would only need the confidence of the lower chamber to enter office.
But the significance of the October referendum goes way beyond the content of the reform. Renzi has essentially turned it into a referendum on himself, by saying that, if the reform is rejected, he will resign and his political career will be over. The outcome of the referendum is absolutely impossible to predict at this stage, but it will not be an easy battle for Renzi. The main opposition parties – the Five-Star Movement, Lega Nord and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – will all be campaigning against the reform. Furthermore, referenda on constitutional matters do not need a minimum turnout to be valid. As a result, if Renzi loses the referendum, the risk of fresh political uncertainty in Italy – where the public is growing increasingly eurosceptic – should not be underestimated. If Renzi wins, my impression is that he might decide to go to snap elections in early 2017 anyway to seek a stronger reform mandate from voters – meaning that the Eurozone’s three largest economies would all be electing their leaders next year.
Fast forward to spring 2017, all eyes will be on Front National leader Marine Le Pen – who is widely expected to make it to the second round of the French presidential election. Unanswered questions abound. With the Socialist Party increasingly divided, not least over the latest labour reform bill, will François Hollande stand for re-election? Will he face challengers from his own political side (the names of Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron and his predecessor Arnaud Montebourg spring to mind)? All we know is that literally every single opinion poll so far suggests that, if Hollande were the Socialist candidate in 2017, he would not make it to the final run-off.
Another big question is who the centre-right frontrunner will be. We will know the answer later this year, but the two main hopefuls for the nomination are Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé (my money is on the latter). Interestingly, the two have expressed diverging views over Europe. Juppé has pledged a “resolutely pro-European” campaign. Sarkozy has been way more critical and has called for the “re-foundation” of Europe. He has recently come out in favour of EU Treaty change, and has been saying for quite some time that certain EU powers should be handed back to national governments.
Realistically, the chance of Marine Le Pen becoming French President next year is very slim. Based on current polling, either Sarkozy or Juppé would beat her in the second round. Nonetheless, in the wake of strong performances in recent local and regional elections, Front National has consolidated itself as the third big force of French politics – changing France’s political landscape significantly, and most likely permanently. This has inevitably had, and will continue to have, an impact on the French debate over Europe. Bear in mind that, according to a recent survey, 53% of French were in favour of holding an EU referendum – a flagship Front National pledge which is starting to gain momentum among the mainstream centre-right (see the recent remarks made by former Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire).
Just a few months after the French, Germans will also head to the polls to elect the new Bundestag – and there is no prize for guessing what story will be grabbing most headlines. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, launched in 2013 essentially as an anti-euro platform, has seized on the migrant crisis and has seen its support skyrocket in regional elections earlier this year. AfD has established itself as the third-largest force in opinion polls, and looks set to comfortably go above the 5% threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag. For German politics, that itself would be a big deal.
The rise of the AfD is the most visible symptom of a process to which Germany, unlike many other Eurozone countries, appeared to be immune so far: the increasing polarisation of the political spectrum, with the traditional centre-ground parties coming under pressure from both flanks. Support for the centre-left SPD has hit two-decade lows, and while Angela Merkel’s approval rating still makes Hollande secretly red with envy, the reality is that her CDU/CSU party has also lost about nine percentage points in recent opinion polls compared to the sweeping 41.5% it won in the 2013 federal election.
In other words, a stronger AfD could mean that, for the foreseeable future, neither the CDU nor the SPD may be able to govern with their preferred partners, the liberal FDP and the Greens respectively – potentially making grand coalitions the new norm in German politics. Somewhat ironically, this would ultimately open further space to parties such as the AfD and the hard-left Die Linke – who would increasingly pitch themselves as the real opposition to the establishment. How this all could impact on Germany’s EU policy is hard to know. A further element of uncertainty is whether, with no obvious political heir currently in sight to take over CDU leadership, Merkel will decide to stand for re-election (she would be seeking her fourth term as Chancellor).
This was admittedly just a very quick overview. I could have mentioned several other events. The next Dutch general election, for instance, is due to take place by mid-March 2017. After the rejection of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in a referendum earlier this year, the Netherlands could deliver another shocker – as the anti-immigrant PVV party led by Geert Wilders is currently topping opinion polls and looks on course to be the most voted for. Hungary is due to hold a referendum this autumn on whether to accept EU-wide quotas for the relocation of asylum-seekers – with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán among the staunchest opponents of the quota system. And so forth.
The broader point is that the political environment in Europe could change quite significantly not so long after the UK referendum – with inevitable implications for the future of Eurozone and EU integration. The UK will need a vision for how to deal with evolving political realities across the continent, whether it stays in the EU or not.