Italy’s referendum is Europe’s next test in its fight for survival

The European political landscape best resembles croquet, the game popularized by the British in the 19th century. Its rules seem simple enough: players compete by knocking balls through hoops on a lawn. But like so much else, it’s more complicated than it seems. It’s a game of positions, as is the shifting politics of Europe.

In the next year, balls must be knocked through a number of crucial hoops for the European Union to survive. If they are not, then the Union is likely to collapse. Indeed, each one of the hoops might be labelled “if”, to remind the players – the EU member states – that if they miss, the damage may be fatal to their Union.

One of the hoops has already been missed. Britain’s June vote to exit the European Union is now widely seen as a retreat into surly isolation by a slim majority who don't like foreigners. It largely isn’t that, though, and the decision was quite unlike the movement which elected Donald Trump as U.S. president. In large part, the Brits voted to make clear that the Westminster parliament, not a confusing jumble of acronyms in Brussels, was their lawmaking institution.

I voted Remain, fearful of the economic consequences and reluctant to weaken the Union further in the face of a threatening Russia. But it’s hard not to admire other voters’ determination to support a centuries’ old parliament over an unelected institution which cannot decide if it should attempt to construct a full-fledged European state, or even the fiscal union necessary to support the enfeebled euro. Far from rejecting liberal democracy, Brexit was a vote for its retention. But it certainly made the EU stagger.

The next hoop is Italian. On Sunday, Dec. 4, citizens will vote in a referendum on a government proposal to change the constitution by strengthening the lower house of parliament against the Senate, cutting the endless legislative ping-pong between two chambers of equal power. If the young premier, Mateo Renzi, loses a referendum which he’s made his personal property, he may resign, as he has threatened to do, and the government may fall. The choice will then likely be between another unelected, technocratic government – Italy has had several – and one drawn from the ranks of the populist Five Star Movement. The seven-year-old movement, co-founded by the comedian-blogger Beppe Grillo, has no national governing experience.

Sunday may provide a double-whammy. A second vote on the presidency of Austria may see Norbert Hofer of the far right Freedom Party installed in the imperial Hofburg Palace – if he beats the Green politician, Alexander van der Bellen. Pollsters, now a cautious bunch, say it’s too close to call. If he wins, his constitutional power will be limited – but the effect beyond Austria’s borders will be huge.

The next hoop takes us to France, and to April 23, 2017, when the first round of voting for a president is held. We know that the far-right National Front will field its leader, Marine Le Pen, and that the center-right candidate will be Francois Fillon of the Republican Party, a former prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy. We don’t know who the Socialist candidate will be now that unpopular incumbent Francois Hollande has decided not to run, but the Left is deeply divided as it approaches the election.

The established view is that Le Pen and Fillon, a conservative Catholic, would push any socialist out in the first round, and that Fillon would take the presidency in the run off. But established wisdom has had a rough year, and Trump’s win has prompted several influential commentators to flag Le Pen as a possible winner. If she pulls it off, the EU is likely finished: in a recent interview, she promised a referendum on both the euro and the EU within six months of taking power. If Fillon wins as expected, he will enforce a still harder line on immigration and terrorism: he has said that that while he does not believe there is a religious problem in France, “there is a problem with Islam”.

The most important hoop will be played next autumn, likely in September, when Germany holds federal elections. Angela Merkel, the current chancellor and still the country’s most popular political figure, has said she will run. But the mass immigration she allowed last year has eroded her popularity as well as that of her Christian Democratic (CDU) party. The anti-immigration party Alternativ fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) – led by Frauke Petry, who, like Merkel, was brought up in East Germany – is now the country’s third-most popular party. It is solidly against more Muslim immigration and committed to a “Europe of sovereign states”.

It is scarcely conceivable that AfD would become the biggest party next autumn: but if it did well, it might siphon enough votes away from Merkel to let in a coalition of the left, led by the Social Democrats who presently have less than 25 per cent popularity ratings. The AfD is likely to gain a substantial block of deputies in the Bundestag, and may, if terrorism surges once more and if the economy falters, pose a real danger to centrist rule in the future.

There’s a further hoop this year, which could either help the centrist establishment parties or give succor to the new nationalists. When the leaders of the EU states meet on Dec. 15 and 16, they are expected to discuss the elephant in the room: the need for greater economic and financial integration. That vision has so far eluded them as Germany, by some way the most dynamic economy, refuses to relax its insistence on debt reduction and spending cuts.

If that discussion is again postponed, or if it is inconclusive or divisive, the tentative signs of EU states coming together after Brexit will dissipate, and the crisis will deepen. The Union must go through all of these hoops if it is have a chance of survival, and be able to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. For that, the players must show a croquet-like skill of hand and eye which hasn't been much in evidence in the year now passing. If they are able.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

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