Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Four Horsemen of the Anti-Establishment Apocalypse

Adelina Marini, January 13, 2017

At the start of the year I forecasted quite bravely that the year 2017 will mark the beginning of the decline of anti-establishment parties and players and there we are – I did not need to wait too long for the new portion of proof on this thesis, which is based on several harbingers of such a process at the end of 2016 – the implosion that the Brexit caused to Great Britain, the loss of the far-rightwing presidential candidate in Austria, the Five Stars movement of Genovese comedian Beppe Grillo entering local government, which brought about unexpectedly swift besmearing of the party’s image as a bearer of a new value system and cleanliness in politics. 

An identity problem

The new year started off with a surprising piece of news – the decision of the Five Stars Movement to leave Nigel Farage's group in the European Parliament – Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy – and start negotiations for membership with the group of Liberals (ALDE). This happened last Sunday, when, in an online vote, 79% of Grillo’s movement’s supporters backed the decision. Grillo explained in a letter to Mr Farage that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has achieved its goal to lead Great Britain out of the EU, so its group in the European Parliament has lost its political purpose. "The 5 Star Movement's battle has yet to come, and to win it we evaluated to go to another political group in the European Parliament because, in this way, we think we can deal with more concentration both, you and us, the next challenges,” he wrote in the letter.

This move has totally focused attention on the Liberals' group, causing sharp reactions of regret from all sides (not just within the group). It remained unfathomable to many how the always passionate defender of more Europe and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals' group, could negotiate for the membership of one of the largest eurosceptic parties in Europe. Several hours later the application of the 5 Stars movement was discarded with the argument that points of intersection are way too few and later, on Facebook, Mr Verhofstadt explained that his intention was to encourage the transition of Five Stars from Euroscepticism towards a pro-European line. 

Guy Verhofstadt said another very important thing in his attempt at an excuse: “The Brexit Euroscepticism in action has opened the eyes of many. More than ever, it is my ambition to grow the pro-European block in the Parliament.” There is no doubt that Guy Verhofstadt, a convinced Eurofederalist had other motives as well, having in mind the ongoing elections for European Parliament president, him being one of the candidates. The Liberals' group is the fourth in size, but with Beppe Grillo’s 17 MEPs it would have turned into the third political power, like it was in previous Parliaments, and this would have given a serious boost to Verhofstadt’s application for the post of president after two consecutive terms of the German Social-Democrat Martin Schulz. 

Liberals suffered heavy losses with the fiasco, but it looks like in the long run problems are considerably larger for Beppe Grillo himself. The group was left by two distinguished members. One transferred into the group of the Greens, which is on the pro-European side, and the other one went to the even farther Eurosceptic corner of the political spectrum by joining Marine Le Pen's group – Europe of Nations and Freedom. At the same time, Five Stars decided to run back, but Nigel Farage set five conditions, the most indicative of them being that the movement must press for holding a referendum in Italy to leave the euro area. 

Swinging between ultra-pro-European Liberals and British Eurosceptics, as well as splicing off in different directions (which will conceivably continue) is clearly showing the problem with the identity of the Five Stars movement and the lack of a clearly stated goal – leaving the euro area, the EU in general, or a reform of sorts. Debates in the European Parliament on different subjects have uncovered the heterogeneity of the movement. There are MEPs who are not Eurosceptic but reformists, expecting changes in rules (especially fiscal and migration ones) of the EU, but there are outright eurosceptics, to whom the euro is the source of all of Italy’s economic troubles. 

Following the failure of Matteo Renzi’s referendum in December and his resignation from the prime minister’s post, Five Stars have faced the real opportunity of winning the power in Italy. At the moment, they are the most popular party in the country. The lack of identity, however, as well as the perspective of having parliamentary elections held all the way into 2018 are a minefield for the movement. As Maltese PM Joseph Muscat stated on the occasion of the start of the Maltese presidency of the Council of the EU, populists’ biggest nightmare is governing. 

Nigel Farage is freelancing

The main moving force of euroscepticism in the EU by the middle of 2016 was Nigel Farage – MEP of long standing, but with an empty legislative portfolio. His role in the European Parliament throughout his career was to turn the EU into enemy number 1 of European citizens. His initiative succeeded to a great extent after his party, which is marginal in British national overview, UKIP, managed to force the Conservatives into being Faragians. As high ranking European politicians have noted, the difference between Conservatives and UKIP has watered down considerably. The big victory of Faragian Euroscepticism was the referendum of June 2016, when the will for Great Britain leaving the EU prevailed. 

This did not bring the shock to the EU that Nigel Farage expected, but it did throw the Kingdom into a gruelling implosion. Following his confession of having lied about fundamental things during the campaign, Nigel Farage has stepped down from the leadership post in his party and his successor Paul Nutall has announced a radically different course for the party, which had lost its purpose following the referendum. Nutall stated that he intended to bring “reason” back to the party and set up a course towards stealing voters from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. This, again, is a sign of searching for an identity in order to survive politically and give meaning to political existence. The party continues to be Eurosceptic, but this has no effect at the background of the entire Eurosceptic atmosphere in Great Britain, where pro-European parties stand no chance. 

The change of course of UKIP has turned Nigel Farage into a freelancer. First he offered his services to Donald Trump, but suffered a failure. So, for now, he remains a member of the European Parliament, where he will remain a horseman of the Eurosceptic apocalypse. One thing is for sure – with the advancement of negotiations about Great Britain’s leaving the EU, his image will continue to get more and more compromised. 

The burst of the Trump bubble

Donald Trump’s behaviour following his election as US President shows undoubtedly that he will not grow up and change radically following his inauguration. There are more and more analyses on the Constitutional possibilities for taking him out of power, but it will be better for the sake of society's health  if this is not done immediately, so that Mr Trump can unleash the full destructive potential of his personality-centred populism. The more gaffes he is allowed to make, the surer it will be that even his die-hardest fans will see the harm of his trumpidiocy and that it is not advisable to try it at home without adult supervision. 

This will act as a laxative to society which, in an attempt at finding the best way to making its life better bet on false prophets. The catharsis might have a high price, but it is desperately needed. Mr Trump’s governance inspires and gives wings to his European followers, amongst whom the most risk for the EU is carried by Marine Le Pen, for should she win the presidential election in France at the end of the year, it would mean serious quakes for the EU. Such lending of wings, besides the risks, also carries the chance that these followers will crash. The advancement of Trump’s presidency and the intensity of his political extremism will work in inverse proportion with Eurosceptics. He will no longer be their fuel, but their poison. 

Donald Trump, at this stage, offers no concrete solutions. He lowered the debate to the most primitive of levels. No economic principles are discussed, no political ideologies are discussed, international rules don’t matter, and diplomatic language is a terra incognita to the president-elect of the United States of America. He sets the tone at a personal level, through insults. It is a matter of time before some of his supporters get insulted if, at some point ,they get disappointed with him. 

Marine Le Pen – the French Nigel Farage

Ms Le Pen’s showings so far in the European Parliament uncover significant resemblances to Mr Farage. A large portion of her anti-European statements are either not based on fact at all, or slide along the edge of truth. A discerning spot of anti-establishment political players is the fact that they never speak right to the point. They speak in slogans and find it difficult to answer specific questions, artfully covering-up these deficiencies with attacks against media. In this sense, the interview of Marine Le Pen for the influential American foreign policy magazine Foreign Affairs from October of last year is a case in point. What further worsens Ms Le Pen’s situation is that her party received a loan from a Russian bank, connected to the Kremlin. This is a weak spot for her and will only get weaker with the unfolding of the scandal in the USA around the Russian influence on the electoral process there and Russia’s connections to Trump. 

Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Beppe Grillo, and Marine Le Pen are the four horsemen of the anti-establishment apocalypse. Their failure has been planted in their very nature of anti-systemic players. Their behaviour model is a sure recipe for disaster which does, however, lend opportunities for establishment parties to mobilise and position themselves as islands of security and stability. The question is how long will their downfall take and what is the price we will pay for the luxury of understanding that stepping outside of the common norms we have reached after a long and bloody evolution costs dearly and is painful.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev