The voice of an angry populace will be heard. Recent elections in Germany, Austria, and Spain suggest the migration of displaced Syrians across the continent is leading to political convulsions rarely seen since World War II. Some will describe it as the radicalization of conventional politics. Others will describe these convulsions as a safety valve for the Europeans obliged to deal with the migration issue. For many, any party willing to say “stop” will receive a hearing.
It is not coincidental that in the U.S. that Donald Trump has ridden this horse to the nomination. There are many Americans fed up with uncontrolled immigration and its effect on the criminal justice system, the schools and the quality of city life. Trump may be a maladroit as a spokesman for a movement, but he has a remarkable instinct for unleashing the pent up frustration of a class of people left behind in the race for success.
This populism is a Western wide phenomenon that will reach the Asian shores at some point. In Japan, this political condition will translate into a demographic concern as the population decline affects everything from tax revenue to retail sales. China’s disruption isn’t far off either. When the government pulls the plug on inefficient state subsidized businesses and unemployment soars, a dramatic political effect is inexorable.
Later in the fall, Italy faces a constitutional referendum seen as an up-or-down vote on Premier Matteo Renzi’s pro European government. In each case, a vote represents a persistent sense of fragmentation, an antiestablishment sentiment dogging most of Europe. Clearly the possibility of the EU unravelling is real. Each populist success seems to engender the next in what detractors would describe as the “populist contagion.” French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen is likely to make it into the second round of French voting for the presidency next spring, a prediction that would have seemed far-fetched three years ago.
To some degree the political turbulence is a function of the challenges weighing on Europe’s economies. It is instructive that the Brexit vote did not have the catastrophic effect on the United Kingdom as was predicted. But, interestingly the EU has suffered from the British vote. The precise contours of the political debate vary from one place to the next, but the disaffection with the so-called establishment echoes across the continent and to the other side of the Atlantic.
Clearly the major point of contention that accounted for the Brexit vote and the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is the refugee policy. Merkel’s German rivals use slogans such as “Politics for our own people” and Trump contends “we must be a country again”. The meaning is clear. Many people have a diffuse feeling the government no longer has this refugee challenge under control.
With stagnant economies and the insertion of millions of refugees into the equation, Europe is facing the prospect of radical politics and the U.S. is not far behind. The globe is shaking with the realization that the assumptions of the past are not valid, that history is taking a turn into the unknown and the precarious. It is time for a reckoning; when it will end and where it will end is anyone’s guess.