A divided continent

Angela Merkel stays in power but the rise in far right support poses a big challenge to European politics.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election yesterday will be a bittersweet victory for her.

Although Merkel’s Christian conservatives came in first, it was the party’s worst election result since 1949.

The far right Alternative for Germany capitalised on Merkel’s diminished success and came in third.

It’s the first time since 1945 that a nationalist party will take seat in the German parliament.

Merkel paid a price for her migration policy which many on the right deemed too tolerant. A lot of new voters came out to protest against Merkel’s coalition with the social democrats.

It shows even Germany, generally considered the most stable and economically strong power in Europe, isn’t immune to the populist movements that have been gaining support on the continent.

But even though the surge in far right support dominates the headlines, there are reasons to be optimistic about Europe’s future too.

The disenchanted find their voice

Far right populist parties in Europe have gained a lot of support recently.

Many of them only played a marginal role on the fringes before a recent surge in support turned them more mainstream.

There’s no question that Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis has lost her support. Though her approval ratings have improved since the high point of the crisis, many voters hadn’t forgotten about it at the ballot.

It’s the “what about us?” mentality that mainstream parties across Europe struggle to deal with.

Governments have gone to great lengths to bail out banks when they needed help. Many European countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees in the past few years.

In both cases money could be found that voters had frequently been told wasn’t available before.

The people who feel they’ve been overlooked and whose anxieties haven’t been taken seriously enough have now turned to populists to make their voices heard.

The fact that the German far right picked up 1.2 million votes from people who didn’t vote in the previous parliamentary elections seems to illustrate the disenchanted have finally found a way to make themselves heard.

After talk that Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are looking to integrate Europe further, the German parliament will now seat 94 Eurosceptic MPs (out of a total 709).

It’s never been clearer that Europe is pulling in two opposite directions at once.

Mainstream parties hold on

“Germany’s election confirms the overriding trend of European politics in the past year: the crumbling of the Continent’s established parties in the face of voter anxiety over economics and identity,” the Wall Street Journal writes.

I believe this statement is only partly true.

Eurosceptic – and often nationalist – parties gaining support in this year’s European elections is clear proof of a backlash against Europe’s deeper integration.

Most European governments have embraced globalisation but its side-effects, including more immigration, are changing our societies dramatically.

This is what now causes a group of people to pull the handbrake.

But overall this election year has still proved a win for Europe’s mainstream political parties. They didn’t crumble – they held on.

Though a dark year was forecast, centrist parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany in the end quite comfortably kept the far right out of power.

The number of votes far right parties received also appears on the high end of what they can realistically expect to win.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, support for the far right in Germany could be as high as 15%. Yesterday this group won 12.6% of the votes, but it’s not really clear where it could get the support it needs to make a real difference.

The far right will struggle to win any real power in Western Europe unless complacency kicks in and voters from other parties decide to stay home on election day.

A backlash against the backlash

There’s no sign of that complacency just yet.

If anything, there’s a backlash against the backlash where people increasingly mobilise against far right movements.

Yesterday a large group of German voters went to the streets to show their disgust at the far right coming in third. Earlier in the year voters united to keep the far right out of power in France and the Netherlands.

In yesterday’s election the circumstances may have contributed to boost the far right’s rise too.

For months it had been clear that the coalition parties would become the two biggest parties. Merkel’s re-election was never really in doubt.

This made the far right the most obvious protest vote.

If the election had been a closer race between Merkel’s CDU and the social-democratic SPD, I’m not so sure the far right would have garnered this much support.

And let’s not forget that Merkel, despite losing votes, still reigned supreme.

In most democracies leaders would struggle to enthuse voters after 12 years in power, which makes it all the more impressive she beat the number two by more than 13%.

Still, the rise of the far right means there’s no room for complacency in European politics. It’s a sign voter anxieties need to be taken seriously.

The biggest challenge European politicians face is how they can address today’s problems without driving a bigger wedge between the people who welcome further integration and those who resist it.

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