If you want to predict the future of politics in Western Europe ask yourself one question. Are Western Europeans prepared to live like Israelis? This isn’t a reference to Israel’s climate or ecology. It’s a reference to political violence. For decades Israeli citizens have lived with the knowledge that a violent death could be just around the corner. That they, or their families, or their friends, could be butchered by an enemy who regards the defenceless as legitimate targets. Does the man who just got on your bus have a bomb strapped to his torso, or a knife in his rucksack? That car driving you see coming towards you – is it driven by a father doing the school run, or a terrorist preparing to use his vehicle as a weapon? For decades Western Europeans, with the exception of small minorities (mostly concentrated in Ulster and the Basque Country) haven’t had to worry about these questions. Now, increasingly, they do – and the political fallout will be significant.
It is of course important to get things in perspective. The risk of being killed by terrorists in Western European countries is very low. But it is increasing, and the threat is starting to have a noticeable impact on ordinary people’s lives in a number of European states. France is probably the most extreme, and worrying, case. France is confronting something like a domestic insurgency. Since the beginning of 2015 there have been serious Islamist attacks roughly every few months, killing more than 230 people. France has been in a state of emergency since November 2015, has thousands of troops patrolling the streets and has called up 10,000 police reservists. In addition, as of January 2015, an estimated 1,200 French citizens had gone to fight for Sunni Jihadi groups in Syria. It’s almost certain that the number is now somewhat higher. Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, said the French would have to ‘learn to live with terrorism’. That is, to live like Israelis. But what if the French people aren’t prepared to? That’s when things get truly disconcerting.
If the population of France, or some other West European state, aren’t prepared to live like Israelis they will turn to the right. This is especially likely considering the extent to which the political centre in much of Europe has been eroded by both the Eurozone crisis and broader concerns about national identity (fuelled by the migration crisis). If the people do turn to the right, in my view, they have two chief options. The first is to back a broadly traditional Conservative, who has bolted on some policies from the populist/hard right. Sarkozy in France is probably the best example of this phenomenon. The second is to support a party of the hard or far-right. By this I mean a party that at least partly rejects the liberal-democratic-capitalist consensus which has dominated Western Europe since 1945, from a nationalist direction. In this category I’d put the French Front National, the Dutch and Austrian Freedom Parties, the Swedish Democrats and others. None of these parties are fascist, and all at least publically commit to democracy (which may or may not be an illusion). There are a handful of genuinely fascist parties in Europe, but it’s very hard to imagine any of these getting into power – with the possible exception of Hungary’s Jobbik (which remains highly unlikely).
Of the two choices traditional conservatism with a dose of populism has the advantage of seeming the less risky choice. They promise to confront terror without fundamentally transforming a countries political and/or economic system. However the radical-right have the advantage of seeming more genuine – they have spent decades establishing themselves as the authentic voice of anti-immigrant sentiment. Even if a hard-line conservative does win first (say Sarkozy wins the French Presidency in 2017 with promises to close extremist mosques and strip dual nationality terrorist suspects of their French citizenship) it’s far from clear that their policy solutions will address the issue. And if they don’t that just leaves the radical right.
So, to answer my own question, I don’t think Western Europeans are prepared to live like Israelis. As a result I think it’s highly likely that a party of the hard or far-right will take power in a Western European country in the short-to-mid future, and European liberals need to start preparing for this eventuality. I’m not sure which country it will happen in, though I’m prepared to have a guess. France, Austria and the Netherlands seem most vulnerable. All have parties of the radical right which are currently topping polls (the Front National, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and the Dutch Party for Freedom). The FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, has a reasonable chance of winning the re-run Austrian Presidential election on 2 October. He lost by only 0.6% of the vote to the Green Party’s Van der Bellen in the original vote in May, which was annulled by the Austrian Constitutional Court due to irregularities. Most disturbing though would be a Front National/Le Pen victory in May 2017. At best this would paralyse and polarise France, with Le Pen engaged in constant battles with a moderate legislature. But even in this scenario France would cease to be a reliable member of the liberal-democratic alliance.
So what should liberal-democrats do? Of course they need to listen, including to people’s concerns about immigration and cultural identity. But they also need to be ready for Governments of the nationalist right in Western Europe, possibly in France. France would clearly be the nightmare scenario. If France turns to the Front National, then two of Europe’s three serious military powers (and nuclear armed states) would be controlled by authoritarian nationalists. That is France as well as Russia, with Britain holding true to liberal-democracy. Certainly liberals need to start taking defence very seriously indeed – large parts of Europe are already incapable of defending themselves without American support, and this would become conditional in the event of a Trump Presidency. In particular Britain needs to maintain her nuclear weapons (a scenario in which nationalist run France and Russia are the only nuclear armed countries in Europe is unacceptable), and our political unity (if the UK breaks up it will clearly endanger our security – and consequently that of our allies).
Europe could be on the brink of a revolutionary moment – an event on the scale of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, or even the Russian revolution of 1917. A Front National victory in the French Presidential election, or a Trump victory in the American Presidential election would have a dramatic impact on world politics, and effectively end the post-1989 liberal-democratic consensus in most of Europe. And the probability of one of the two winning must be over 50%. In any case it’s time for European liberals to awake to the seriousness of the danger, and start preparing to deal with the radical right in power.