Europe's great show was supposed to be titled The End of History in Europe. But the playbill has been revised. The actors are not who we were promised. The script has undergone last-minute changes. And what is now unfolding onstage is radically different than what the hoity-toity audience had expected.
After the European Central Bank navigated the crisis of last decade, and shoved Greece upon against the wall, everyone was supposed to calm down and get on with the show. The free movement of goods and people, overseen by the enlightened political integrators in Brussels, would shortly achieve the promises of Marxism, weakening the state and dissolving the private cultural forms that lead to danger; namely, national and religious difference.
But something unexpected is happening. Instead of staging a production called The End of History in Europe, the show coming onstage is The European Spring of 2017. And haughty elites throughout the West ought to be shaken to their very core.
In a few weeks, the Dutch will hold elections. Polls show that gadfly nationalist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom are set to gain the most seats on March 15. Wilders has vowed to "de-Islamize" the Netherlands. (He may be blocked from assuming power, though, since most other parties in the politically fragmented Dutch scene have vowed not to go into a coalition with Wilders' party.)
Theresa May has promised that the U.K. will trigger Article 50 and kick off formal Brexit negotiations by the end of March. Indications increasingly are that it will be a "hard Brexit." How hard, exactly, is difficult to know.
Then there's the big one: France. Marine Le Pen began the year promising that France would wake up. Many are predicting that her party, the Front Nationale, will be beaten in the runoffs once again, as the center-right and center-left unite to defeat her.
Don't be so sure.
This week, the futures market Paddy Power gave Le Pen stronger odds of winning the election (9/4) that it ever gave Donald Trump of becoming president of the United States. Her strongest opponent, Francois Fillon, is now mired in a nest-feathering scandal. If Le Pen is elected, she promises to begin removing France from the EU immediately, which would put the whole union in jeopardy. More and more, the point of the union seemed to be to get France to buy into peaceful German domination of the continent. And if France leaves, Germany would have to weigh its options. Wind down these political arrangements and get the Deutschmark back, or do what it has never been willing to do before: Offer smaller states in the European Union a German backstop for their debts and a vision of equalizing living standards across the EU.
And remember what's looming after a hot summer: Germany's federal elections in September, with parties like the Alternative for Germany promising to sap some strength from Angela Merkel's grip on German politics.
The electoral success of Brexit seemed to energize Trump's supporters. And Trump's success may now have run-on effects in Europe. Both Brexit and Trump seemed to outperform the polls, and their victories have given nationalist movements reasons for hope and quite a bit of momentum. The populist conservative government in Poland, for instance, seems to have successfully faced down the wave of international condemnation it met, and the domestic demonstrations against it.
A poll last week showed that majorities in many European countries support something like a "Muslim ban" for themselves, one more sweeping than even President Trump tried (and for now, failed) to create for the United States. In most European countries polled, less than 25 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that "all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped." Psychologically, people seem to be detaching from the era that we have been living in, and accepting the new era to come.
I'd still rate the possibility of a true nationalist sweep across Europe rather low. But why would anyone put stock in predictions of dry weather from people who are still soaked from the last unforeseeable squall?
Time will tell. Curtains come up soon.