The European Union stands on the threshold.
Next week, the people of the Netherlands will be the first in Europe this year to vote on the right wing populism that seems to be taking hold in the West.
In the elections on March 15, the anti-Muslim, anti EU wing populist Geert Wilders has a good chance to win.
Wilders’ continuing popularity is no accident or Dutch peculiarity but part of an alarming global trend of nationalist isolationism.
In the wake of Brexit, right wing French presidential candidate Marine le Pen wants to exit the European Union and restore France’s historical glory. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel also faces an election this year, amid opposition to her pro-immigration policies.
In tiny but wealthy Denmark, the right-wing Danish People’s Party came close to winning elections less than two years ago and forced the social democrats to adopt a tough line on immigration. Hungary and Poland are about to go down the authoritarian path of Russia and Turkey.
In the United States, Donald Trump has been elected on a nationalist and authoritarian platform.
The worst case scenario
It’s hard to avoid the impression that we’re witnessing the return of the 1930s.
Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, Europe and the Western world quickly descended into a political crisis not unlike ours today, seeing the resurgence of aggressive nationalism, the suppression of minorities, the rise of populist anti-elitism, assaults on democratic values and institutions, and, on the international stage, the rule of brute force.
By the end of the 1930s, the world had entered a devastating global war that saw, among others, the destruction of much of Europe, the systematic mass murder of the European Jews, and the eve of the age of the atomic bomb.
We are fortunately still far from such horrors. Still, as a warning and a plea to defend democracy, the prominent American historian Timothy Snyder has recently felt the urge to highlight parallels between the rise of Hitler and the election of Trump.
As in the US, in Europe this drift to authoritarian rule has become chronic and can no longer be deemed a nasty blip in a story of peace and integration.
It has solidified into well-established right-wing parties that are serious candidates for winning national elections.
It has become part of the belief in the minds of many Europeans: that the EU is a creation by and for the elite and is responsible for all the distress and challenges common people are facing.
The denial of expert knowledge and the ‘post-truth era’ indicate how severe the rift between the political and economic elites and a growing number of the citizenry has become. Their inability to respect and even speak to each other hinders compromises, aggravates political tensions, and undermines democratic life.
What started as a temporary crisis has solidified into a serious challenge for European unity and Western democracy.
Why is this happening?
Peaceful European integration has been based on the moral lessons of the Second World War and the stability of the Cold War.
While the devastation of the Second World War taught generations of Europeans a key lesson against national aggression and war, the Cold War forced (Western) European states to co-operate within a stable Western hemisphere.
Seventy years after the end of the Second World War and almost thirty years after the end of the Cold War, both cornerstones of European unity are gradually withering away.
European cohesion increasingly relies on the concrete material benefits and emotional affection provided by the European Union.
Since the global financial crisis in 2008, this has been severely tested and the EU has not yet found a compelling way to handle the challenges of global economic competition, growing migration flows, and inner-European differences and inequalities.
The weakness of the European Union — and of liberal democracy more broadly — is the source of strength for Wilders, le Pen, and the like: they address (or appear to address) people’s grievances and promise radical change.
Yet their solutions are walls, suppression of minorities, and national parochialism, which — if we take the 1930s as a guide — will only aggravate the crisis and lead to a path of suffering and destruction.
As states close their borders and withdraw from international co-operation, the global economy will stagnate, regional economic and humanitarian crises will escalate, and, ultimately, pressure will mount at the gates of the richer states.
Democracy, freedom and human rights need to be defended
History alerts us to the fragility of the liberal democratic system and the need to defend it.
It is imperative that Europe finds an effective answer to its populists. It means taking the grievances of the people seriously and translating them into viable political programmes.
If the Western liberal elites, institutions, and established parties correct their approach to globalisation and prioritise combating global inequalities and regional crises in a co-ordinated way, we may still be reasonably optimistic that Europe and the West will find a way out of the authoritarian maze.
Perhaps the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany will point us in the right direction.
Dr Volker Prott, modern European history expert, University of Melbourne.
This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.