Donald Trump’s election has Europe’s own populists hoping, and others fearing, that they can ride the wave of anti-elitist sentiment to power. That may come to pass, but not just yet.
An analysis of opinion polls taken in the days since Trump’s upset suggest it gave no immediate bounce to his Old World counterparts. A report this week by German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung said that Brexit may have produced a flight to safety toward the troubled union rather than a Eurosceptic surge.
Take France. Marine Le Pen has made no effort to hide her glee at either Brexit or Trump’s success. She heads the hard right National Front party and is considered a shoo-in to reach the final round of the French presidential election in May, though not to win. A Nov. 14 opinion poll by Ipsos showed no sign of a coat tail effect from Trump’s election, with her 30 percent support unchanged from before the Nov. 8. Other polls suggest that French enthusiasm for staying in the European Union has risen since the Brexit referendum.
Given the dismal record of opinion polls in predicting either the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU or Trump’s electoral college defeat of Hillary Clinton in the U.S., all polling data comes with a severe caveat: They may well be wrong. And even if correct, populists have been gaining ground in Europe regardless of Trump.
Any trend in one direction or another should emerge and the pattern across Europe since Nov. 8 is similar to that in France: It suggests no immediate Trump effect.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s study also seemed to confound expectations. It found that when asked if they’d vote to stay in the EU or leave it, populations across Europe have been more likely say they’d opt to stay since the U.K. voted to go, than before. Spain was an exception.
“I think it’s because what we saw in the direct aftermath of the referendum was not a very pretty sight. We saw economic insecurity and a public debate that continues to be quite ugly,” said Isabell Hoffmann, the Stiftung’s head of surveys. “People tend to say that if this is the consequence of such a decision, which hasn’t even materialized yet, it is not what we want.”
Something similar may be damping any Trump effect. Although polls do show some marginal gains and losses for Europe’s populists since he became the U.S. president-elect, nearly all are within the statistical 2 to 3 percentage point margin of error cited by most polls, suggesting no immediate boost.
Germany has become a testing ground for how far populism can go. In announcing she will run for a fourth term next year, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that the rise of the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany will make it a tough fight. For the moment, Trump does not seem to have made it any harder. A Nov. 14 survey by the INSA polling agency showed the AfD up by one percentage point, at 14.5 percent, since Trump’s win. Two other polls, taken on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10, showed AfD’s support unchanged at 12 percent.
In Italy, meanwhile, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if he fails to win a Dec. 4 referendum to amend the constitution, potentially triggering early elections. The populist Five Star movement, which celebrated Trump’s victory, has seen no change in its support, according to a poll conducted immediately after the U.S. election outcome.
On the same day as Italy’s referendum, Austria faces a rerun of its May presidential election. The hard right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost the original vote to his Green Party opponent, and successfully challenged the result. Of two polls taken since Trump’s election, one had support for Hofer up by a percentage point, at 52 percent, and one was unchanged, at 49 percent.
That populists can win elections in Europe, or that their anti-elitist message is gaining traction is not in doubt. Even before Brexit, Poland’s Law and Justice had success and Austria’s Freedom Party entered coalition governments more than a decade ago.
What is noteworthy though is that Trump’s bruising campaign appears to have been unattractive to most Europeans, including many of those who back populists in their own countries. In a worldwide WIN/Gallup survey, carried out in August and September, Trump scored just 10 percent support in France, suggesting that at least two thirds of Le Pen’s voters preferred either Hillary Clinton or nobody
Of course, these negative perceptions might change, should either Brexit or the Trump presidency prove successful.