A Dark Age for European Democracy?

How the Political Center Will Fare in 2017

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's Law and Justice party, speaks in Warsaw, December 2015. Kacper Pempel / REUTERS

On November 17, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama published an article in the German magazine WirtschaftsWoche, outlining their countries’ shared commitments to the values of individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law; collective defense through the NATO alliance; and international cooperation on issues from refugee policy to climate change mitigation. Their essay served as a reminder of the values that have been at the heart of the transatlantic alliance of liberal democracies for decades.

In recent months, nationalists and populists have challenged those values on both sides of the Atlantic. In June, the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union gave populists their first major win of the year. Then, last month, the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency placed a candidate who had demonstrated disdain for democratic values such as the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law into the world’s most powerful office. In Europe, far-right politicians and autocrats from Budapest to Moscow cheered Trump’s victory; establishment leaders reacted with shock. Western liberal democracy, seemingly ascendant at the end of the Cold War, now seems threatened on all sides. These are particularly dark days for European democracy. 

No one can no know precisely how Trump will govern or what foreign policies he will pursue. But some of the effects that his presidency will have on Europe and the transatlantic alliance are already clear. Trump’s victory will not propel far-right politicians to power, but it may bolster their confidence as they challenge establishment politicians. For those populists already in power, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's governing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the country's de facto leader, the Trump administration could be a powerful friend. 

The president-elect's campaign statements suggest he will demand that European countries spend more on their own defense. That is a reasonable position, but Trump may counteract

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