What comes next in Europe might surprise us

As the writer, Anais Nin put it, “All the art of analysis consists in saying a truth only when the other person is ready for it.” Political risk analysis — which is essentially an art rather than a science, and no less essential for it — demands thinking ahead so as to always be ready for whatever comes or, as Nin would put it, to always be ready for the truth. To never be surprised when seemingly unlikely events unfold is an artistic prerequisite to doing political risk well.

At present, two somewhat unconsidered but quite possible political currents are unfolding in the heart of Europe. While the potential of Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Valerie Pecresse of France to rise to power has been under-evaluated, it is also likely that at least one of these “surprising” events will happen. To see what comes next in Europe, it is imperative to take the possibility of their success seriously, and to do so now.

Outside of Italy, almost no one has thought through the fact there is a very real possibility that Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, could soon be prime minister. She has proven to be a savvy political operator, working with some success to detoxify a party that still has all too many ties to the fascist nightmare of Benito Mussolini.

In addition, Meloni sensibly opted to stay outside of Mario Draghi’s COVID-19-inspired government of national unity. She has ably criticized the Draghi government’s many panicky zigzags regarding pandemic policy, as well as emerging as an eloquent (if somewhat unlikely) champion of parliamentary sovereignty and the need for the technocratic-heavy government to more openly and democratically submit its program to the Italian people. All of this has done her a world of good, as her party has risen to second place in the most recent Italian polling ahead of the next scheduled election in 2023.

Politico’s Jan. 10 poll of polls put the center-left Democratic Party at 22 percent, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy just behind at 20 percent, the far-right League on 19 percent, and the populist and foundering Five Star Movement at 15 percent. These numbers make it obvious the right will be heavily favored to win the 2023 parliamentary election.

Better still for Meloni, she has put in place a deal with Matteo Salvini of the League — long the golden boy of the far right — that whichever of their parties does best in the next election will have its prime ministerial candidate favored by both, making them the odds-on favorite to assume power. While Italian politics is byzantine at best and while there are many twists and turns to come over the next 18 months, at present a strong case can be made that the far-right Meloni (with all the policy repercussions this entails) is as likely as anyone to be prime minister, and as soon as next year.

Likewise, in France, a largely unknown woman has also quietly made political inroads. Pecresse, the leader of the Paris regional council and former Cabinet minister in the Sarkozy government, has surprisingly emerged as the Gaullist candidate for the French presidency, with the two rounds of voting to be held in the late spring and early summer of this year.

The latest polling numbers from Politico find President Emmanuel Macron with 25 percent of the vote, the far-right Marine Le Pen with 17 percent of the likely tally, Pecresse breathing down her neck at 16 percent, and with Eric Zemmour — the far-right talk show superstar — at 13 percent. Given the complexities of the French voting system, this means that Macron would easily get through to the decisive second round, but that the other three all still stand a real chance of advancing in the second slot.

Unlike the personality-driven campaigns of Macron, Le Pen and Zemmour — who merely have factions rather than established parties behind them — Pecresse is the heiress of the Gaullist Party, the oft-ruling governing party of the French Fifth Republic. The party has branches throughout the country, long-established community ties, money and organizational clout, giving her a level of support the other three candidates simply cannot match. Also, Pecresse, as opposed to her far-right rivals, simply cannot be demonized as a threat to the safety of the republic — she, like Macron, is a moderate center-right politician who demonstrably poses no threat to the French state.

As such, if there is a runoff between Macron and Pecresse, the incumbent cannot count on disaffected leftists to unenthusiastically but decisively vote for him, as they did in the 2017 showdown between Macron and Le Pen. Instead, the president’s many detractors — due to his imperious intellectual nature, he has never been loved by his countrymen, if admired as capable — now have a real opportunity to vote against him. With Pecresse only a point behind Le Pen as the campaign gets into full swing, she has a real chance to claim the Elysee Palace.

For both Meloni and Pecresse, victory is far from assured. However, as Nin’s analytical injunction makes clear, neither should these seemingly surprising political risk outcomes really surprise us if they swiftly come to pass.

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.

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