In France, the National Front polled one third of the votes in the December 6 regional elections — a dramatic advance from June 2014 when it hoovered up 25% in the European elections.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and California, have, of course, boosted the anti-establishment populists. However, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are also drawing on a huge well-spring of discontent caused by the economic stagnation affecting countless medium-sized towns and industrial communities across the Western world.
Exit polls in France last night indicated that the National Front had in fact been beaten into third place in the poll having failed to win a single region in the second round of elections.
But, despite a move towards Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right Republicans at the second outing, the first round of voting handed the FN their best election results in its history.
Far-right National Front party deprived of any constituency despite strong first-round showing in French elections https://t.co/Z8iMWpzBWH— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) December 13, 2015
Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls last night warned the “danger posed by the far right has not gone away, far from it”.
The success of the National Front, in turn, comes amid signs that the whole European Union project is in deep trouble.
The spark has been the terrorist attacks in France which have exposed deep flaws in the Schengen agreement, the deal which led to the removal of internal border controls within the EU.
Twelve French cities are now run by the Front Nationale: a typical example is the Eastern French town of Hayange which recently lost its main industry, a steelworks.
Since succeeding her father, Jean-Marie, the FN leader, Marine Le Pen, has targeted the votes of industrial workers in an effort to broaden her party’s base.
Le Pen targets twin ‘evils’ — the failure of establishment politicians and the ‘liberalism’ of the EU. The coal and steel belt now has a thriving FN base .
The coal and steel pact agreed in 1950 between France and Germany was to form the basis for the establishment of the European Economic Community seven years later.
But today, Le Pen is pushing to ‘regain’ France’s territorial and monetary sovereignty.
Unlike Ukip, and sections of the Tory party, she is not pressing for a French exit from the EU, but makes it clear that she cares little about what might happen to the EU.
One who cares a lot is Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Europe’s undisputed leader.
The usually ultra-cautious Merkel surprised many by extending a welcoming hand to refugees in September after the body of drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, was washed ashore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum.
While human emotion drove that response to the pictures of the dead child, Merkel’s close adviser, Peter Altmaier, strongly believes that Germany’s economy, given the rapid ageing of its labour force, is in bad need of the skilled migrants emerging from places like Syria.
But the Chancellor’s actions provoked a huge response from people desperate for a place of refuge, leading to accusations of naivety on her part.
Germany is now on course to receive one million migrants from Africa and Asia this year, a figure that could be topped up by another million when family members are allowed in.
Germany’s services, particularly at local level, are buckling.
Bavaria, the political heartland of Merkel’s political partner, the CSU, is bearing the brunt and the Chancellor is facing a revolt within her own Christian Democratic Union.
Under pressure from her interior minister, and faced with plummeting poll ratings, Merkel has accepted the need to impose internal controls.
With this in mind, she agreed a deal with Turkey’s notoriously tricky president Erdogan, under which the Turks will receive around €3bn along with — ironically — commitments on visas for its citizens in return for the introduction on controls aimed at halting the runaway flow of migrants into Greece.
There is now a strong prospect that the EU establishment will agree to introduce a shrunken border-free travel area within the EU, with the introduction of a border running along the path of the old Iron Curtain separating East from West, but with Greece also on the wrong side of this line.
Hungary and Poland — and even Slovakia and the Czech Republic — have drifted away from the EU mainstream in the face of the migrant crisis.
The recent Polish elections brought a strong right-wing government to power in Warsaw, and Eastern Europe appears to have broken with Brussels over the matter of taking in its fair share of refugees.
The idea of free movement of people within the EU is also under threat as France flirts with right-wing extremism and German voters grow increasingly resentful over the lack of solidarity with them shown by many EU member states.
The Greeks, Italians, Swedes and Maltese have also been left to host disproportionate numbers of immigrants.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, a social democrat, has warned: “If some countries block any solution to the refugee crisis, then it will make sense to only work together with those who show goodwill.”
Schulz went on to warn that the future of the EU itself is at stake.
Markus Feldenkirchen, a senior editor with Der Spiegel has warned of a sharp deterioration in the climate in Germany in the years since he moved to the US.
But the centrifugal forces, despite being driven by economic crisis, could be driven back.
One third of Europeans questioned by Eurobarometer regard free movement across borders as a major achievement. More than 200,000 people now commute to work in Switzerland (a member of Schengen).
Voters may not wish to throw away such benefits in a hurry.
In Spain, the most successful party is the centrist pro-reform and pro-enterprise party, Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), with over 23% support in the latest poll.
It is currently eclipsing the leftist Podemos,
This move to the centre comes on the back of a modest economic recovery which has seen unemployment drop from 27% to 21%, a sign that a fracturing in attitudes is more a temporary symptom of despair than anything more deep-seated.
Further terrorist atrocities could, of course, lie in wait, but the penny may drop with some voters that political and economic fragmentation, and a lurch into extremism and economic protectionism may amount to precisely what our enemies crave.