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The year 2016 was marked by high-intensity political earthquakes in the West. First there was the Brexit referendum in June, and then the shock November election of Donald Trump. While the former dealt a serious blow to the European Union (EU) project, the latter portended a retrenchment of the post-war global order underpinned by liberal democracies and open markets.

But the year 2017 has been nothing like 2016, at least so far. Political events in the West this year seem more like a repudiation of 2016. First, the populist headwinds were stalled in the Netherlands this March. The Dutch voters denied a far-right, anti-EU party a parliamentary majority. Political analysts have historically looked at Dutch elections to predict the political wind breezing across the European land.

And the Dutch barometer endured again. Earlier this month, France, too, stopped a far-right EU-basher from entering the Élysée Palace. Emanuel Macron, a 39-year old political nomad and Europhile with centrist and pro-reform leanings, won more than two-thirds of the popular vote to become France’s next president. The EU’s hand is decisively strengthened by how the French election turned out.

Now more support is at hand for the EU project. In Germany, a series of local election victories has bolstered the re-election chances of Angela Merkel and her governing party this September. This is all great for the EU27, which isn’t worried too much about more members following Britain’s way out. A stronger EU, however, is now an anathema to Britain, which is yet to negotiate its economic and social rules its engagement with the continental Europe in the post-Brexit era.

With the talk of more members deserting EU shut down this year, the memo from the US has also been encouraging for those who argue for a rules-based global order to stick around a little more. In some consolation to doomsayers, Donald Trump has significantly dialed down his definition of ‘America First’. After his first four months in office, there is a sense among allies that US won’t be checking out, yet.

After hosting dozens of allies at the White House, now Trump’s maiden overseas tour starting this Friday hints at more US engagement with its Middle East and European allies. Trump, however, remains increasingly embattled at home due to his campaign’s alleged Russian connections. But even in the plausible but unlikely case he gets impeached, his successor, Mike Pence, is expected to follow a more traditional American foreign policy.

But for all this talk of a different dawn in 2017, there are reasons to believe that populism may not quite have peaked yet. In the US, where Trump has visibly normalized his foreign policy, his domestic agenda still reeks of faux populism. The French elections decimated the two-party system, and put, quite, unprecedented, a far right party (led by Marine Le Pen) as the main opposition.

The Dutch electorate didn’t give any one party clear majority, so the populist opposition smells division. British belligerence, in the face of a stubborn EU block negotiating as one, will grow as Brexit is seen as an irreversible mistake. Britain’s exit negotiations with the EU will most likely be held by a coterie of aggressive Conservative voices, as the ruling party is en route to demolish the Labor opposition in June elections.

History doesn’t operate in small cycles. So, recent events may well be a lull before the storm. Structural changes – for instance, Asia’s increasingly dominant share in global economic output, wealth, young workforce, and consumer middle class – is set to cause chronic heartburn among the Western populace. In short, populist insurrections may not yet be a thing of the past.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017

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