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How Will Europe’s Populist Movements Change the EU?


Far-right leader Marine le Pen poses as she inaugurates her campaign headquarters, Wednesday, Nov.16, 2016 in Paris. Le Pen says that her anti-immigration, anti-Islam views can lead her to the presidency.

As populist movements grow in Europe, it remains unclear how they will affect the European Union.

Italy is the latest country to vote against its leadership. On Sunday, Italian voters rejected constitutional reforms proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

About 60 percent of voters rejected the reforms in a nationwide referendum. Renzi actively campaigned for the measures. He made it clear that if they were not approved, voters would be rejecting his government.

Renzi accepted responsibility for the loss and offered his resignation on Monday.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi speaks during a press conference in Rome, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Renzi acknowledged defeat in a constitutional referendum and announced he would resign on Monday. Italians voted Sunday in a referendum on constitutional reforms
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi speaks during a press conference in Rome, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Renzi acknowledged defeat in a constitutional referendum and announced he would resign on Monday. Italians voted Sunday in a referendum on constitutional reforms

The proposals were meant to simplify Italy’s government, centralize power and reduce corruption. One measure would have turned the elected Senate into a much smaller, appointed body.

Renzi’s government has supported pro-European Union policies. His defeat energized other Italian parties, including the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and anti-immigration Northern League.

However, some observers say the referendum vote cannot be seen as a direct result of populist movements, such as the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Ben Wellings is an expert on the E.U. at Monash University in Australia. He told VOA that while the Italian result was not helpful to Europe, the E.U. will clearly survive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures as he listens to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during their talks at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St.Petersburg, Russia, June 16, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures as he listens to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during their talks at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St.Petersburg, Russia, June 16, 2016.

“We’re not suggesting that Italy is in any way going to leave the European Union or even the Euro zone. So it’s an unwanted element of instability, but I think the European Union will see this one through.”

Peter Eltsov is a political expert at the National Defense University in Washington. He says he thinks the rise of populist movements in Europe could give Russia a chance to expand its influence there.

“You have a sense that Russia supports those either right-wing politicians or left-wing politicians. But mostly politicians who are skeptical of the European Union, who would like to leave the E.U., who would support the lifting of sanctions from Russia.”

Eltsov notes that Russian banks have provided financial support to political movements in Europe. He said the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, received a large campaign loan from a Russian-backed bank.

France will hold a presidential election next year, and Eltsov said many experts think Le Pen could win.

“If she wins in France, it's my prediction it’s going to be the end of the European Union.”

In this file photo, NATO defense ministers are seated during a meeting of the North Atlantic Council Defense Ministers session at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Oct. 27, 2016.
In this file photo, NATO defense ministers are seated during a meeting of the North Atlantic Council Defense Ministers session at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Oct. 27, 2016.

He added that in addition to financing some European politicians, Russia is using propaganda to increase its influence in the continent. Countries that may be vulnerable to such propaganda could be Greece, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria, he said.

Eltsov said Russia may also use its financial and political influence to try to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He said this could involve trying to get some members to leave the alliance or stop efforts to join it.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English. The story was based on VOA News reports from Zlatica Hoke, Jamie Dettmer, the Associated Press and Reuters. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

referendumn. a direct vote in which people cast ballots to decide on a specific issue or policy

element n. a particular part of something

skeptical adj. doubting that something is true

vulnerable adj. easily attacked physically or emotionally

right-wingadj. the conservative side of a party or group

left-wing - adj. the liberal side of a part or group

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