France's far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen visits Moscow in May 2015.
France’s far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen visits Moscow in May 2015.

Across the West, a wave of antiestablishment feeling is challenging a political order built on the idea that open borders and open trade are the key to prosperity.

The last 12 months show how much so.

In Britain, voters opted for Brexit despite dire warnings about its political and economic consequences, leaving discomfited U.K. officials to negotiate their country out of the European Union.

In the United States, voters chose billionaire political outsider Donald Trump as president on campaign pledges to build a “great, great wall” on the border with Mexico, ban Muslims from entering the country, and scrap major free-trade deals.

On the European continent, a nationalist government rose to power in Poland, a pro-EU government fell in Italy, and Austria narrowly averted electing the first far-right head of state in the EU’s history.

They’re all part of a phenomenon that political analysts are still struggling to name. The rise of the right-wing, the rise of populism, the rise of antiestablishment parties — the labels attempt to characterize a change that not only has taken many mainstream political parties by surprise but could dramatically reshape the West’s social and economic policies.

“It is not clear to me yet that a majority of people support a rolling-back on open borders or open trade, but what we have here is a divided public, a part of the public that feels as though these policies of globalism or issues about immigration haven’t worked in their favor and therefore they are protesting at the ballot box,” says Michael Cullinane, a professor of U.S. history at Northumbria University in Britain.

2017 Elections

A series of elections in Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands in 2017 will provide key battlegrounds where the antiestablishment mood will be tested further, raising the possibility the EU could break up beyond Brexit as many of the populist parties dub Brussels a threat to their countries’ interests and identities.

“What we want is to bring back the values, the identity, the culture and the money, and put forward again national interests,” Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, says. It is a description that fits many of the other populist parties as well, even as they espouse a wide variety of different ideologies.

The antiestablishment parties range from the right-wing National Front of Marine Le Pen in France, to the nationalist Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, to the left-wing Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. But if their appeals range from anti-immigration to anti-austerity, the concerns of their voters are frequently shared: jobs, incomes, worries that globalization is putting them out of work, and fears of immigration, cultural change, and terrorism.

In Britain, voters opted to leave the European Union.
In Britain, voters opted to leave the European Union.

How these parties will try to reshape their societies is now the main question in many Western capitals.

Many analysts see the European Union as particularly under threat as Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany — all with strong anti-Brussels parties or currents — hold elections next year in the shadow of the Brexit vote.