×

Poll position: Which European countries would be hit hardest if a populist leader is elected?

Europe is facing a full political calendar in 2017 and fears are rising that the upcoming elections could follow last year's trends of Brexit and President Donald Trump and take a turn towards populism.

CNBC takes a look at the economies and politics of the big election battlegrounds of France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany - and which country could be hurt the most if a populist head of state wins at the ballot box.

Divided economically…

The Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy have all followed a similar trend in terms of economic growth since 2008, but with Netherlands and Germany performing better than the other two countries, data from the Eurostat has shown.

In fact, the Netherlands grew at a fastest pace than Germany in both 2015 and 2016. Nonetheless, Germany is by far Europe's biggest economy, with an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of about 3.1 trillion euros ($3.3 trillion) compared to the Netherlands which stands at about 696 billion euros, according to provisional 2016 data from the Eurostat.

Looking at the unemployment rate, the situation is worse in Italy. The rate has been significantly higher since 2011 compared with the other three countries. In 2015, 11.9 percent of the Italian population was unemployed, compared to 10.4 percent in France, 6.9 percent in the Netherlands and 4.6 percent in Germany.

"The four countries are not the same. Germany and the Netherlands are economically much stronger than France and Italy," Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING, told CNBC via email.

"Particularly, the Netherlands have implemented a lot of structural reforms which should enable the economy to grow in the coming years."

"Germany is still benefiting from earlier reforms and low interest rates and the weak euro. France is doing better than expected but not good enough. Lack of reforms and weak international competitiveness will continue to weigh on growth prospects in coming years. Italy is the most complicated case with hardly any growth over the last decade and the lack of a clear growth model for the entire economy," he explained.

....and in terms of social benefits...

Looking at public debt, and how much each government has spent on social protection benefits (which include healthcare, unemployment and housing, among others) the Netherlands has also outperformed the other three countries. Its debt stood at 65.1 percent of GDP in 2015, compared to 132.3 percent of GDP in Italy, data from the Eurostat showed.

But, in spite of what many would expect, Italy is the country that spends the least on social benefits. The Netherlands spent more than 11,000 euros per inhabitant in 2014, followed by France, which spent more than 10,000 euros per inhabitant in the same year. Italy spent just above 7,600 euros per citizen. For contrast, data from the OECD showed that in the same yer, the U.S. spent less than the mentioned four countries and below the OECD average.

...but united when it comes to distrusting mainstream politicians

However, despite their economic differences, there's one common factor as they head to the elections: an increasingly stronger dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

"The similarities have to do with the exhaustion of the traditional political parties…The problem has been building for a long time. Now we are experiencing the pure volatility," Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University said in an email.

"Voters have little or no loyalty left to parties and politicians have lost much of the faith of the electorate."

Clemens Fuest, president of the Ifo institute for economic research told CNBC last week: "We've been spending 10 years now first with the financial crisis and then the euro crisis…That leads people to lose confidence and to lose trust in established political parties and populists can exploit this situation and argue they have a simple solution for this complex issue."

The Italians and the French are more likely to support populist parties

At the same time that voters have become fed up with national politics, anti-European sentiment has also grown.

Since 2006, the number of people having a positive image of the European Union has dropped. In the economically troubled France and Italy, the percentage of the population who has an optimistic view of the EU's future is smaller in comparison with both Germany and the Netherlands.

"People who are dissatisfied with their situation are likely to vote for change," Jones from Johns Hopkins told CNBC.

This means that the risk of seeing populist heads of state is higher for France and Italy, where Marine Le Pen's National Front and Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement are gaining traction respectively, rather than in the Netherlands and Germany, with Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom and Frauke Petry's Alternative for Germany playing a populist ticket.

Who will suffer if a populist leader takes over the helm?

It is exactly the two countries performing more poorly in economic terms that the risks of an economic slowdown are the highest if a populist leader came to power.

"From an economic point of view, obviously France with a president Le Pen would face the biggest problems," Brzeski from ING said, given that the far-right leader wants France to exit the euro zone and to turn the country's debt from euros back to the French franc.

"Theoretically, the two countries which are performing best (the Netherlands and Germany) would have less problems coping with the economic policies of populists as long as they are mainly directed at social transfers and more government spending," he added.

Jones from Johns Hopkins agreed that France would suffer the most from a political point of view, "as the institutions of the Fifth Republic are not well designed for power-sharing." This is because according to the French political system, the president needs to work with a prime minister that has a majority in the national assembly. So if the majority in the national assembly is not Front National, then Le Pen would have to govern with a prime minister supported by a non-far right majority.

While Italy does not yet have an election scheduled, the political instability thrown up by former prime minister Matteo Renzi's resignation could mean a vote is not that far way. And the country would be hit hard, Jones believes, if the Five Star movement led the polls.

"Italy would suffer the most from an economic standpoint because of the huge size of its government bond market and the persistent threat that international investors would speculate actively against the country at a time when the ECB's (European Central Bank) capacity to support it is limited," he added.

Fuest from the Ifo Institute explained that "populist economic policy is normally expansionary, irrespective of the economic situation." He added that populist parties usually raise the right issues but "the answers they give are normally simplistic and the recipes don't work."

Germany and the Netherlands are not totally safe

However, despite the stronger economic positions of Germany and the Netherlands, they are not totally safe.

"The bad news is that all four countries face considerable risks both at home (in the form of elections) and abroad. For my money, the foreign sources of risk are more worrying than the domestic ones," Jones added.

"We still do not know how Brexit is going to play out, whether the Trump boom will turn into a bubble that pops, and what will be the impact of a change in international attitudes toward the free movement of goods and services," he said.