Energized by the Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in US Presidential election, Europe’s populist movements are on the cusp of sweeping far-right, nationalist and eurosceptic parties into power across the continent in a series of elections to be held in 2017. Although populist parties are already running Europe, the situation is going to get worse in the future as once consigned to the fringes of the political scene, these parties now legitimately stand front and centre alongside their more traditional counterparts. And, liberal democracies, one by one, are waking up to find their certainties trampled by the march of close-the-borders populism.
In a democracy, elected leaders are meant to implement the will of the people. However, there is a growing anger that the political establishments in European countries have long favoured the elite at the expense of a disenfranchised majority. As a result, there has been a rise in populist politics. In recent years, right-wing parties have won power in a number of Eastern European countries, and have gained in popularity in the larger economies as well. For instance, in Central and Eastern Europe, populists formally have made up the governments; Americans also have elected a president who has described Nato as “obsolete” and accused China of ripping off their country; Europe’s second-largest economy, Britain, is preparing to leave the European Union (EU) after the populist ‘leave’ vote; and political developments in Italy and France are also turning decidedly against the euro as the most popular parties in both countries are promising a referendum on the whether to abandon the European Monetary Union and hence the euro. Therefore, there are all reasons to believe that populist and other fringe political forces will increasingly shape Europe’s political landscape and polarize it along liberal versus illiberal or globalist versus territorialist dividing lines.
The principal reason behind this growing influence is that populist parties are pushing centrist parties into more populist positions. In the UK, the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) is forcing the governing Tories to adopt a more anti-European discourse. In France, the centre-right parties are following the xenophobic agenda of the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party of the ruling Christian Democrats, seeks to prevent the rise of a populist party to its right by adopting populist rhetoric itself in opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. In the Netherlands and Denmark, even the Socialist parties are taking anti-immigration positions, as they don’t want to alienate their electorates. And, in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi faced a stinging defeat on his reforms referendum that resulted in his resignation which galvanized the populist, opposition 5-Star Movement’s determination to gain national power in the near future. Many had read the Italian referendum as an outlet for growing anti-establishment, populist sentiment in Europe.
In Europe, as a matter of fact, a tide of left and right-wing populism has been rising for years, boosted by both the economic crisis and the rise in immigration. That tide now threatens the very existence of the European Union. Across the old continent, many voters are at odds with establishment politicians over immigration, minority communities, the common currency, free trade deals, and European integration. It is not surprising that an angry new populism has emerged to voice this dissatisfaction.
Although populism is on the rise, yet it is unlikely to win enough votes to run Europe. Yet the risk that populism will run Europe by proxy is real, if mainstream governments do not address the phenomenon’s underlying causes. But instead of doing this, the leaders of the centre-right and centre-left are racing to embrace right-wing populist demagoguery in the hope of catching a few votes. But, populists do not need to control the government to feed on and fuel a new age of fear in Europe: fear of the Other (especially Muslims) and fear of global competition. Populists’ seemingly easy answers—pull up the national drawbridge to keep Muslims and competition out—put pressure on terrified establishment elites and drag political culture to previously unseen lows, depriving policymaking of the oxygen of reason.
But the real question is not whether populists are likely to grab power in one or two more EU member states. The real (and currently materializing) threat is that so-called mainstream parties will gradually give up their fundamental principles of human rights, civil liberties, equality and openness out of panic fear of a populist surge.
The rise of populism is sometimes a high but inevitable price to pay for a firm policy of not bowing to external pressures. The right-wing Alternative for Germany versus Chancellor Angela Merkel is a case in point. Perhaps Europe needs to accept this price. And instead of seeking to accommodate populists, Europe should try to mobilize those large parts of society that have lost not only confidence in the elites but also the belief that the stakes in today’s politics are high. If liberal democracy and open societies fall in Europe, it will happen by default, not because of an outright rejection by the people.
It is easy to blame the populists as they represent despicable views. Yet the rise of populist parties has little to do with the appeal of populist leaders and opinions. Rather, they have gained importance because established parties have become smug, desolate, machine-like operations with few ideas about the big political issues of our time. So, it is highly likely that populist parties will continue to gain ground in much of Europe as long as Europe continues to be hit by a range of fundamental crises. What these populist parties often have in common is a nostalgia for a golden past, an anti-globalist approach, and a strong anti-establishment rhetoric.
A Europe where populist parties are in positions to obtain real power is a Europe where the integration process and its institutions are under severe threat. Even if these parties did not advocate an exit from the EU, because they were potentially constrained by constitutional arrangements or populations that might see this as a step too far, populists would make progress and cooperation at the EU level close to impossible.
The extent to which populist parties can wield that kind of power depends on whether they can dominate governments in key member states or in a wide range of countries. There is, at least, a likelihood that this could be the case. But even without taking power outright, these parties are already having a detrimental impact by shifting the positions of mainstream parties, which are afraid of losing votes to the populists.
Populism: History & Evolution
Populism is a historically grounded political doctrine that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic struggle for power over their own lives. It is the belief that the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over that of the privileged elite. Populism was born in the prairies of the American Midwest: farmers, hit by falling grain prices and exploited by local railway monopolists, raged against “the money power” and organised new parties such as the People’s Party, which in 1892, put up James B. Weaver as a candidate for president. He won a million votes and 22 votes in the Electoral College. His platform was straightforward: “Equal rights for all and special privileges to none.”
The rural populists forged alliances with urban workers and middle-class progressives. They found champions in mainstream politics such as Williams Jennings Bryan who warned against crucifying the people on a “cross of gold’” and Teddy Roosevelt, who railed against “malefactors of great wealth”.
Populism profoundly shaped the 1920s and 1930s: not just in Germany and Italy where dictators ruled in the name of the people but also in America where Franklin Roosevelt moved decisively to the left to head off a challenge from Huey Long, a Louisiana populist who promised “every man a king” and “a chicken in every pot”. The tendency retreated to a few islands of rage during the long post-war prosperity: France’s National Front drew its support from marginalised groups such as the pieds-noirs forced from Algeria after decolonisation, and small shopkeepers who hated paying taxes.
But populism began to revive during the stagnant 1970s: in 1976 Donald Warren, an American sociologist, announced his discovery of a group of Middle American Radicals (MARs) who believed that the American system was rigged in favour of the rich and the poor against the middle class. And it continued to grow during the long reign of pro-globalist orthodoxy: for example, Ross Perot doomed George Bush Senior’s bid for a second term with a presidential campaign that prefigured many of the themes that Donald Trump has sounded more recently.