Europe on break from populism’s seemingly unstoppable wave

Europe’s Future: Despite setbacks, disillusioned millions still swell populist movements

Populism has been on the rise in the West for more than four decades. But the earth-shattering events of the past year, the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen's failed presidential candidacy, have ensured it will be a leading question for the foreseeable future.

The term is vague and encompasses a range of politicians who claim to be anti-elite and anti-system. Populists are prone to authoritarianism and xenophobia. For the most part, they are anti-Europe, anti-globalisation, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.

Some, including Trump and Front National (FN) leader Le Pen, have ties to Vladimir Putin's Russia. Others, such as Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo and Poland's de facto leader, former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, are virulently anti-Russian.

Though right-wing populism is more prevalent, left-wing populist movements have emerged in recent years in Greece (Syriza), Spain (Podemos) and France (La France Insoumise).


Populists are not necessarily extremists. It was British Conservatives who called the Brexit referendum. The US Republican Party made Trump's election possible.

An unstoppable wave

The last seven months have seen a break in what seemed to be an unstoppable wave.

Last December, former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeated Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party (FPO). Van der Bellen had warned that Hofer would take Austrians down the same road as Brexit and warned them not to "play with this fire".

Dutch populist Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), failed to make a predicted breakthrough in the Netherlands' general election in March. The PVV nonetheless gained five seats in the House of Representatives, where it is the second party.

Wilders's PVV and Alternative for Germany (Afd) now focus mainly on Islam, which Wilders calls "the totalitarianism of the 21st century". These far-right populists, like much of the French FN, are liberal on societal issues such as homosexuality.

A major factor

Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of  Le Pen by 66 to 34 per cent in the May 7th French presidential election, was the biggest blow to populism in recent years. Le Pen’s plan to leave the euro, which 72 per cent of the French want to keep, was a major factor.

Renewal of Europe's ageing political class is one antidote to populism, and Macron's election heralded the emergence of a new generation of European leaders. They include not only Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (38), but Estonia's prime minister Juri Ratas (38) and Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (41). The Austrian foreign minister and probable future chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is only 30.

Macron's election transformed the mood in France. It left the FN in crisis, mulling over its anti-EU policies. Historian Patrick Boucheron, whose best-selling Global History of France highlights the contribution of immigrants, has made pessimistic déclinistes such as Alain Finkielkraut and Éric Zemmour look outdated. Le Monde recently published two newspaper pages on the return of the smile.

The month of June saw a further string of populist defeats. Beppe Grillo's anti-euro 5 Star Movement performed poorly in Italian municipal elections. The True Finns Party, known for discrimination against ethnic Swedes and the indigenous Lapland minority, left the coalition government in Helsinki and split in two.

Influence beyond size

The Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Ukip party won zero seats in the June 8th British general election. Though Ukip had only two MPs in the previous parliament, it wielded influence beyond its size. Had Ukip not existed, it is doubtful the Brexit referendum would have taken place. But Brexit turned Ukip into a one-issue party without an issue.

Prime minister Theresa May’s loss of her absolute majority was a further blow to anti-EU populism. In what may be a backlash against Brexit and Trump, a Pew Research Centre poll shows a surge in public support for the EU. Even in the UK, 54 per cent of respondents said they hold a favourable opinion of the EU.

With Ukip voters having fallen back on the Tories, "the Conservative Party is now populist", says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Fondation Robert Schuman. "They've understood nothing about what's happening in the world, and are turning inward. It's stale and borderline racist. You see it in May's 'generous' offer to EU residents of Britain. If you're there less than five years, she expels you."

The muddled policies of the Trump presidency are also a poor advertisement for populism. Leaders who’ve shown support for Trump, like May and Le Pen, have been punished at the polls.

Anti-immigrant hardliner

When Trump was elected, Hungary's populist prime minister Viktor Orban concluded that "the West is undergoing a change of character". Orban is an anti-immigrant hardliner who has praised Trump's ban on Muslim immigrants and the wall on the Mexican border.

Orban, Szydlo in Poland and Trump are "illiberal leaders" who show little respect for independent media or the justice system.

“Everyone is massively relieved” by recent populist setbacks, says a European ambassador. “But we may be King Canute waiting for the tide to rise. The extremists were contained this time. If we fail, they’ll be back with a vengeance.”

With the world's two leading powers under the yoke of what Le Monde columnist Arnaud Leparmentier calls "Trumputinism", central Europe ruled by populists and seven EU countries represented in Marine Le Pen's Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the EU Parliament, it is far too soon to declare populism over.

“We must find a new way of communicating with citizens, listen to them, calm them, give them an idea where we’re going… show people that Europe can do concrete things, build security together, control migration and refugees,” says Giuliani.

None of the underlying, structural causes of populism have been altered, notes Christophe Guilluy, whose last two books, La France Périphérique and The Twilight of the French Elite, have been widely cited to explain the rise of the FN.

“Populism is the consequence of the transformation of western societies over the last 20 to 30 years,” Guilluy said in an interview. Those transformations include de-industrialisation, the “financialisation” of the economy, the concentration of growth and jobs in a small number of metropolises, multi-culturalism, globalisation and mass immigration.

Employees, workers and shopkeepers have been the first victims of these transformations. The disillusioned millions have swollen the ranks of populist movements. Most live on the periphery of society, in the countryside or in “desertified” small towns and cities.

‘Forgotten categories’

“The globalised system doesn’t need the former middle class,” Guilluy says. “When a populist leader like Trump unites the periphery, the balance tips… We won’t solve this unless we recognise the importance of these forgotten categories.”

The phenomenon is the same in the US, UK, France and most European countries, Guilluy says.  “It’s only logical, since we all adopted the same, globalised economic model.”

Ireland is one of the rare European countries to have escaped the populist wave, says Jean-Yves Camus, co-author of Far Right Politics in Europe, published by Harvard University Press. "The Irish are at ease with their identity and have a strong sense of belonging. And they haven't known mass immigration."

By contrast, “The French are searching for their identity. We don’t know who we are any more,” Camus continues. “It is hard for the French to define themselves, to agree on their shared history.”