Much Ado About Everything No 19: Europe — Will Populism Prevail?

Whatever the outcome of May's European Parliament elections, populism in Europe remains a potent threat.

Has populism peaked…

“Something hasn’t peaked until it has started to decline — and to date the far right [in Europe] has only been ascendant.”

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, The New York Times, 1 May 2017

Last weekend saw not only the ninth round of gilets jaunes protests across France (pictured) but also not just one but two separate protests in London (one pro-Brexit, the second anti-austerity) where the marchers also donned the yellow high-vis jackets which are the defining symbol of the French movement.

On the face of it, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the Financial Times (FT) carried an opinion piece last week by one of its top commentators, Gideon Rachman, headlined Populism faces its darkest hour (subscriber access only), the text of which starts as follows:

“Could this be the year that populism pops?”.

This being said, Mr Rachman is not alone in questioning along these lines. Writing in The New York Times (NYT) on 5 January, Max Fisher offers similar thoughts in the wake of what he sees (correctly, at least in electoral terms), as a rocky 2018 for President Donald Trump’s brand of populism in the United States.

Mr Rachman cites as justification for asking his question what he sees as the now imminent likely bad consequences of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, asserting that:

“…2019 stands a good chance of being the year that the populist project crumbles into incoherence, as it becomes increasingly clear that bad ideas have bad consequences”.

By this point in the article (thanks largely, it should be said, to a typically misleading FT headline!), even though I found myself sympathetic to his views on the UK and the US, I was starting to wonder exactly where Mr Rachman was heading. But this is where he (in my view) gets broadly back on track, as follows:

“…while it is tempting to argue that populism has peaked, it is also premature. There are three main reasons for this. The first is that, although populist policies are running into trouble, the underlying economic and cultural forces that drove the movement are still there. Second, populism comes in both rightwing and leftwing forms. While the rightwing version is struggling in the US and the UK, the leftwing variant could gather force this year. The third reason is that populism is now a global phenomenon.”

…or is the populist pendulum just swinging to the left?

“The left is resurgent across Europe; each of us sees this in our own movements, and in one another’s. [The UK] Labour party, the breadth of its vision, the passion of its language, the strength of its membership, has brought inspiration and optimism to us all. Which we need, for the picture is not at all rosy. Fascism is on the rise within Europe, buoyed and supported, implicitly and explicitly, by an invigorated authoritarianism without. Corporate interests prevail, unchecked by a post-ideological politics which has exhausted itself.”

George Papandreou et al, The Guardian, 10 December 2018

This being said, I am not entirely sure that I agree with Mr Rachman that “the leftwing variant could gather force this year” in the US and the UK (let alone more widely).

In the US, this could be a question of semantics. Personally, I would argue that radicalism, which is where the Democratic Party appears to be heading, ie away from the centre ground occupied by the Clintons and Barack Obama, is not necessarily the same as populism even though this particular shift is certainly in search of an effective electoral antidote to Mr Trump’s populism.

In the UK, despite everything even if there is a general election this year it is by no means the case that the Labour Party would get to form the next government. And even if it did I think it a stretch to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s antediluvian agenda is ‘populist’ rather than acknowledging that his appeal lies largely in deep-rooted dislike of the Tories in some segments of British society coupled with classic ‘kick the bums out and give the other bums a chance’ sentiment in others.

All this being said, it is not entirely clear whether the NYT’s Mr Fisher would go along with my scepticism about ‘leftwing’ populism. But he does agree that the populist right risks declining appeal in the absence of a (real or perceived) crisis to justify its policies, as follows:

“Immigration and terrorism crises, which aided populism’s world-shaking rise in 2016, have waned…. The West’s populist leaders and parties have grown defensive, retreating into ever-starker messages of us-versus-them. The approach excites their most dedicated followers. But it can be risky, forcing voters to pick sides at a moment when the populist right holds declining appeal…. …without a crisis to justify populism’s hard-line policies, its message has been stripped down to its most core element: opposition to liberal ideals of pluralism, multiculturalism and international cooperation.”

Europe: A "consequential" election ahead

“Elections for the European Parliament may have struggled to gain attention in the past, but this one, to be held on May 23-26, has the potential to be the most consequential in decades. Far-right or nationalist forces are on the march in practically every EU country, challenging establishment parties that continue to espouse, sometimes halfheartedly, mainstream pro-EU views.”

Ben Hall, Financial Times, 28 December 2018

Which brings me squarely to the main focus of this article, ie Europe — where, Mr Fisher concedes, “populist parties now reliably win about one in six votes” — and the 23-26 May elections to the European Parliament (EP).

In my Outlook 2019, I offered the (possibly over-optimistic) view that, despite seemingly swelling populism across much of Europe, populist candidates would, perhaps, win ‘only’ 25% of the 705 seats available (assuming Brexit does happen on 29 March), up from 20% in the outgoing parliament. And that this could even be insufficient to prevent the established — and 'establishment' — PES/EPP majority block emerging and, again, dominating proceedings.

However, there is no question in my mind other than that the FT’s 11 January leader is correct in opining as follows:

“If the [eurozone] slowdown continues, the timing would be bad for moderate political parties. European parliamentary elections are an opportunity for radical populist movements to take votes from the political centre. If those parties can argue that the European establishment’s orthodox and fiscally conservative economics has failed to bring growth and reduce inequality, it will provide ammunition for their appeal to discontented voters ready to reject the status quo.”

In other words, Europe’s leaders still stand to pay a heavy price for their failure to resolve economic issues which were apparent even before the 2008 crisis — and, in some cases (notably Italy, more on which below) even prior to the launch of the eurozone two decades ago.

Be it 25% or more, populists will certainly have a loud and potentially highly disruptive voice in the incoming EP — one which will likely be no easier to manage simply because the stark differences among the various populist parties which are inevitable given their essentially nationalist stance. And, immigration aside, where they will find common ground — whether from the left or the right — is in opposition to the postwar liberal democratic order. As Mr Fisher notes:

“Though these parties surged in support only recently, their slow but steady rise dates to the 1960s, when postwar liberalism took hold. Ever since, they have used crises to hit on deeper fears of demographic and cultural change brought about by liberalism…. By winning at least enough votes to force the world to listen, they have opened up space for Western voters to reject liberal strictures explicitly…. Even if populists in the West never advance beyond their heights in 2016, they will remain in a strong position to challenge liberalism’s postwar hold over Western democracies.”

Why Sig Salvini is salivating

“History goes in cycles. This is more than a confrontation between right and left. It is the confrontation between the elite and the people.”

Matteo Salvini, September 2018

Certainly, one populist leader who must be looking forward very much to the EP elections and their outcome is Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (even though he is not personally standing), Since last year’s general election support for his party, Lega, has soared and the number of seats it holds in the EP could increase from the current five to as many as 29. This could — likely would — encourage him to do one or both of two things, as follows:

  • Force an early general election in Italy, the outcome of which could allow him to drop his current coalition partner, the M5S, in favour of a right-wing nationalist government; and,
  • Engineer a fresh and more serious confrontation with Brussels, eg over the 2020 budget which will need to be passed by the Italian parliament in the fourth quarter of this year.

Even more fundamentally, as Vivienne Walt wrote in Time last September in an article headlined Why Italy’s Matteo Salvini is the most feared man in Europe:

“The right-wing leader’s ambitions extend far beyond his country, however — and that’s what is sending jitters through Europe. Many see him as the leader most capable of piecing together a large group of populist, nationalist parties in Europe, one that crosses national boundaries in the name of nationalism.”

If he succeeds, I believe Ms Walt is correct when she says of Mr Salvini and his allies across Europe:

“In fact, for Europe’s leaders, they are arguing for something perhaps more hazardous to integrated Europe — a radical ideological remake, including reining in open markets and open borders, and snatching back control from Brussels over key decisions like public spending. If they succeed, they will remake a continent. Few voices are louder in the movement than that of Matteo Salvini. ‘I choose to change things from within,’ Salvini says. ‘That is more difficult and longer and more complicated. But it is a more concrete solution.’”

Does Europe have an antidote?

“…the centre needs some new tunes. Politicians like France’s president Emmanuel Macron, whose response to populism is to play the old music, just louder, risk being drowned out.”

Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 7 January 2019

Last August and following some sparring earlier in the year, Mr Salvini, in cahoots with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, explicitly pointed to French President Emmanuel Macron — together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — as the principal opponent to his vision for Europe. Having seemed initially to be prepared to engage openly, Mr Macron has since listened to those urging him ignore Mr Salvini’s taunts, at least in public. No doubt, too, he has enough on his plate domestically right now with the gilets jaunes.

Although I am not sure that a 2,300-word presidential letter is the best way to launch an attempted recovery (even in France), I am not inclined to write Mr Macron off, at least not yet. But what is clear to me is that the French President needs to change his style as well as at least some of his substance if he is to regain his ‘mojo’ at home while, at the same time, pushing ahead with his economic reform agenda if he is to reestablish his credibility with Germany and the north European members of the New Hanseatic League in particular. And he needs to do this quickly once the three-month ‘national debate’ he launched on 13 January is concluded.

Unfortunately, even if he succeeds he does not currently have a strong partner in Berlin. Even though Mrs Merkel has seen he preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka AKK), assume the leadership of her party last month, she is clearly weakened; and authority is only likely to continue to drain away from her from here on. I therefore agree with those (including, according to polls, a majority of the German electorate) who believe that, despite her formidable track record, an early handing over the reins in the Berlin Chancellery too would be in Germany’s and Europe’s better interests.

Does this mean that I see AKK as ‘the answer’ — especially in tandem with a revitalised Mr Macron? The short answer is that I don’t. But this has less to do with the two individuals concerned and more because, just as Mr Salvini accepts that the challenge he faces is “long and complicated”, so is that which confronts those who would counter his populist vision.

As for those who claim that Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has shown what ‘mainstream politics’ has to do if it is survive in Europe, I think it is far too soon to determine definitively whether, by entering into coalition with the far-right FPÖ, he is containing or empowering populist nationalism.

Plateauing but not out

“But there is another way to read cases like Sweden: not as the populist wave cresting, but as the liberal consensus breaking. Even if populists win power only occasionally, struggle in office and mostly consign themselves to an angry minority, that they play any role at all represents a seismic change.Their rise, even if it never progresses much further, could still reshape Western politics in ways we are only beginning to understand.”

Max Fisher, The New York Times, 5 January 2019

Right-wing populists throughout Europe were jubilant when the Sverigedemokraterna (SD) took over 17.5% of the vote in last September’s general election in liberal Sweden. But a more careful examination of polls show that the SD has basically failed to make any headway with public opinion since he height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015. (See also my 18 January addendum below.) Similarly, in Germany the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has stalled — at around 15%.

Nevertheless, if Mr Fisher is correct — and I believe he may well be — unless the liberal consensus in Europe can repair itself, with all which this implies for EU and eurozone reform, we may yet see populism, seemingly plateauing today, breaking out and scaling new peaks in the very near future. If not in 2019, the crunch time could be the 2021/22 election cycle which, as things stand, threatens to be the biggest challenge yet for mainstream politics across the continent.

Alastair Newton

[Addendum — !8 January

​Four months after its inconclusive general election where the SD won 18% of the vote, Sweden's politicians have finally struck a compromise which will keep the far-right party out of power (for now at least). As a result Social Democrat Stefan Lofven will be sworn in for a second term as Prime Minister today. But his minority centre-left coalition of his own party and the Greens (which together won just 32.7% of the vote) will be one of the weakest governments in the country's and will depend on sustaining a balance policy-wise between the Left Party on the one hand and the centre-right Liberal and Centre parties on the other.

Today will also see the funeral of the liberal Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, whose murder some believe may have been politically motivated. Mr Adamowicz was a strong critic of his country's current PiS government. This morning's Economist Espresso notes as follows:

"...the PiS-loyal public television broadcaster accused the opposition of spreading hatred. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS’s chairman, was conspicuously absent during the minute of silence for the mayor in parliament (he showed up shortly after). Poles are horrified by Mr Adamowicz’s death. But that shared revulsion has done little to close the country’s political divisions."

Meanwhile, the European Parliament voted yesterday (by 397 to 158) in favour of a draft law which would freeze EU funds if a government is found to be eroding democratic values. Potentially, this could hit the likes of Hungary and Poland which are already facing disciplinary procedures for allegedly flouting the rule of law and where EU funds make up 55% and 61% of public investment respectively. However, the parliament's legislative process is not quick and in this case will certainly not be concluded until after the new EP is sworn in — which may, of course, alter the voting balance significantly.]