We have heard much in the media over the last couple of years concerning the ‘surge’ in populism in Europe. Certainly at the national level, in some countries, that is an undeniable truth. We have Brexit, we have populist parties governing Italy, Poland and Hungary, and it seems that at every election we hear about a new populist party coming out of the woodwork. But how significant is this phenomenon at the European level? Pascal LeTendre-Hanns discusses.
In fact when we look at the anticipated results of the European Elections this year and compare them to those of 2014, we see that populist parties are likely to do better, but only slightly. While in 2014 they won around 20% of the seats, in 2019 they are expected to win around 22% of the seats. An increase but by no means a change that could be described as a ‘surge’. Losses from the two mainstream groups, the EPP and the S&D, are not only to the benefit of populists. Liberal and Green parties have also seen benefits – notably through the growth of the German Green Party and La République En Marche in France.
So is this the whole issue overblown? No, there is an issue and a growing threat in Europe but it will require a different perspective and analysis in order to understand it. There is a growth in populism in Europe but this trend is best understood by looking at its form rather than overall percentages. For one thing, populist parties are now increasingly moving into the mainstream. More and more we are seeing that the populists are major parties in their country, even parties of government. Italy’s Lega is set to challenge the German CDU for the title of biggest individual party in the European Parliament. Starting at the national level, this formation of populist electoral coalitions into single large parties means they are already forming more coherent units than was the case in the past.
Meanwhile in the European Parliament itself, it is likely that the right-wing populists will work to coordinate their actions more, and more effectively, than they have in the past. Historically, the Parliament’s right-wing forces have been consistently undermined by their worst enemies: each other. Unable to find common ground, they are split between three actual groups (the ECR, ENF and EFDD) and more can be found outside of any formal grouping. Yet now we are seeing constant work to bring in more parties into the formal groups. The Netherland’s FvD and France’s Debout La France recently joining the ECR are good examples, while talks between the Le Pen, Salvini and Kaczyński are ongoing. They are aiming to consolidate the European Parliament’s right-wing groups, bringing them down from three groups to at least two major ones.
The threat of populism at the European level is therefore less related to a major surge in support and more related to the increased organisation and cooperation of populist parties. The wrecking ball strategy, pioneered by UKIP, which refused all engagement and engaged only in grandstanding to build political capital at home has largely been abandoned by the big players in Europe’s new populism. Instead the real aim now is to take power wherever it is in offer. This means taking control of national governments but also, at the European level, committee chairmanships and Commissioner posts.
Uncomfortable bed buddies
This trend should not be overstated. For one thing major divisions still remain. Parties like Poland’s PiS are having to bite their tongue when it comes to the uncritical adoration of Russia from Western European politicians like Matteo Salvini. For another, the tendency for greater professionalisation is by no means equally spread across European populist parties. Some are little more than loose protest groups while others have entrenched party machinery. The latter group are, however, now arguably dominant enough to shepherd along the former.
Given all this, and given the importance of this populist threat, what should the response be? Anti-populist groups need to work together not only to offer solutions to citizens but also to ensure that populists are not able to wholesale takeover key levers of power. Hungary demonstrates the very real risk of democratic backsliding when populists are allowed total control, when freedom of the press is shut down, when the independence of the judiciary is undermined, when all checks and balances on government power are steadily removed. When this happens it can become very difficult to see the way back to an open and free society.