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The Implications of European Populism: Here to Stay

December 12, 2019

A few months, ago a middle-aged voter in rural Wales told me why he had voted to leave the European Union in the referendum in 2016. “I found out,” he said solemnly, “that they were going to abolish the Queen.”

While there were many misconceptions on both sides of the UK referendum debate, this was a new one to me and I asked him where he discovered this alleged information.

“Oh, I heard about it on Facebook. Do you think it was true?”

Well, no, I had to explain – in my time as Foreign Secretary I came across many things I didn’t like about the EU, but I could assure him that they had no plans to do away with any of the crowned heads of state around Europe. He went away perhaps a little reassured, but his vote had already formed part of the majority for Leave.

This voter embodied much of what we know about the rise of populist movements and parties in recent years. First of all, he had voted as he did irrespective of his own economic interest. He had a small livestock farm, and much of the produce from his own and his neighbours land would be destined for European markets.

Secondly, he saw himself very much as defending the country and its established ways of doing things. Although he voted to do something very radical, his view was that it was necessary in order to preserve national sovereignty and traditions.

Thirdly, he readily believed that a conspiracy could be afoot – one that was not discussed in the mainstream media or in parliament but that could nevertheless be going on while the public was being deliberately misled. He was trying to inform himself about events and no longer trusted long-established channels of news and information.

Fourth, his participation in social media had led him to hear views that he would not have encountered even a few years earlier. Furthermore, he heard no challenge to those views, and until he bumped into me, had met no one he felt he could ask about their veracity.

Fifth, he had made up his own mind, without feeling any need to follow the urgings of any Prime Minister, party leader or Members of Parliament. Whatever sources of information he relied on to help him decide how to vote, acknowledged experts were not among them. For him, deference to the opinion of someone who is meant to know better was over.

Although we should never extrapolate too much from meeting one individual, I have often thought about this man because he so well illustrates these five factors present in populism, and indeed helps to dispel some misunderstandings about it. He was not thoughtless, marginalised, badly off or unhappy with life. It was just that the way he heard and thought about the world had changed in ways that are quite subtle, yet becoming entrenched, and not easily reversed. He is further evidence, in my eyes, that populism in politics everywhere is here to stay.

Populism played little role in European politics between the end of the Second World War and the turn of the century. If we accept its broad definition as being movements based on representing ‘the people’ against a supposedly corrupt or out-of-touch elite, usually based around a charismatic leader, only the right-wing populist Poujadist movement in France in the 1950s represented a serious eruption of it in the post-war decades.

Globalisation: The Enemy

The first two decades of this century have clearly brought a dramatic change. Electoral support for various forms of populism – usually anti-immigration, predominantly defending national traditions and sovereignty, and always opposed to neo-liberal acceptance of globalisation – has surged.

In 1998, only two European countries, with a total population of 12 million, could be said to have populist leaders included in government. By 2019, nine countries, with a combined population of 170 million, were in that situation. Populists were governing Italy, Poland, Hungary, and until recently, Greece. They were part of the government in Austria. The huge votes, relative to previous habits, for right wing populists in Germany and Sweden, showed how much support they could win even in prosperous and stable societies. And of course, the British people went so far as to overturn the entire establishment view of where their national interest lay.

The wide prevalence of this trend is one clear indicator that it is no flash in the pan. So is the fact, now obvious in retrospect, that this has been building up for a considerable time. It was in 2002 that the elder Le Pen shocked Europe by coming second in the French presidential election, and from 2004 that the UK Independence Party started to gather strength.

We can now see common factors behind the rise of populism in varied countries. These include a widespread feeling that crucial issues are not being addressed by elites, particularly immigration and cultural change that challenges the identity of local populations; a media structure much more open to challenges to establishment views; a feeling that centrist politicians of left and right are ‘all the same;’ and a belief that those same leaders have rendered themselves powerless to shield people from the worst effects of global change. Like the Welsh farmer, millions of people have lost faith and trust in many of the principal institutions of their society.

Undemocratic Liberalism

In the excellent analysis by Mudde and Kaltwasser, [Populism: A Very Short Introduction] populism is a “critique of the establishment and adulation of the common people,” best understood as “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” They rightly point out that the resulting political movements are “moralistic rather than programmatic,” based on standing up for a particular culture, identity and nation rather than implementing a fixed or comprehensive set of policies.

Other commentators have perceptively drawn attention to the role of education in producing a new cultural divide and revolt, an unanticipated side effect of widespread university attendance. Eatwell and Goodwin [National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy] have pointed out that while 80% of British voters aged under 34 with a degree voted to remain in the EU, only 37% of their counterparts without a degree did the same. In 2017, French President Macron defeated Marine Le Pen with 83% of the vote among the most highly educated, but only 54% among the least educated.

In ‘The Road to Somewhere,’ David Goodhart has also drawn attention to the effect in Britain of around half of young people going to higher education: the other half feel particularly excluded from opportunities, trapped ‘somewhere’ while their contemporaries can apparently live and work anywhere. Not only do university students experience a different set of attitudes and greater variety of friendships and generally more liberal ideas, but many never return to the less prosperous areas from which they came. The result is the ever-greater clustering of high achievers in metropolitan cities, while the provincial towns and villages they leave behind can see the next generation departing and different cultures arriving instead.

My own personal experience confirms the major impact of education and mobility on openness to populist ideas. I was born and raised in South Yorkshire, a centre of coal and steel in the twentieth century. My contemporaries who moved, like me, through university to London to make their careers, voted almost without exception to remain in the EU, while our old friends who stayed put voted heavily to leave it.

Even as our understanding of factors driving populism expands, our ability to predict its political strength is still limited. This is partly because it usually requires an effective single leader to mobilise it – Wilders, Farage, Salvini, or Le Pen – and sometimes a ‘host’ party to create a coalition with other voters, like Fidesz in Hungary or the Law and Justice Party in Poland. Once successful in elections, populism is sometimes damaged by being included in government – witness the scandals that have hit the Freedom Party in Austria and the loss of support for the Five Star movement since it took power in Italy.

There is therefore no statistical model or regression analysis that will provide a prediction of populist electoral success amidst so many random factors. All we can say with confidence is that, in most European democracies, the long duopoly of moderate conservative and social democratic parties has come to an end and will not be returning, except where one or both of those parties themselves become the vehicle of populist politics. This has to some extent happened in Britain, with the Conservative Party becoming the prime vehicle for Brexit at any price, and the Labour Party led by a populist of the left.

The effect of the populist upsurge on established parties and their policies is likely to have as great an impact as electoral victories for entirely new forces, because it is changing the way mainstream politicians define their policies. For instance, the Liberal Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, staved off an expected populist advance at the last election with a sharp move to more restrictive attitudes to immigration and to defending Dutch identity.

Socialism Anew

Tighter immigration policies are one obvious attempted answer to try to placate angry voters, but the broader impact is likely to be on the approach of established parties to economic and technological change. They will be far more conscious than in recent years of the need to show that national economic policies support provincial towns and distant regions. Most of them are likely to accept and promote a critique of globalised capitalism, with a new emphasis on its reform.

Moves by European nations, including Britain and France, to tax big tech companies in new ways are just an early sign of what is to come. New ideas might include taxing the use of technology by companies in a different way; levying higher taxes in large, metropolitan cities; requiring companies to extend employee shareholding or provide education beyond the needs of their jobs; aggressive increases in minimum wages; restrictions on executive pay or wider use of wealth taxes.

If this sounds like economics moving to the left, that is a correct reading – for the pressure from populists is coming from a direction more normally associated with the left. This might seem paradoxical, given that most of the populist success has been in the form of parties seen as nationalist right. Yet this confusion only serves to show how outdated our old left/right spectrum of political analysis has become. Many voters combine culturally conservative and nationalistic attitudes with support for more socialistic economics, and that combination is reflected in the new parties they support.

In David Goodhart’s words, “Populism is the new Socialism. Almost all European populist parties now have an overwhelmingly working-class voter base and most have policies towards economics and globalisation that have more in common with the left than the right or might be described as statist or protectionist.”

While established parties try to adapt to their new situation and appease the voters they are losing, the steady trend towards stronger populist parties continues. After the moderate right returned to power in Greece in July 2019, and the wave of populism failed to meet the highest expectations set for it in the EU elections of May, some people might hope that a turning point has been reached.

An objective analysis nevertheless suggests that, overall, nationalistic populists are still on an upward trend in Europe. True, they fell back in Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. But in Italy, they enjoyed unprecedented success. In Hungary, they routed the opposition. In Poland, they overcame a united platform of moderates. In France, the National Rally came in ahead of President Macron’s party, and in Britain, the Brexit Party outpolled the Conservative and Labour parties put together.

In addition to fueling a trend towards more socialistic economics and looser fiscal policies, these continued advances are likely to have one other effect of geopolitical importance: the undermining of common positions among European nations. Britain’s intended departure from the EU is clearly a major blow to European unity, but it is one among many. In the last year, relations between France and Italy became so vituperative that at one stage the French ambassador was withdrawn from Rome, an event unknown since 1940.

The EU is now far less likely to be able to agree on fresh, major steps towards closer integration, leaving it becalmed in the face of new challenges and in an awkward state of maintaining a partially-built Eurozone. If one accepts that a monetary union relies in the long term on a fiscal and political union to underpin it, the euro will now proceed towards any future crisis without such underpinning. A divided EU is more vulnerable to the exploitation of its disagreements by foreign powers. Moscow, Beijing, and a Washington itself presided over by a populist President will have greater opportunities to pries open European unity on issues of concern to them. Hence China has pushed its closeness to Greece, Russia has reinforced links with Hungary and Italy, and the U.S. has celebrated the arrival of a British Prime Minister more committed to leaving the EU at any price.

On the highest level of global strategy, these developments will leave Europe as a whole less able to assert itself independently. If the world is moving to a race between the U.S. and China for technological, military and commercial leadership, Europe will have little chance of becoming a third player in its own right. And if the coming population explosion of Africa and the Middle East produces a vast outflow of people rather than booming cities of their own, Europe is more likely to be overcome by the consequences than to manage them.

The traditional moderation and consensus building of European politics is not yet sunk. It will produce new leaders, like Macron, who champion an alternative to nationalistic populism and maintain a vision of continental integration. But if they are to recover the initiative in any sustained way, they will need fresh ideas and philosophies that allow them to win back support from huge swathes of voters who have lost trust in institutions and fear also now losing their identity. If there is a long-term answer to the march of European populism, no one has formulated it yet.