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Populism is still a threat to Europe — here’s how to contain it

‘Pulse of Europe’ supporters hold banners before a meeting between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on May 15 2017 in Berlin. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Populism is still a threat to Europe — here’s how to contain it

Has the populist tide sweeping Europe crested?

Six months ago, many European leaders worried that the wave of popular discontent that led to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and propelled Donald Trump into the White House could empower nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties across Europe, shaking the very foundations of the bloc.

Since then, however, populist movements have been turned back in Austria, the Netherlands and France.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks likely to win her fourth term as chancellor in national elections this September. And with a young, energetic, pro-EU French president now in the Élysée Palace, some are predicting that the bloc is actually poised for a comeback.

But it would be a mistake to think that populism no longer represents a serious threat to Europe and the EU.

Populist authoritarians are in power in Hungary and Poland. Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front captured a third of the vote in the run-off of France’s election last month, and Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam Freedom Party is the second most powerful seat-holder in Holland’s parliament.

Even in Germany, long thought to be resistant to right-wing populist currents, the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) seems poised to gain parliamentary representation for the first time following national elections this year.

And with early parliamentary elections scheduled for October 15 in Austria, it appears likely that the far-right Freedom Party, which was formed in the 1950s by former Nazis, will enter into a government coalition with the centre-right Austrian People’s Party.

A rise in populism since the 1960s

Post-war Europe has seen populist movements of both the left and the right, but they have mainly operated on the margins of national politics. While no populist party or politician has been able to actually win a national election in Western Europe over the past seven decades, research shows that populism has been advancing slowly yet steadily in Europe since the 1960s.

Today, virtually every European country has a populist party represented in national or regional parliaments. Most are right-wing, like Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Lega Nord in Italy, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats and the Swiss People’s Party.

These parties’ aims and agendas are driven by different national histories, traditions and circumstances, but all are anti-immigrant and anti-EU.

Populism’s appeal remains too small to actually win elections in most of Europe, but it is shaping national and European politics in various ways, reframing debates on immigration, the Eurozone and national security, among other examples.

Political views once considered extreme or taboo are now firmly present in mainstream political discourse. In response, some mainstream politicians have co-opted parts of the populists’ message or have felt pressure to move to the right on some issues to blunt the populist advance.

To counter Wilders’s anti-immigrant message, for example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte took a more hardline stance on immigration and refugees in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections in March. Even Angela Merkel has placed limits on Germany’s absorption of new refugees in light of criticism from both the AfD and the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of her Christian Democratic Union.

The period from the second world war to the present has been a remarkably stable one for Western Europe. Governments have largely alternated between the centre-right and the centre-left.

With the rise of populist movements and candidates, we are, in a way, restoring the historical norm: for much of Europe’s modern history, liberals and social democrats have competed with populists of various stripes in national elections.

What’s the plan?

To effectively contain populism, Europe must accurately diagnose how and why it emerged in the first place.

This means they cannot just ignore populists and their supporters, or ascribe their grievances as the product of envy, resentment or blind rage. Those in power must acknowledge constituents’ genuine worries and anxieties about immigration, national identity and terrorism, for example.

Globalisation has produced rapid economic and social disruptions. It has contributed to economic displacement, rising income and wealth inequality, and what seems to some people to be the homogenisation of national cultures.

Many people today face a level of economic insecurity that their parents or grandparents did not experience. And with large-scale immigration, they have legitimate concerns about the cultural and demographic future of their countries. The sources for such concerns are not likely to disappear, so populism is more of a long-term challenge than a temporary crisis.

As Harvard’s Yascha Mounk has said, “the past two decades have represented not a populist moment but rather a populist turn — one that will exert significant influence on policy and public opinion for decades to come.”

European leaders should also challenge the populists’ message, and in particular press these firebrands to provide details about their policy proposals. Populists are big on divisive rhetoric but vague when it comes to what they would actually do about immigration, economic policy, or national security. Challenging them to get specific will highlight inconsistencies for voters and show that many populist policy proposals would likely prove ineffective in practice.

Then, of course, EU and European leaders must also provide real solutions to the problems that are pushing a large number of their citizens toward populist parties and candidates. The region urgently needs to take concrete steps toward reducing unemployment, promoting economic growth and helping displaced workers and communities adapt to a globalised world.

In short, there is a need to reinvent and reinvigorate the political centre in Europe and defend liberal democracy, pluralism, and globalisation while making these processes more fair and equitable.

For a new political centre

There is no guarantee that this plan will work, but Emmanuel Macron has shown that this can still be a winning electoral strategy in Europe.

Against Le Pen’s nationalist, protectionist platform, he staked out a position in the political centre, and spoke powerfully and eloquently on the merits and value of a pluralist society and an integrated Europe. In the end, his vision resonated with two thirds of French voters.

This may be the only way to keep populism at bay in Europe. Its appeal and electoral support will wax and wane according to economic and social conditions, but it will continue to be an outlet for those who feel that the system has failed them.

We may inflate the strength of populist parties and candidates, but the political threat is real – and it will remain so in Europe for years to come.