The specter haunting Europe

The populist wave spreading across Europe is rooted in deep-seated grievances – globalization, falling real incomes, unemployment, torn safety nets – that have been channeled into anger against migrants. Instead of engaging with these real problems, establishment politicians have preferred to insult voters.

Arriving migrants at Munich’s main train station, September 2015
Opponents of Europe’s political establishment seized on the migrant wave of 2015 to mobilize popular anger at globalization and torn social safety nets. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Relief that Europe dodged a populist bullet in the 2017 election year is premature
  • Having done little to regain the trust of voters, establishment parties remain vulnerable
  • Populism is seeping into the mainstream, and populists can still win in some countries

A specter is haunting Europe – but not the communist specter once envisioned by Karl Marx. Instead, a wave of populism is spreading across the continent, disrupting traditional political alliances and making the formation of stable governments increasingly difficult. In some cases, these movements are even making demands for secession that threaten the integrity of nation states. This mostly right-wing upsurge is driven by a deeply felt sense of popular dissatisfaction, and it is especially dangerous because established political elites remain in denial.

The fundamental problem is that growing numbers of Europeans are becoming convinced that politicians do not take their grievances seriously and that the European Union is part of the problem, not the solution. Being unwilling or simply unable to recognize the true wellsprings of populism, representatives of the established political parties prefer to engage in moral grandstanding against its symptoms, which only makes things worse. Insulting voters by calling them names is not a winning strategy.

Although the popular grievances are rooted in concerns about globalization, stagnant or falling real incomes, youth unemployment and torn social safety nets, politicians of a populist bent have found that the migration crisis offers the best opportunity to whip up anger. And the political establishment have been deplorably happy to play along. Branding populists as racists and xenophobes is so much easier than engaging them on bread-and-butter issues.

Electoral test

This is not to say that the migration crisis is anything but extremely serious. But unless the established parties restore some form of social contract between the rulers and the ruled, inspiring faith that they recognize popular grievances and have answers that will work, there can be no solution to the migrant crisis – or any of the other crises that weigh so heavily on the EU.

A year ago, there was great concern that what the Germans called die Superwahljahr (“super-election year”) of 2017 would bring sweeping victories to parties with hard euroskeptic and anti-immigrant platforms. Some senior figures even expressed fears that this could bring about a collapse of the EU.

There were four key tests. First came Austria’s presidential elections, which threatened to bring to power Norbert Hofer, whose rightist Freedom Party held an unforgiving stance on migration. Next were the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders and his equally strongly anti-immigrant Freedom Party were poised to win. Third was the presidential election in France, where National Front leader Marine Le Pen was a strong contender. Ms. Le Pen had even promised to hold a referendum on a French exit from the EU, or Frexit.

The campaign against Chancellor Merkel for opening the floodgates to immigration has at times been brutal.

Last and perhaps most important were the September federal elections in Germany, where the strongly anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) was riding high in the polls. The AfD’s campaign against Chancellor Angela Merkel for her role in opening the floodgates to uncontrolled immigration has been at times brutal, including Twitter comments by an AfD lawmaker that “these are Merkel’s dead’ after the December 2016 terrorist attack in Berlin. Many Germans feared the prospect of a large right-wing party entering the Bundestag, for the first time since its creation.

Once the election cycle was over, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. Norbert Hofer had been defeated in Austria, Geert Wilders lost in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen was not elected president of France, and in Germany the AfD did not do as well as feared, even though it managed to finish a strong third. But any serious consideration of events suggests that this sense of relief was seriously premature.

Dangerous path

With none of the fundamental problems squarely addressed, far less solved, Europe’s populist parties can be expected to regroup, refocus and return. The defeat of Ms. Le Pen suggests that proponents of EU exits will lie low for a while. The crushing of Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence sent a similar chilling message to secessionist movements in member states. But these are issues of tactics and timing. As evidenced by the recent referendum on greater fiscal autonomy for Italy’s richer northern regions, centrifugal forces remain strong in Europe, both at the Union and national levels.

The truly existential challenge to politicians from the mainstream parties will be to regain the trust of the voters. Without that, it will be impossible to win support for measures that are long-term necessary but short-term painful. As the populist drive strips away their credibility, the established parties will be tempted to make populist plays of their own. This can only be counterproductive in the long run.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) and his main challenger, populist Geert Wilders (L) populist wave Europe
Europe’s ruling parties largely turned back populist challengers in 2017, but only because mainstream politicians like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) copied the message of rivals like Geert Wilders (L). © dpa

The default response has been moral grandstanding, which usually takes the form of accusing supporters of anti-immigrant parties of being racists. In the German elections, voters punished Chancellor Merkel by giving the Christian Democrats their worst result since 1949. Although the AfD polled just 12.6 percent nationwide, in the eastern parts of the country, often reviled as Dunkeldeutschland (“dark Germany”), the party received 22 percent of the vote. After the miserable result and breakup of her ruling coalition, Chancellor Merkel pledged to listen to AfD voters. This amounts to locking the stables after the horses have bolted.

Moral grandstanding is also attractive to the media, where leading news outlets have drifted from ostensibly impartial reporting into an anti-populist crusade. In countries like Germany and Sweden, the authorities have even begun setting rules for the media, based on support for “common values.” In practice, this amounts to dictating what type of news the citizenry shall be allowed to consume. Anything that allegedly inflames hatred will be blocked.

This is a dangerous path to tread. If the mainstream news organizations stoop to selective reporting, their credibility with the public will be seriously impaired. This leaves the field open to alternative media with an even more slanted agenda and much less restraint about manipulation. The U.S. experience with President Donald Trump and his campaign against mainstream providers of “fake news” demonstrates just how devastating the impact can be on public trust.

Scenario 1: Mainstreaming

Looking forward, two distinct scenarios seem possible.

The most likely is that established parties on the moderate right will appropriate parts of the populist agenda. This is what happened in the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s winning campaign message was largely copied from Geert Wilders. For that reason, claiming that Mr. Wilders was defeated is not quite correct.

Sebastian Kurz won power in Austria by stealing much of his agenda from the right-wing Freedom Party.

This same thing happened in Austria’s parliamentary elections. Conservative Sebastian Kurz won a convincing victory in October 2017 by stealing much of his agenda from the right-wing Freedom Party. He vowed to “fight with all my strength for change in this country,” even if that meant taking on the rest of Europe. Mr. Kurz now rules as Austria’s chancellor, with support from the Freedom Party.

It could happen again in Sweden, where the liberal-conservative Moderate Party has elected a new leader and revamped its program. This rebooted version is tough on immigrants, tough on crime and keen on increasing defense spending. In reward for this metamorphosis, the Moderates have recaptured second place in the polls, behind the ruling Social Democrats and ahead of the upstart Sweden Democrats (SD) – who may now have to shelve their dreams of becoming the country’s largest party. Even so, as in Austria, it looks impossible for Sweden’s moderate right to form a government after the September 2018 elections without at least passive support from their populist colleagues in the SD.

Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate party, wants Sweden to get tough on immigration populist wave Europe
Even in politically correct Sweden, the liberal-conservative Moderate Party has elected a new leader, Ulf Kristersson, and adopted a rebooted program that is tough on immigrants and crime. © dpa

This evolving incorporation of right-wing populism into the mainstream is already accomplished in Denmark and Norway, where former populist parties hold cabinet portfolios and wield considerable influence. The Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) has helped implement one of Europe’s toughest immigration policies, while the leader of Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskritspartiet), Sylvi Listhaug, has not been shy about pronouncing that “here we eat pork and drink alcohol and do not cover our faces.” The contrast with (still) politically correct Sweden could not be more striking.

The question is just how far to the right the mainstream will move, and what will be the reaction from the hard left. A recent survey by Bloomberg News concludes that “support for populist radical-right parties is higher than it’s been at any time over the past 30 years.” Absent a common European solution to the migrant crisis, this lurch to the right will continue to draw strength from anti-migrant sentiment. Europe’s internal politics will grow more polarized, and if this happens in Germany, it could cause the key structural element holding up the EU – the Franco-German alliance – to wobble.

One can already discern the outlines of an anti-immigrant belt running from Hungary to Bavaria.

It is already possible to discern the outlines of an anti-immigrant belt running from Hungary through Austria and into Bavaria. These Central European states are all committed to securing their southern borders. If Italy were to realize its threat of unleashing large numbers of migrants, Austria would make good on its threat to reimpose border controls. The political friction between Ms. Merkel and Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian CSU, has also already played a major role in complicating her ambitions to form a new German government.

Rising nationalism is not limited to anti-migrant sentiment, however. As already evidenced by Hungary and Poland, the drift to the right may also entail assaults on the media and the judiciary, as aspiring authoritarian leaders seek to consolidate power. Condemnations from senior EU officials only add fuel to the fire, and could end up uniting the whole Visegrad bloc against interference from Brussels.

Scenario 2: Implosion

Under an alternative scenario, the political center will not hold, allowing “fringe” parties of the right and left to become dominant. This is what happened in the Austrian presidential election, where Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party stood against Alexander van der Bellen, a Green candidate supported by the left. The Social Democrats and the People’s Party came in a distant fourth and fifth, putting an end to a long-established grand coalition.

In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte’s victory was balanced by the radical Greens’ success in more than tripling their vote. In France, Emmanuel Macron won the presidency on a wafer-thin mandate, fighting off tough challenges from Ms. Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the hard left.

As populists on the right start cooperating with more moderate parties, it may spur ambitions to form full-blooded political movements that are not shy about their roots and affinities with some fascist or even Nazi forebears. This in turn will spur radicalization on the left, which will intensify its campaign for migrant rights and against globalization and American influence. Some on the more extreme leftist groups will be galvanized into violent resistance, as we saw last July during the street riots at the G20 meeting in Hamburg.

The old dream of a creating a United States in Europe will only undermine already diminished trust in the EU.

The real test will arrive in June 2019, when EU voters will elect members to the post-Brexit “European” Parliament, if one can still use that label. There is a clear danger that those elections will bring sweeping gains to parties representing various elements of the populist agenda, rendering the task of building a European consensus to resolve long-term crises even more complicated.

Renew or deny

Theoretically, one could envision a third scenario in which the established parties join hands to produce a new narrative. They would address the fears of worried electorates while explaining why liberal market reforms will bring welfare rather than misery, and why the EU must play a central role in this process.

Realism dictates, however, that it is far more likely the Franco-German alliance will keep pushing for “more Europe,” seeking to realize the old dream of a creating a new United States on the continent. This counterproductive ambition will only undermine already diminished trust in the EU, especially outside “core” Europe. It would be the ultimate expression of denial as the populist tide rises.

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