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Europe 2025: how populism saved democracy

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

August 22, 2018   10 mins

This article is part of a series in which we have asked our contributors to imagine that populist movements continue to gain influence in the coming years – what do western democracies look like in 2025?


“The unexpected always happens; the inevitable never,” wrote Keynes. Yet for Europe, inevitability had characterised the first 14 years of this millennium. Between 2014 and 2020, however, that began to stall, and by 2025 the ‘inevitable’ liberal consensus has been replaced by the unexpected in the form of de Gaulle’s “Europe des Patries”, with big national government’s leading the way, and Thatcher’s Anglosphere. The neutral term for these developments is the Return of History – critics would say ‘catastrophe’.

Even the catastrophists, however, concede that this progress from inevitable to unexpected is traceable to the over-reaching of the Europeanists in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin in the period 2000 to 2014: The introduction of the Euro without the fiscal and monetary structures needed to sustain it; the adoption of Schengen’s internal “open borders” without first securing Europe’s external ones; Mrs. Merkel’s invitation to Syrian refugees to Europe, supported as it was by the European Commission, without first establishing efficient procedures for either vetting or deporting them; the stealthy moves towards independent European defense structures separate from NATO; and overall the gradual encroaching of European institutions on the national democratic prerogatives of the EU’s member-states.

Populists of Right and Left proposed, opposed, debated, and amended legislation. They became part of ‘the System’ and they expanded it. They just don’t seem very threatening any more.

Each one of these over-ambitious initiatives produced its own crisis from the (now perennial) Greek crisis to the migrant one. Taken together, however, they also fostered an overall crisis of legitimacy in European democracy as voters found that they couldn’t change policies they disliked by voting in national elections, since even politicians who had campaigned for change would explain afterwards that these issues were determined ‘at the European level.’ Policies at that level were determined on the inevitabalist basis of “ever closer union.” And unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any way of throwing the European rascals out.

When insurgent parties then arose demanding that more be done about controlling immigration, or imposing anti-terrorist border controls, or changing endless ‘austerity’ policies required by the Bundesbank, the European Central Bank, and Mrs. Merkel, the early response of both political and media elites was to denounce them as “populists,” or “nationalists” or simply “extremists” who were threatening, democracy, international order and even world peace. That argument worked well enough at Davos or Aspen but lacked electoral magic. Electorates began voting for extremists in such significant numbers that it seemed silly to dismiss them as outside the mainstream. And at the same time, the ‘mainstream’ Left visibly collapsed in half of Europe.

As the crises became sharper after 2014 – with the Brits voting for Brexit and the Italians electing a majority populist government – the voters were increasingly joined by intellectuals dissenting from the elite consensus. Dutch left-wing political scientist, Cas Mudde, has pointed out that populism was a democratic response by the voters to the fact that elites had removed entire issues – like the Euro or migration policy – from political debate. In effect they had silently imposed their own priorities.

British social critic, David Goodhart, pointed out that most government policies reflected the interests and values of the mobile, highly educated 25% of people he called “Anywheres” over the rooted 50% he dubbed “Somewheres.” Brexit was inter alia a protest against that. Pierre Manent was one of several distinguished French intellectuals to see European politics as developing into a competition between an unrespectable national-populism and an arrogant cosmopolitan centrism – or, in his words, between populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the Centre. For him, the fanaticism of the Centre was the greater threat.

The bare bones of this evolution were evident in the European parliament where the mainstream parties of Left and Right had formed a coalition against the ‘extremes’ (that is, all the other parties.) Also evident was the determination of the Brussels Eurocrats to prevent the Brits leaving the EU—which they succeeded in postponing several years beyond the original departure date.

All the ingredients for serious political conflicts within and between European nations were present and combustible as 2019 came into view. One observer, Iain Kearns, entitled his dystopian analysis of Europe’s future: Collapse. What was needed was a strategy to draw the populists into conventional politics and government responsibility before they broke into them by electoral force.

In this new economic environment Europe was no longer moving in a centralising direction: integration would be achieved on lines that were both more national and more liberal

It was the voters who ensured that no catastrophe occurred. They did so in the first instance by giving the mainstream centrist parties of Left and Right a smaller combined share of the total vote in May 2019 than in any previous European election. They barely cleared the 50% mark between them, and the ranks of the centre-right European People’s Party included a large delegation from Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, which dissented from the centrist ideology of ever-closer union and centralising power in Brussels, while being firmly committed to Hungary’s EU membership. There would be no more pressing for further European integration or, in the jargon, ‘More Europe’.

The second instance was the German election of Fall 2019 when the voters similarly reduced their support for the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats and gave a larger share of their votes to the populist AFD, the Bavarian CSU, and especially the once-centrist Free Democrats (who had adopted a more populist tone in the campaign), in a parliament that shifted overall to the Right. Chancellor Merkel was unable to form a new coalition with her past allies, the Social Democrats and Greens, and resigned.

Her successor, Wolfgang Schauble, gave up the Bundestag speakership to become CDU leader and Chancellor. He presented himself as a “caretaker Chancellor” but proved to be a very active one indeed. He set out to divide the AFD, tempting ambitious individual MPs to leave their “untouchable” party and become respectable by joining any of the parties in his new coalition, which was comprised of the CDU, the CSU, the FDP, and a faction of the Greens. In this way he brought moderate populists into government and constructed a durable conservative majority rooted in compromise between social traditionalists, free market (or corporate) business interests, moderate environmentalists, and a patriotic citizenry.

Schauble, a long-standing supporter of Euro-integration, was expected to re-affirm Germany’s attachment to the Euro. For a while he seemed to do so. Then, to people’s surprise, Schauble announced on a Sunday evening in February 2020 that at midnight Germany would revert to the D-Mark at a fixed exchange rate for one week, after which it would be allowed to float. Outside Germany only the head of the European Central Bank and the French president were informed in advance.

This was unexpected, but in retrospect seemed inevitable. Economists on all sides had long agreed that the Euro was the Shirt of Nessus: it was painful to keep it on and painful to take it off. But it eventually dawned on them that the pain of staying in was indefinite, that of leaving was transitional.

Realising this in 2014, Schauble had proposed helping Greece to leave the single currency with a parting gift of billions to get the Greeks over the transition. Merkel had vetoed this. Now Schauble followed his own judgment and saw an independent D-Mark establish itself at a higher exchange rate while the smaller Euro fell and made the countries of southern Europe much more competitive. Schauble called a conference with Eurozone members a week later which agreed on additional changes: some northern EU-members later joined the D-Mark bloc, while Macron’s France sensibly decided to choose the Euro and prosperity over the D-Mark and gloire.

After brief market turbulence, Europe settled down into being a two-currency trading bloc with more balanced overall economic relations. German industry lost the super-advantage of an undervalued exchange rate, but this was compensated for by the gradual recoveries of markets in Greece, Spain, and Italy.

‘More Europe’ was replaced by ‘Europe a la carte’ as a general principle of Euro-governance

In this new economic environment Europe was no longer moving in a centralising direction: integration would be achieved on lines that were both more national and more liberal. That left President Macron of France, who was reliant on German generosity for his program of reviving the European project, without a policy to his name. He pursued one of domestic economic reform, but that lost as many votes as it won. He is now an unemployed Man of Destiny short of a great cause.

This presented an opportunity for the Gaullist wing of the conservatives, however, which had lacked influence in recent governments. Not only did it allow them to revive the General’s concept of Europe des Patries in favourable circumstances, but it also opened up the possibility of winning votes from the populist Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front.) Under their new leader, Laurent Wauquiez, The Republicans set about enticing the populist Right’s more attractive celebrities – notably, Marine Le Pen’s telegenic niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen – over to their side for a campaign of respectable nationalism in the 2022 election. They won hands down. By 2022 the continental EU had populist or semi-populist governments in its three largest member-states.

Together with the new environment of economic optimism, this upsurge of qualified populism had a wider impact. Some countries like Italy decided to imitate EU member-states like Sweden, Hungary and Denmark that had opted to retain their own currencies. Stricter border controls had already been restored in response to rising threats of terrorism and illegal migration. EU Commission proposals for tax harmonisation were placed on the back burner, and harmonisation of regulation was increasingly rejected in favour of the principle of “mutual recognition” of national rules (ironically, a rock on which the Brexit negotiations had foundered earlier). Europe’s courts were increasingly inclined to respect national laws that reflected strong popular sentiment, and powers taken earlier by Brussels were returned to national parliaments. ‘More Europe’ was replaced by ‘Europe a la carte’ as a general principle of Euro-governance.

Until the mid-teens of this century, it was politically risky and socially dangerous for people to say that they liked their country as it was, together with its customs and traditions

Contrary to much pessimism in the establishment, these transfers of legal and economic power did not result in a less dynamic European economy. Instead, over time they transformed the EU from a cartel of governments into a market of governments (as Margaret Thatcher had called for in a 1991 speech in the Hague.) In order to attract and keep businesses and talented people in their jurisdictions, individual EU governments had to craft tax-and-regulation packages at least as good as their competitive neighbours. Forcing governments to compete in this way proved to produce better economic results than dictating a level playing field from a single city in Belgium.

Still more unexpectedly, these power transfers also promoted both more vigorous and inclusive democratic politics, and a more heightened sense of national identity and community throughout Europe. Populists of Right and Left, some in coalition, some in majority parties, some in opposition, proposed, opposed, debated, and amended legislation. They became part of ‘the System’ and they expanded it. They just don’t seem very threatening any more.

Nations, regions, and localities have the freedom to bring in laws and regulations that reflect a national or local consensus, rather than a European elite orthodoxy. Neither Swedish urban secularists nor rural Croatian conservatives get exactly the moral and religious laws—for instance on abortion—that they want across Europe. But there is no persecution, residual but shrinking discrimination, real debate on contested issues, and a pan-European spirit of ‘live and let live’ that tolerates local option on many questions while gradually changing minds in both directions.

It turns out that what alienated people in our societies wanted was less to impose their own opinions than to have them treated with respect as part of legitimate debate. They took the ‘free’ in ‘free society’ literally and seriously.

As 2025 approaches, Orban is the moral leader of the dominant conservative populist wing of European politics

One change in particular has been crucial: a powerful social taboo has been removed. Until the mid-teens of this century, it was politically risky and socially dangerous for people to say that they liked their country as it was, together with its customs and traditions, and that they would oppose policies, such as mass migration and multiculturalism, likely to change its character markedly. This had long been the opinion of most ordinary citizens, yet, as Ed West in The Diversity Illusion and Douglas Murray in The Strange Death of Europe had pointed out, they were routinely stigmatised as “racist” by parts of the media and cultural leaders.

The surprisingly deep elite prejudice against nationalism and the nation-state changed in part because of the intellectual challenges mounted by writers like Manent, Goodhart, Mudde, West, and Murray, and in part because the establishment’s anti-nationalism so overreached, arguing national borders were incompatible with human rights, that it discredited itself with most people.

More visibly, however, it was halted in politics by the fact that Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, won electoral landslides while declaring that Hungary was a nation with a Christian tradition and a specifically Hungarian culture. Like other nations, it should be treasured and protected from abrupt cultural, demographic, and national transformation—especially one imposed from outside. Other parties, not only in Central Europe, followed his example. He was accordingly credited with the rise of a new conservative cultural politics (usually called ‘illiberalism’ by him and his critics, misleadingly in my view) that led to the victories of populist parties in elections across Europe.

As 2025 approaches, Orban is the moral leader of the dominant conservative populist wing of European politics, but his practical influence is limited by the fact that he is the prime minister of a small country. There is talk of his helping to create a new Carpathian Federation that would increase the influence of Central Europe within the EU.

What were the Brits doing while these events were unfolding? After the 2017 election Prime Minister Theresa May had been persuaded by Remainer Cabinet Ministers and officials to adopt policies for Brexit that brought her into conflict with the large majority of her own party. That produced a weak paralysed government, divided against itself, several failed initiatives starting with the so called Chequers Fiasco, and a policy stalemate that might have lasted indefinitely if a military scandal had not erupted to change public opinion on the Brexit debate.

Anxious to make Brexit as ‘soft’ as possible and thus more acceptable to the EU, officials in the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence had committed the UK to far deeper participation in the EU’s independent defence structures than the Cabinet or Tory MPs knew or would have approved. Ominously the new EU defence establishment felt they needed a success – especially since Russia had been making threatening noises towards Montenegro and Macedonia. Accordingly, Brussels decided to handle the Russian threats outside of NATO. British troops were actually in the air to join an EU deterrent force on the Greek-Macedonian border when the scandal broke. The government fell.

A new government with a distinctively Brexiteer cast of mind and characters was appointed in an atmosphere of acute Euro-skepticism and public anger. Looking around desperately for policy options, ministers discovered a free trade and migration deal with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand that had apparently fallen behind a filing cabinet in the Treasury. Polls had always shown this so-called CANZUK Option was popular with the voters in all four countries.

Ministers also realised that it could be a clever preliminary and/or roundabout way of striking a trade deal with the US, without looking like Britain becoming the 51st state option. Both trade deals were acted on fairly quickly, and after a period of serious but temporary disruption (which the public in its new mood accepted without too much complaint), they began to stabilise the UK economy on different lines. More important, the new government moved the UK into the first lane of economic and technological development by gradually moving its supply-lines from the relatively quiescent ones in Europe to the far more dynamic ones in the wider US and Anglospheric worlds.

And what happened to the EU? Well, it didn’t collapse. Indeed it prospered. But the EU Commission did less well. As Marshall Foch once said of the graduates of the St. Cyr military academy, it could be said of the Brussels mandarins: “They know everything. Unfortunately, they don’t know anything else.” So as the Commission and other centralised EU institutions saw their power diminish in the new Europe des Patries, its leading figures gradually resigned or retired to become professors of European politics at Ivy League universities and centre-Left think tanks in the US.

From there they tell us how to arrange the world rather than merely Europe. The world rolls on. It is an arrangement that seems to suit everyone.

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow of the National Review Institute and writes widely on politics.


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