Europe’s biggest test yet
Credit:Christopher Furlong/Getty Images   

Six months from now, the European Union will face its next big test. Citizens across the continent will head to the polls to choose who will represent them in the European Parliament. The elections arrive amid populist rebellions, debate on how to curb economic inequality within the Eurozone, and questions about who will lead the EU with Angela Merkel on her way out and Emmanuel Macron weakened.

The latest projections have the two largest parliamentary groups, the centre-Right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-Left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), remaining the biggest blocks, but they may well fail to win a majority of seats (and comparable polls have overestimated support for large and governing parties). Far from having been rejected, populism is going mainstream, and Brussels is braced for the strongest populist backlash on record.

The European elections of 2014 were striking enough. Against the backdrop of a financial crisis and worries over immigration, Eurosceptic, populist and far Right parties won a record 52 seats, an increase of 15 on 2009. The big winners were Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and the Danish People’s Party, which each won their respective election. Five years ago this was a shock; the New York Times warned that the result called “into question the very institutions and assumptions at the heart of Europe’s post-World War II order”. This time such parties are expected to do even better.

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A decade ago, populist breakthroughs felt like an outlier. Today they feel like the norm. In just five years we have witnessed a new record result for the Danish People’s Party; a record for Poland’s Law and Justice; a record result for the Austrian Freedom Party’s presidential candidate; and a second-place finish for Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. The Le Pen family has also had a record result in France’s presidential elections, and nearly half of all voters in France opting for Eurosceptic candidates in the first round of that contest.

In Germany we have witnessed the sudden emergence and rise of the Alternative for Germany, which won seats in every state parliament and more than ninety seats in the Bundestag – despite Germany long being thought immune to populism. And in Italy there is an openly populist government, with the League having more than doubled its share in the polls since the election only nine months ago.

Add to that the re-election of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in Hungary; a new record result for the Sweden Democrats; and, most recently, the breakthrough of Vox in Spain, another state that was once considered immune to populism. And, of course, in Britain we have seen the rise of UKIP and the vote for Brexit, the first example of European disintegration.

Many of these democracies have only existed in an uninterrupted form for a few decades. It is easy to forget how young our political systems are.

Populism can no longer be written off as a fleeting moment rooted in national-specific factors, or as a response powered only by the financial crisis. Aside from having deep roots, such parties are prospering in stable, growing and high-employment economies, such as Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden, as well as struggling ones, like Italy (where the unemployed voted Five Star, not for the League).

Nor is it plausible to argue, as Jean-Claude Juncker did in 2017, that “the wind is back in Europe’s sails”. Today it is Macron who looks like an outlier. A year ago the front cover of Time featured a smiling Macron; by the end of 2018 it featured Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the young conservative Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz, as embodying the zeitgeist.

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The voters’ priorities have changed. In the 1990s or 2000s, people’s key concerns were the economy and public services, but rising immigration from outside Europe, a major refugee crisis and Islamist terrorism have all impacted on the public mindset. Between 2014 and 2017, there were 63 Islamist terrorist attacks across Europe and North America, which left 424 dead and 2,000 injured. So now, when Eurobarometer asks ‘what are the top issues facing the EU’, the two top answers are immigration and terrorism. The economy is a distant third.

Ask Europeans what the EU should focus on to make life safer for ordinary people, and they say tackling terrorism, radicalisation and strengthening borders. Ask them what they see as the main threats facing the EU and they prioritise terrorism and the poor management of immigration. Earlier this year the European Commission’s own data revealed that immigration dominated the list of concerns in 22 of the 27 EU countries that will vote in the elections, and for the fourth year in a row. You get the picture – this is a time when people want to talk about identity and security more than about jobs and wages.

All this has given populism a shot in the arm. As three decades of research have shown, the top two drivers of support for the likes of Le Pen, Wilders and Salvini are concern over immigration and distrust of the establishment. The latter is also strongly encouraged by the very nature of European Parliament elections, which often see citizens use their votes to protest against the establishment, largely because they see these elections as inconsequential to their daily lives.

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EU institutions also remain plagued by a purported ‘democratic deficit’; for instance, while some observers point to the fact that public support for the EU has reached a thirty-five year high, it is worth reflecting on the fact that still 49% of people across the EU disagree with the statement “my voice counts in the EU” (which jumps to 66% in Italy). People certainly support the EU, but large numbers do not perceive it to be a sufficiently inclusive project. This is fertile soil for those who claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ against distant and uncaring elites.

In this context, the number of populists in the European Parliament, represented by the ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy’ group, and ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom’, is likely to grow from 10% to 17%, which may persuade them to team up in the Parliament, which hitherto they haven’t managed.

And it is not only populists on the Right expected to make gains. The Greens in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium may do well, though they will lose their British counterparts. The growth of these parties has coincided with the stunning collapse of centre-Left social democratic parties.

From the German SPD to their Austrian, Dutch, Czech, Italian and Swedish cousins, recent years have seen the centre-Left suffer historic losses. The question that faces social democracy today is not how can it return to power but rather how can it survive as its liberal middle-class professionals and more socially conservative working-class supporters head in different directions.

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This is why, in my view, we can expect a more polarised future for Europe, where it will become harder to broker the compromise and consensus that lies at the heart of the liberal conception of democracy. For now, and as studies show, it is the national populists, not the Greens, who are having the strongest impact on policy, dragging Europe to the Right on those key identity issues like immigration. Revealingly, even some centre-Left parties are now overhauling their positions.

Look beyond the European Parliament elections and it is clear that bigger challenges lie in wait. As we argue in our book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, the volatility and fragmentation that is unfolding across Europe is beginning rather than coming to an end. In the coming years the EU will increasingly find itself grappling with broader pressures. It has still not managed to resolve deep divides over identity between East and West, and divides over economics between North and South. Disputes between the EU, Hungary and Poland have exposed possibly irreconcilable differences between member states about their conception of nation, culture and identity.

Turning to the economic sphere, productivity growth and competitiveness remain weak while rates of inequality are rising, especially in southern Europe where workers receive a falling share of income. Rates of inequality in Belgium, the Netherlands or Austria contrast sharply to the much higher rates in Italy, Greece, Romania or Bulgaria. Overall, poverty has increased while tepid rates of growth, excessive sovereign debt (that will become more of an issue when interest rates increase), and weak banks will continue to present problems.

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All of this might be less of an issue if the EU had a young and dynamic labour force. But the continent is ageing. Average fertility rates across the EU have fallen from 2.6 births per woman in 1960 to 1.6 today. Ironically, it is the same states that are set to shrink most by 2050, like Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary and Poland, that are also the most strongly opposed to immigration. Even EU states with the highest fertility rates, like France and Sweden, are far from the ‘replenishment level’ needed to avoid population decline without immigration (a rate of around 2.1). By contrast, in the Middle East and Africa: 65% of the Middle East’s population is younger than 30; Africa will see its population of15-24 years old, currently 200 million, double within only three decades.

These demographic shifts may not bother the comfortable, socially liberal middle-class. But many will be deeply alarmed. This month, the Pew Research Center revealed that only 10% of people in the EU want more immigration while 51% want fewer or none at all (which spirals above 70% in Italy, Hungary and Greece). The number of refugees entering the EU may have fallen from the 2014-2015 peak, but immigration from outside of Europe is not going to fall off the radar. And contrary to the popular myth that the people turning to populism are angry old men, most of those who are voting for the Alternative for Germany, Marine Le Pen or the Austrian Freedom Party are under 40. Populism is here to stay.