Predictions that the pandemic would spell the end of populism and thrust voters back into the political mainstream have turned out to be little more than wishful thinking. In the US, polls show Trump creeping up on Biden. In Europe, meanwhile, a new Right-populist wave is sweeping the continent.
In yesterday’s election, which confirmed Vox as the country’s third-largest party, Spain came close to joining Hungary, Poland, Italy, Finland and Austria and electing a Right-populist party to government. In Germany, meanwhile, the AfD has just elected its first mayor and district administrator, after surging into second place in the polls; in the Netherlands, the newly formed Farmer-Citizen Movement won its first provincial elections in March; in Austria, the Freedom Party is leading the polls; and in France, polls suggest that Le Pen would now win a run-off with Macron.
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This shift to the Right will no doubt affect the make-up of the next European Parliament, due to be elected next June. And Right-wingers across Europe are feeling giddy. At a recent rally in support of Vox, Giorgia Meloni couldn’t contain her glee, claiming that “the hour of the patriots has arrived”, announcing “a change in the politics of Europe”.
It seems inevitable that Right-populism will play an increasingly influential role in the coming years. But exactly what kind of “change” should we expect from these “patriots”? From a cultural standpoint, such parties could not be further from the liberal-progressive mainstream: they share an attachment to Europe’s traditions and religious heritage, a dislike for eurocrats and an opposition to all things woke — immigration, gender ideology, green fanaticism. So we can definitely expect a pushback on these fronts, within individual countries as well as at the European level: more relaxed climate policies, more restrictive immigration policies and less talk about gender.
On other, arguably more important issues, however, these so-called populist parties are peculiarly aligned with the mainstream. In terms of economic policy, for example, almost all of them are wedded to the neoliberal orthodoxy embedded in the EU: with few exceptions, their economic agendas revolve around pro-austerity, pro-deregulation, anti-worker and anti-welfare policies.
Consider the new Finnish government’s economic programme, which includes wide-ranging welfare cuts, rules to make it easier for companies to lay off employees, limitations to the right of collective bargaining, and fines for workers on strikes. Similarly, Vox’s economic programme is rooted in what Miquel Vila has called “a special kind of Spanish neoliberalism [which favours] economic deregulation while supporting a conglomerate of big corporations dependent on government contracts”. The same (with slight variations) goes for several Right-populist parties — from Austria’s Freedom Party to the AfD to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.
There are exceptions, of course. Le Pen, for instance, believes in a moderate redistributive programme of Keynesian orientation based on state interventionism, social protection and the defence of public services; in the past she has castigated the “neoliberal” logic of many of Macron’s proposals. Even Viktor Orbán’s economic policies — which have included capping the prices of basic goods in response to galloping inflation — have defied the orthodoxy in certain respects.
Yet overall, there is little reason to believe that this Right-populist wave will result in any major economic policy shift. And this is highly problematic, given most of the support for these parties doesn’t come from voters who are tired of wokeness — though that certainly plays a role — but from those who are anxious about their socioeconomic situation and lack of economic security. At a time when millions of Europeans are struggling with inflation and falling real wages, any party that wants to survive the next electoral cycle will also need to provide answers to the majority of voters who expect a material benefit from their vote. In this sense, the fact that most of these parties are wedded to the economic orthodoxy doesn’t bode well for their future — or that of the millions of Europeans struggling to get by.
That said, even those parties who would choose to defy the economic status quo have to contend with the very limited autonomy that countries have today, especially in the eurozone. This relates to an even more striking aspect of contemporary Right-populism: as much as they love to rail against the “Brussels bureaucrats” and the “globalist elites”, they have virtually all ditched any mention of leaving the EU and/or the euro from their programmes (to the extent that they ever made that claim). Nowadays, Right-populists are all euro-reformists who speak of “changing the EU” from within. This represents a significant change compared with the first European populist wave of the mid-2010s, when many of the then-leading populist parties — the National Front, the AfD, the Northern League, the Five Star Movement, even Brothers of Italy — openly called for their respective countries’ exit from the EU or euro.
This development was effectively formalised in July 2021, when all the major Right-populist parties from across Europe signed a document whereby they agreed to work within the framework of the EU. This inevitably entailed a shift in focus from socioeconomic issues — over which member states have little control over — to more cultural ones: by retreating from the battle for national sovereignty, they had little choice but to couch their challenges to the status quo, and to the EU itself, in strictly cultural and identitarian terms. Hence the document called for the need for European nations to “be based on tradition, respect for the culture and history of European states, respect for Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage and the common values that unite our nations”. The point is not whether one agrees with this or not, but rather the way in which the EU has succeeded in shifting opposition from the socioeconomic terrain to the identitarian one — in other words, to the culture wars.
This emphasis was brought about by several factors, but a crucial one was the EU’s crushing response to the first populist government which attempted to challenge its rule: the League-Five Star government that emerged from the 2018 Italian elections. At the time, the EU resorted to a wide array of tools — including financial and political pressure — to prevent the government from deviating from the economic status quo, eventually causing the coalition to collapse in just over a year. The experience showed that the margins for an individual country to challenge the EU’s economic framework are close to zero — at least within the context of the euro.
From “nationalist” and “patriotic” parties allegedly devoted to taking back control from Brussels, one might have expected an increased awareness of the need to break away from the EU — something that Brexit had shown to be feasible. Instead, they reached the opposite conclusion: that the EU is so powerful that there is no alternative but to accept its existence. The tragic consequences of this are exemplified by the Meloni government: a nominally “sovereigntist” government which has no choice but to go along with the policies dictated by the European Union (and Nato), while engaging in empty culture-wars rhetoric. She symbolises the inevitable fate of Right-populism within the framework of the euro: that of becoming an anti-woke version of the economic mainstream.
Such hopes of changing the EU “from within” through the European elections are equally delusional. They might make sense if the EU were a fully-fledged federal state with a truly sovereign parliament. But it is not. In fact, the European Parliament has relatively limited powers: unlike national parliaments, it doesn’t even have the power to initiate legislation. This is a power reserved almost entirely for the EU’s “executive” arm, the European Commission, which is unelected and promises “neither to seek nor to take instructions from any government or from any other institution, body, office or entity”. And even though the European Parliament has the power to approve or reject (or propose amendments to) the Commission’s own legislative proposals, this doesn’t change the fact that it has relatively little control over the actions of the Commission. It has even less control over the European Central Bank, which ultimately exercises the power of life and death over euro area governments.
Yet even if economics were not a factor, there is a greater reason to be sceptical of the Right-populist wave’s life expectancy. On perhaps the most important issue concerning Europe’s future — the war in Ukraine and the bloc’s geopolitical positioning — the parties are deeply divided. Most Nordic, Baltic and Eastern parties, just like their mainstream equivalents, are strongly in favour of greater ties with Nato, though the same goes for Vox and Meloni. Then there are those who are strongly opposed and favour a renormalisation of relations with Russia — most notably Orbán, Le Pen and the Austrian Freedom Party. And then you have those which are deeply split on the issue, such as the AfD.
At their root, these divisions simply reflect the often divergent or even conflicting economic and geopolitical interests that characterise the EU’s member states. If the Right-populists think that these differences can be cancelled in the name of anti-wokeness — and synthesised into a common European policy — they are operating under the same Europhile delusion that the mainstream has been peddling for the past 30 years. Ultimately, there is only one project capable of delivering a truly populist agenda, in material and not simply cultural terms: one focused on reclaiming national sovereignty and democracy from the EU. It is a tragedy, then, that Europe’s Right-populists have all but given up the project.