December 19, 2022 - 2:43pm

At the start of the year, I posted a reminder that European populism hadn’t gone away — despite the “safety first” impact of the Covid pandemic. Now, at the end of 2022 it’s worth taking another look at the state of politics in Europe.

In the Netherlands, the latest poll shows Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party drawing level with Mark Rutte’s ruling Liberals. The next two biggest parties are also populist outfits — the BBB (a party of angry farmers) and JA21 (which split from Thierry Baudet’s FvD). If one combines all of these anti-establishment forces (including smaller groups like the Calvinist SGP), then on this performance they’d have 59 seats out of 150. Unless the situation changes, it’s going to very become hard to form a governing coalition without including at least some of these parties.

In France, Emmanuel Macron saw off Marine Le Pen by a comfortable margin to win a second term as President. However, Le Pen then had her revenge in the subsequent elections to the National  Assembly, where her party broke through to take second place — while depriving the Macronistes of their majority. 

In the Hungarian general election, Viktor Orbán easily defeated an alliance of almost all the opposition parties to cement his dominance. There was good news for the populist Right in the Swedish general election too, where the centre-Left government unexpectedly lost power and the Sweden Democrats finished in second place. 

It was a different story in Denmark, where the governing Social Democrats retained power — a popular endorsement of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s hard-line policies on immigration. That said, a new populist party — the Denmark Democrats — came from nowhere to win 14 seats. 

The biggest populist upset of the year was undoubtedly in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni became the country’s first female Prime Minister. Despite the Fascist heritage of her Brothers of Italy party, she had no trouble dominating the victorious Right-wing alliance or sweeping aside the pro-EU parties of the centre-Left. 

Meloni’s rise represents a new departure for the post-war politics of western Europe. Though parties of the populist Right have entered government before, it has always been as a junior coalition partner. Now, for the first time, the populists are in charge — running the EU’s third largest economy. Furthermore, the latest polling shows Italian populism strengthening its grip — Meloni’s party now regularly polls above the 30% mark, while a revived Five Star Movement has overtaken the Democrats as the most popular opposition party. 

The most remarkable thing, however, is the EU establishment’s pretence that everything is fine. A ‘post-fascist’ in charge of Italy? Let’s draw a veil over that one. Indeed, this was the year when the dividing lines between the political mainstream and populist insurgency blurred to the point of incoherence. For instance, in France, the conservative Republicans have just elected Éric Ciotti as their party president — thus effectively aligning themselves with the radical Right. The cordon sanitaire that once kept the Le Pens firmly outside the political establishment is collapsing. 

Instead of a populist ‘wave’, it would be better to think of the insurgent Right as a tide — a disruptive force that ebbs-and-flows, but keeps on coming back. Even Germany’s AfD, which had been in decline since its 2017 high water mark, is experiencing a revival in its fortunes. 

Of course, Germany is one country determined to keep populism outside the mainstream — but, as such, it is as an exception in today’s Europe, not the rule. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.