by Peter Franklin
Monday, 19
December 2022
Explainer
14:43

European populism is going mainstream

The insurgent Right ebbs and flows, but keeps coming back
by Peter Franklin
Holland’s Geert Wilders (above) is drawing level with PM Mark Rutte in the polls. Credit: Getty

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.


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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. 

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

The ruling and technocrat elite in the west have proven to be incapable of leading. The establishment has failed at almost everything – the cultural wars, the pathetic Covid response, net zero and the energy crisis. People are looking for alternatives.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Not to mention the corruption in the EU that’s currently being revealed, though the media are strangely reluctant to cover it.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

So true, the haves want more and the have nots are being locked out, or more accurately, locked in! The arrogance of a few tech billionaires and the pernicious “social media” that they control support only leaders who tow the line. All for our own benefit, of course. Cry “Freedom”!

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 month ago

Gawd how I hate the term populism in a political context. And the opposite, what is “progressive” about a socialist viewpoint? This is simply a different group of people rising to a position of power and creaming off the benefits.
For most of my (quite long) life there has been a toing and froing between one side and the other, which over a few years gives a sort of balance which is probably the best result.
Recently, however, and this seems true all over those so called liberal democracies, there seems to have been a divergence between the haves and have nots. The haves have got too rich and fed off the have nots.
There is also this clear perception that globalisation, left wing social concepts etc, have not been seen to be bettering enough of the populations. With this sort of result where are people to turn? Historically the left, socialism, if not communism would be the benefactor but the strange ideals of left-leaning (mainly educated) people and their concepts is very different to “support the proletariat” of ages past.
If what is running things at the moment isn’t seen to be working then people will look for an alternative.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

Those words are needed because parties no longer keep to the left or right in a traditional sense.
Many populists are fairly left wing when it comes to economics with them being much more protectionist and believing in good public services for their community, whilst leaning more to the right and being more conservative on social issues such as immigration. Progressives on the other hand I believe are more economically liberal (probably due to generally being more middle class and financially comfortable) whilst being much further to the left on trans issues and the like

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Tell me about it. In America, I see more agreement between old left liberals and paleoconservatives than either of them have with progressives and neoconservatives. There is definitely a realignment happening.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Yes, you’re right about this. It’s interesting to watch.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

Victor Orban has been saying for a decade that while he could defend Western Civilization for a while, he was too small a nation to defend it long term and needed a large EU country like Germany of France to elect a true right-wing government. Italy is a good first step, but it remains to be seen whether Meloni is actually aligned with Orban’s style of conservativism. Also, Italy is still a second-tier country within the EU. The bureaucrats like Ursula still treat Italy and Hungary as wayward, rebellious teenagers who need to grow up and adopt the secular liberalism or the adults. They can’t treat France or Germany that way though.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

“The biggest populist upset of the year was undoubtedly in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni became the country’s first female Prime Minister. ”
The issue is withe the fact that she is a woman?
Anyway, her victory had been forecast for years, hardly an upset.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 month ago

Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar from Byline Times have Unherd, Peter Franklin and Mary Harrington in their sights.

https://bylinetimes.com/2022/12/19/fighting-back-against-national-populism/

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

Thanks for the link to that piece, a breath-taking misrepresentation of what Unherd is about. Almost every article published by Unherd elicits a range of views, which is surely the point: to initiate debate and bring to the fore the most pressing concerns of our age. I’ve no doubt that Bloomfield/Edgar would prefer their views to go unchallenged, but hard luck lads, there’s a great number of thoughtful individuals who’re capable of reading articles and making their own minds up with regard to their content.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I hate people like that. They dismiss and misrepresent all opposing arguments while acting like they are so obviously right and morally superior, they do not need to put any effort into their own. That whole article almost read as a fiery religious sermon.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

You know what they used to say in WWII: “if you’re taking flak, you’re probably over the target”. But seriously, who cares what these two say ? They clearly haven’t spent much time on UnHerd and have no interest in the reality of things.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

“the communitarian Unherd believe[s] in unrestrained economic growth and see any movement that places limitations on that growth as a negative influence that undermines capitalism.”
What is this madness I am reading?

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
1 month ago

The rise of populism is the voice of the people against the excessive control exercised by Brussels, which then ties the hands of national governments to insure that their policies fall in line with those of the EU.

Under these two vast and growing bureaucracies, the people underneath feel disempowered and disenfranchised. Hence, as the writer argues, populism is now about decentralisation, and the return of autonomy to communities shattered by economic displacement, and mass immigration, which is culturally alien and largely unintegrated. Recent Moroccan riots throughout France, Belgium and elsewhere are a reminder of that.

But a compliant media in service to the elites chooses to conceal or understate the dislocation, and so it is left to so-called “far right” parties to give a voice to the people. That label is a convenient tool used by elites to discredit them, as is “neo-fascist” once they become too popular to ignore. There is a great communal sigh of relief in Brussels when a “cordon sanitaire” succeeds in excluding the Le Pens, but threats of using “tools” to tie the hands of a populist party once in government, as in Italy.

Elites with eroded legitimacy fail, and new ones will rise to power.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
1 month ago

The analysis is incorrect. There is no traditional left-right anymore. Or rather the so called traditional left with its centralised solutions now aligns with traditional right with its centralised solutions ! Hence why we have “millionaire” socialists. Unfortunately too many people who consider themselves left leaning are still wedded to the concepts of the traditional left-right that they can’t see they are in bed with right wing oligarchs intent on controlling everything and owning everything, wrapped in a fluffy ball labelled “for the greater good”.

When anyone from the traditional left sticks their head above the parapet and starts to spout de-centralised thoughts they are immediately labelled right wing populists! Russell Brand being a classic example.

Politics has changed it’s now about centralised vs de-centralised solutions and until people who have voted in the , basically, 2 party system, the same way all their life and wake up then nothing changes. However, those who become disillusioned but have not yet woken up will end up switching wildly across the old traditional left-right political spectrum much to the astonishment of political analysts.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

‘Millionaire’ socialists are nothing new. Just consider champagne socialists like Beatrice and Sidney Webb in the 1920s. Even Lenin was a member of the Russian minor aristocracy, his well-off father being a ‘hereditary nobleman’. Karl Marx came from a wealthy family (his father was a successful lawyer) which, in addition to their main source of income from the legal practice, owned several vineyards.
The history of European socialism (including Marxism) is substantially a story of wealthy people who captured this political philosophy to achieve power and enhanced wealth. Outside of the European sphere, socialists elsewhere achieved power through violence then enriched themselves, and maintained power by exercising continuing violence. Just consider the example of the late Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe, he of unfathomable wealth, as epitomising this class of socialist.
Today’s Labour shadow cabinet is replete with wealthy persons (starting with Keir Starmer) and other bejewelled, filthy rich worthies who occupy the higher echelons of the social, economic and political order in the UK and who bear no resemblance the the so-called ‘working people’ they patronise and claim to represent.
In short, socialism has always been about a few wealthy people controlling the lives of lots of ‘little people’ – the detestables’ as Hillary Clinton referred to them.

joe hardy
joe hardy
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

Good post. I believe she called us deplorables, a title which should become a badge of honor such as “yankee” or for others ” woke”.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

I’m amazed that this traditional left/right narrative is still spouted by political analysts and journos as if we were somehow locked in a time warp in the 1970s.
The real divide today is between those who understand that we in the West are living in an oligarchy, manipulated by the deep state, big tech, the military-industrial complex and the banksters…….and those who don’t. Any kind of reaction to this state of affairs is dismissed as ‘populism’. What does that actually mean? Policies that are popular with those who are aware that their fragile freedoms are rapidly being pulled from under their feet? The people vs the elites? If so, I’m more than happy with the label of populist.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

Vox populi vel vox Dei? The voice of the people, or the voice of God?

Last edited 1 month ago by Samuel Ross
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

I do enjoy the way you delete your post once somebody criticises you, then simply post it again underneath as if nothing has happened. Either answer the points people make in their replies or stop filling the board with your nonsense

Zenobia van Dongen
Zenobia van Dongen
1 month ago

Whoever it was that said that Latin Americans are anti-Western, please be advised that Latin America is at the core of the west. We’re more western than Americans are, that’s for sure! None of that woke hanky-panky here.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

Oh, no, it’s YOU again! 😉

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

In simplicity, the vast majority of the voting public want to see and end to freedom restrictions in every aspect of life based on the US/media/ internet driven racism/lgbtq/global warming National Socialist totalitarian fifth column agenda, the politicians ignorantly believe is the real voters concern.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

The ‘wave’ will continue until the problems that the right promises to address are addressed.

D Glover
D Glover
1 month ago

Hispanic people speak a European language, Spanish, and practise Christianity.
Can you define what you mean by ‘Western culture’ please?
The NATO alliance has been hugely successful and beneficial. Putin has never invaded a NATO country.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  D Glover

Ignore him, he copy and pastes this nonsense onto every article, and never replies to the inconsistencies you’ve pointed out. He’s little better than a troll

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

4 times you’ve posted it now? That’s impressive even for you!

M. M.
M. M.
1 month ago

Peter Franklin wrote, “For instance, in France, the conservative Republicans have just elected Eric Ciotti as their party president — thus effectively aligning themselves with the radical Right.”

This fortunate result will become increasingly rare unless the French immediately shut their borders. Once anti-Western migrants (like the legal or illegal aliens from the Middle East) reach 20% of the population, they will have sufficient political power to prevent shutting the border. The continuous flood of anti-Western migrants will further strengthen their political power.

The consequence of flooding the country with anti-Western migrants is evident in the United States.

By 2040, the United States will cease being a Western nation, due to open borders. By 2040, most Americans will reject Western culture (as the American population is swelled by anti-Western migrants from primarily Latin America and secondarily South Asia), and Hispanic culture will dominate. In California, 40% of the residents are currently Hispanic. Most residents of the state already reject Western culture, and Hispanic culture dominates.

In other words, by 2040, the United States will cease being an ally of Europe. The non-Western American government will implement policies that harm the interests of Western nations like Germany, France, Japan, etc.

The French must immediately (1) shut the borders and (2) begin distancing France from the United States, its government, and its people. Distancing includes exiting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other components of the American security architecture.

Get more info about this issue.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  M. M.

7! Can we possibly get you posting the same comment on the same article up to double figures?

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

But what has MM said that is wrong?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

Most of his comment is nonsense

M. M.
M. M.
1 month ago

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew M.
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  M. M.

5 times (4 have been deleted)? This is all getting a bit silly isn’t it!

M. M.
M. M.
1 month ago

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew M.
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  M. M.

6 times now. Why won’t you respond to other posters who point out the flaws in your arguments?

joe hardy
joe hardy
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Agreed. Billy. This guy is a chump. I can’t comment on France, but he is way off base about Latinos in America.