Recent high-profile warnings of a populist backlash in the May 2014 EU parliamentary elections has given birth to several debates as to whether or not populism is a threat to, or an opportunity for, building a stronger European Union.
Several high level officials, including Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schultz, have warned voters that the populist radical right groups have the potential to prevent Europe from functioning and could potentially put it on “life support.”
Populists are gaining strength
Despite a recent period of calm, Europe is still deeply affected by the economic and social crisis. Across Europe people are protesting and banks have defaulted and closed. While some far-reaching governance changes have been pushed through to save financial markets, disputes over market packages and conditionality have divided political parties and sometimes even entire countries. Much of Europe remains in a sustained period of stagnation and current levels of unemployment are unparalleled in post-Second World War history.
Anti-EU parties have seized this opportunity to exploit the dramatic fall in the popular support for European integration. Anti-European sentiment is on the rise in Europe. Across Europe right-wing and nationalist parties are gaining strength. In France, opinion polls gave Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National (FN), 24% of the vote, which could potentially make this right-wing populist party the biggest French delegation in the European Parliament.
Liberation from the monster
Some argue that anti-EU populists have never had it so easy. Geert Wilders, the charismatic leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), announced his party’s collaboration with the Marine Le Pen’s Front National in November 2013. The two parties announced that they will participate jointly in the European elections in May as the Alliance of Freedom. According to Wilders, the Alliance’s objective is “Liberation from Europe’s elites. Liberation from the monster from Brussels….”
Those who fear the worst argue that populist parties will win big, reaching as much as 25 percent of votes in the upcoming elections, raising alarms about European stagnation or even a shutdown similar to the one recently experienced in the United States. While such fears may be overblown, Geert Wilder’s plan to build a populist radical right faction within the EU Parliament is already having an immediate effect.
In Europe’s discussions about a new asylum policy following the Lampedusa disaster, Manfred Weber, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU) said: “In view of the polls that predict up to 30% for euroskeptics in the new parliament, a more liberal immigration policy can currently not be introduced, because it would give the extremists even more of a boost.”
Nonetheless, for all its ills, populism serves an important function. While mainstream parties may dislike the arguments and style of populism, the alternative – anti-democratic political extremism – is much worse. In Eastern Europe the more extreme variant of anti-European populism has reinforced nationalism and fostered racism and xenophobia. In particular in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, extreme right militias have been terrorizing Roma minorities as well as homosexuals. In Greece, neo-Nazis from “Golden Dawn” have attacked immigrants, homeless people, and LGBT people.
Populism can increase democratic accountability
Many assume that populism is bad for democracy; however, the elections can also trigger a new impetus in which Europeans begin to believe that the EU itself is worth fighting for. In its annual report, the World Economic Forum identified among the top ten trends of 2014 to include: a lack of values in leadership; widening income disparities; and the diminishing confidence in economic policies. The report argues that “a generation that starts its career in complete hopelessness will be more prone to populist politics.” Accordingly “there’s a disassociation between governments and the governed.” These trends should not be ignored.
Populism can address these sentiments by allowing the ideas and interests of more marginalized sections of the electorate to be integrated into the political process. Populism can increase democratic accountability and can force politicians to be more transparent and less corrupt. It can provide an ideological bridge that supports the importance of building political coalitions. Populism can also give a voice to groups that do not feel represented by the elites and can help put forward topics that are important to the silent majority.
The EU must fight
The EU must understand that the rise of populist groups indicates that Europe can no longer govern as it has in the past and it cannot afford to ignore the real social and political aspirations of its citizens. It must demonstrate that it is changing. In order to do this, it must make efforts to bring in a new generation of politicians who are more transparent and more adept at governing.
There needs to be more efficient EU-wide institutions. The EU must be able to speak to its citizens and show projects that will wield real growth. Most importantly, it must fight against youth unemployment by helping young people who have graduated to go directly into internship or apprenticeships that will lead to jobs. Europe must also continue to fight against protectionism and to support the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. An effective trans-Atlantic market can help spur growth and prevent future stagnation in Europe’s markets.
Important wake-up call
While populist radical right groups seem threatening, overall they are ill-suited for the deal-making and horse-trading required for effective multi-lateral diplomacy in Europe and the world. Voters flocking to support these firebrands within their nation states would probably recoil in horror if they attempted to join the European Parliament and attempted to build coalitions with other like-minded members.
So it is unlikely that these new populist radical right groups will be able to disrupt the day-to-day functioning of the European Parliament, or the Parliament’s relationship with other European institutions like the Council or the Commission. However, their rise is an important wake-up call to take action and to do it now.