Tuesday

25th Sep 2018

Opinion

Responding to populism, Europe's real test

  • While a defeat for Wilders, the Dutch election was a victory for populism. (Photo: Reuters)

With only three months gone, populism looks like a shoo-in for word of the year.

Headlines warn that populism is a threat to Europe, perhaps even an existential one.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Populist radical right parties have the wind in their sails, the argument goes, boosted by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections.

But how big a threat are radical populists really?

In the first big test in 2017, the Dutch general elections, the xenophobic Party of Freedoms (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, secured 20 seats and 13 percent of the vote.

That’s a lot but don’t forget that in 2010 (when populism was not on most people’s radar), the party won 24 seats and almost 16 percent of the vote.

Even before the vote, the other parties had ruled out going into coalition with the PVV.

The next big test for Europe comes in April with the first round of France’s presidential election. Polls suggest that Marine Le Pen will get through to the second round in May, possibly even coming out on top in the first round.

But the same polls suggest she will be defeated by a significant margin in the second round, whoever her opponent is.

That is despite a much more sophisticated campaign—disavowing racism and anti-Semitism--than her father when he reached the second round of the presidential elections in 2002.

Let’s not forget Austria, where the race for the presidency was twice won in 2016 by a Green party candidate, defeating the candidate from the xenophobic Freedom Party.

True, the long-term trends point to a growth in support for radical right populist parties in Europe. That is especially true in the European Parliament, where in the 2014 elections populists won most seats in France, the UK, and Denmark and a quarter of the seats in the Parliament overall.

While in Hungary and Poland, we can see the risks of a populist approach to government, where the “will of the people” reflected in majority support is more important than democratic institutions themselves.

Those governments pursue abusive and stigmatising policies toward migrants, the homeless and women – often in the sphere of reproductive rights - and show disdain for checks and balances, the rule of law and supranational authority.

Populism hijacking politics

Yet the biggest risk to Europe today is arguably not the prospect of radical right populists in power, which has so far been limited, but their outsize influence on mainstream policymakers.

Instead of courageously confronting the flawed arguments of insurgent populist parties and defending policies based on rights, mainstream parties have aped their agenda for fear of losing votes.

That fear is arguably the biggest policy consideration for many European governments today. At recent meetings in Brussels trying to convince the EU to do a better job of protecting refugees and asylum seekers, I was repeatedly told that the risk of ceding ground to populists stood in the way of rights-respecting policy.

Council president Donald Tusk has effectively argued that the EU needs to set aside core values to combat migration and terrorism -- so as to preserve the EU and the values it embodies in the long term.

This attitude and position from mainstream political leaders represents as much of a challenge and threat to human rights values as do the populists themselves.

It legitimises and normalises the hateful agenda of the xenophobic, anti-Islam, anti-refugee populists, with none of the costs that go along with being in power and held to account.

It means that even if the populists lose at the ballot box they still win.

The Dutch elections provide a clear example of this. In January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, leader of the ruling People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, took out a full-page ad in Dutch newspapers, telling the country’s inhabitants that those who “refuse to adapt, and criticise our values” should “behave normally, or leave.”

While there is a legitimate debate to be had about tolerance and integration, Rutte’s dog-whistle message was clearly designed to appeal to those who believe that the best solution is to deport people even if they are citizens who have lived in the country for their entire lives.

It was not a defence of values but a betrayal of them.

France’s presidential contenders face a similar choice.

They can adopt the approach of Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the 2012 presidential race, taking up a strong anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance in the hope of attracting National Front voters (and ultimately losing, even while normalising those ideas). Or they can stand up for foundational European values and offer real leadership, in tackling society’s challenges in ways that preserve basic human rights.

There are risks in Italy too, with snap elections a possibility this year. The electoral challenge from the populist Five Star Movement, as well as the xenophobic Northern League, helps explain why the ruling Democratic Party is taking a much tougher line on migration.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The winning candidate in the Austrian presidential elections refused to follow the government’s pale embrace of his opponent’s xenophobic anti-refugee agenda. Instead, he offered a positive agenda and won comfortably. He offered a positive agenda and won comfortably.

Populism matters. But how Europe’s mainstream parties respond matters even more.

Benjamin Ward is deputy director of the Europe & Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Interview

'Populism is not a disease'

Populism is something to be understood, says Paolo Graziano, professor of political science at the University of Padua.

Do we still need political parties?

The question is a legitimate one, especially in a German election campaign that is avoiding pressing topics and leaving many voters helpless.

Interview

'Le Pen could come back stronger'

Despite her defeat on Sunday, the French far-right leader could still stand to benefit if the new president, Emmanuel Macron, fails to improve the economy and manage the country better than his predecessor, warns political scientist Brigid Laffan.

News in Brief

  1. ECB's Draghi set to clarify role in secretive G30 group
  2. Half of EU states at risk of missing recycling target
  3. Commission refers Poland to EU top court over rule of law
  4. Open Society Foundation takes Hungary to court
  5. EU court asked to rule on halting Brexit
  6. EU threatens Switzerland on stock trading
  7. Italy's new basic wage restricted to Italians
  8. UK tycoon offers to create pro-Brexit party

Will the centre-right stand up for EU values?

Time for Christian Democrats in the EP to show where they stand on Hungary and on the EU's founding principles, say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint text.

Europe needs more modern leadership

If Europe wants to be a global leader, our political leadership has to change dramatically. Power needs a new face in Europe, and it needs to get legitimacy from the people, argues liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  5. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  6. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  7. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  8. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  9. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  10. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  11. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow

Latest News

  1. Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline
  2. Every major city in Europe is getting warmer
  3. No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected
  4. Brexit and MEPs expenses in the spotlight This WEEK
  5. Wake-up call on European Day Against Islamophobia
  6. Sound of discord at 'Sound of Music' Salzburg summit
  7. Salzburg summit presses for bigger Frontex mandate
  8. UK's post-Brexit plan 'will not work', EU says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  5. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  6. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  9. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  11. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us