The European Populist Era – Nope, Populism is not over yet

As the XIX century is remembered for the establishment of masses parties, or the time when citizens actively entered into politics, while the XX century is classified as the “totalitarianism siècle”, or time of disruptive ideological clashes, in the same way our XXI century will pass to history as the “European Populist Era” or the time of institutionalized mistrust toward liberal governments.

Starting from the end of the previous century and moving along the new one, Populism became a common denominator among European countries political arenas, followed by the struggle of establishment parties in the attempt to stem the phenomenon and reconnect with the wide portion of disillusioned electorate. Even if these relatively new formations started to gain power from the beginning of the century, they never are a serious challenge as they represented mostly radicalized minorities left back from the economic development. At least until now. Starting from 2014- 2015, Europe became a battle ground where traditional parties and ruling elites have been brutally wake up and forced to recognize the power and the danger represented by the populist formations. From the 2014 European elections up to the British Referendum for leaving European Union, populist parties have finally showed themselves as a strong political force capable to swipe out concurrence. In the meanwhile, European Union trembled under the possible consequences that another populist victory could have brought to the future of the Union. Indeed, even if not always Populism is synonymous of Euroscepticism, between the eight most powerful populist parties in Europe (the Greek Syriza, the Spanish Podemos, the Italian Five Stars Movement, the British Ukip, the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, the German Alternative for Germany and the Austrian Freedom party) the half are also openly anti- European Union, while six are anti-Eurozone. Therefore, even if the election of the pro-European Emmanuel Macron in France and the low support showed by British people against the Hard Brexit Prime Minister Theresa May could have let sing victory to the Union, this is far the end of populism. In the first quarter of 2017, its popularity index is still above the 30% in twelve out of twenty-eight Members (UK is still counted) while the average among all the Union is 27%.

To understand why these first decades of XXI century have seen such radical shift inside the European political environment, we must contextualize the term “Populism” and try to dig out the social and economic factors lying under its surge.

The populist rhetoric is based on the creation of two different side of society: the “pure” common people and the corrupted ruling elites. These two sides of society are antagonist as the former is ignored by the later and the later is beyond the reach of the former. In all Populist parties, coming from both right and left wing, is present a similar anti-establishment discourse based on harsh critics and degradation of all government actions and achievements as well as the continuous blaming of government failures linked to its corruption and incapability to listen the real will of the people. Populist are, instead, the saviour of the common people, who could for this reason safely replace their trust (almost faith) into populist solutions and alternatives. Summing up, populist movements common features are: the focus on the centrality of the community, adhesion to direct democracy principles as the only way to freely express people’s will, the consequent exclusion of whoever doesn’t belong to the “People” and therefore an implicit xenophobia (less accentuated inside left wing populisms), and last but not least, a marked emphasis on crises, real or unreal, affecting the society.

The salvation discourse preached by Populist party, even if probably not correct, is still a common characteristic of every new formations during the initial confrontational period, when they must stand out from the ground of the old political alternatives. Instead, the dangers tied to a Populism surge lie on its monist and moralist ideology, which refuse to accept the existence of other interests rather than the one belonging to the corrupted and the one of the pure common people. As a populist leader is the ultimate delegate of people’s will, everyone who stands against him/her is therefore belonging to the establishment, hence natural adversary of the people. This diametrical separation of society brings Populist governments to attempt the ostracization of every opposition, overpowering the voice of minorities, sacrifice them on the altar of the majority rules and finally undermining the check and balance system as it happened and is still happening in Hungary under the government of Viktor Orbàn.

Some of Populism’s peculiarities could be spotted in others historical periods and movements like Fascism and Communism, mostly during the period of affirmation and antagonism with the former liberal order. However, both these ideologies and the following regimes were predominately elitist, or claiming the necessity of a suitable spokesperson that could promote the interest and the will and of the masses as he knew what needs to be done for their sake. Populist stream appeared only at the end of the XX century with the foundation of the National Front by Jean Marie Le Pen in 1980 and since then it lived alternately moments of glory and failure. Until now, when Populism reached a never achieved pick of diffusion and support. Different thinkers puzzle over the reasons and causes of the Populist surge, but as social scientists told us, there are no unique cause-effect connections in such thing as human matters. An economist will probably support the thesis that 2008-2010 economic crisis led to the coronation of these new political forces, while other factors as a changed political system or the society level of distress had only had a secondary influence. At the opposite side, a political scientist or a sociologist will consider the economic crisis as an accelerating element who cut off the time of incubation of the Populist phenomenon, but the rising parabola of the latter was already under construction, with its fundaments laid on the homogenization process of both European polices and politics that led Left and Right to be no more distinguishable.  Understand which is the point A that led to the point B (the Populist surge) is either impossible or not worthy to be determined. Most likely, both economic factor and socio-political ones had been the propulsion force that, combined with countless other side factors, built up the XXI century conditions inside whose European politics took a populist drift. Hence, have a glimpse of both could help us in framing the peculiarity of our century.

Looking through the economic point of view, 2008 global financial crisis and the correlated 2010 debit crisis hit sharply all Europe but mostly the southern Member States (Italy, Greece and Spain) and Ireland, who however rapidly recovered its economy after the European Union bail-out. The analysis of economic indicator representing the long-terms effects of the crisis, such as inequality, migration, unemployment etc., shows us that the most affected among G7 (plus Spain) countries are in order Italy, Spain, UK and US, while Germany, Canada and Japan are the less damaged. In Italy, from 2007 to 2016, cumulative real GDP per head decrease of more than 10 percental points while in Spain from 2007 to 2017 the unemployment rate augmented of slightly less than 10 %. Is probably not a case that the citizens who suffered the most the effects of the crisis are also the one more inclined to support populist parties and polices. Americans vowed for Donald Trump and its slogan “America first” while a little more of half Britons thought that the solution to recover UK economy was leaving the Union. Both Italy and Spain, even if characterized by a different type of Populism, more linked to the left wing in Spain with the local Podemos party (20% of popularity) and the less labelable Five Star Movement in Italy, likely to win the upcoming 2018 Parliamentary elections, come under this pattern too. Financial crisis could have opened the door to Populism surge as a last straw, since the already delegitimized ruling elite failed to protect the already disaffected citizens and working classes from the worst economic crisis after the Black Tuesday 1929.

However, is also meaningful understand from where the disaffection came from, why citizens are no more trusting neither their ruling elite nor, and this is worst, the liberal process underlying the European democracy‘s structure. The process undermining the rightfulness of European governments in front of citizen’ eyes could be dated back to the last decades of the XX century. During the ’70 and ’80 European leaders and parties converged toward one single line of political consensus based on the support of a technocratic and market friendly European integration, opened to both cosmopolitism and neoliberal economic reforms. This slowly but inexorable process led traditional parties to swift away from their historical nature, causing the homogenisation of polices either they were promoted by rightist or leftist leaders. Examples of this convergence are the concept of “New Labour” started by the British Prime Minister Tony Blaire and the “New Centre” promoted by the German Chancellor Gerard Schroder. This transaction to a levelled political class, where electors are unable to see the difference between a conservative and a socialist leader, prompted the Populist discourse of a “all corrupted” establishment, while the mistrust was added to the already arisen frustration coming from the little chance to express other visions rather than the agreed one. The disruptive effect of the crisis combined with the poor response offered by European ruling elite could have generated a vicious circle of exasperation – further delegitimization of the establishment – search for alternatives – surge of Populism.

Whether the financial crisis brought to the galvanization of Populism or it has been only the last challenge failed to manage by an ideologically undistinguishable European political class is a matter of secondary relevance. Indeed, whatever factor between the two here presented and the others not discussed (such as the harming social and psychological effects of globalization) is the most likely to be the A-cause of the Populist surge, all of them left a deep and harming print on European society and therefore everyone must be faced by both European States and Union. However, in primis European leaders must acknowledge that the populist surge is not over yet. Both economic and political roots of the Populist challenge are not likely to disappear soon. Even if national economies could be restored, the future holds other challenging issues that could tackle down any favourable economic index. Inequalities, aging of population and consequent sustainability of retirement system, deindustrialization and financial security are just some of them worthy to be cited. In the same way, the accountability problem, disaffection and low trust democratic process require a serious and common commitment by European leaders, otherwise the political and social cleavage separating electors to elected will simply deepening, with serious repercussion over the liberal fundament of our democracies.