Why Is Populism Spreading Across Europe?

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Why is populism becoming so widespread in European countries in the last years? What triggered people’s trust in these (most of the times) extremist parties? The data about the last elections in several European countries show the growing influence of such parties: Italian 5 Stars Movement had 25.55% of votes in the last national elections in 2013; the Spanish party Unidos Podemos gained 21.2% of votes in 2016 general elections; in the last administrative elections in Berlin German Alternative fur Deutschland obtained 14.2% of votes. And we will see what will happen during the national elections in autumn 2017. The last interesting data considers France, where the National Front finished as the first party in the regional elections of 2015, with 28% of all votes.

At the heart of this success, there is a crisis of the traditional parties, which seem to have lost their appeal they used to have once. It seems that the old elites in power are no longer able to use the appropriate answers to solve their country’s problems. Instead, they seem to remain immobile, allowing their countries to fall into ruin.

As a result of this lack of political accountability, which is an essential factor in the relationship between an electorate and the elected, there is a growing disappointment, distrust, and even disgust from the citizens toward the established elites. There is a sense of anger and tiredness spreading among the people, especially for the new generations that cannot identify themselves with the “old guard”.

As a matter of fact, distrust and disillusionment are more common in countries of Southern Curope, as the journalist Ian Mount writes in an article about why populism is booming across the Continent. We see that populism is popular not only among uneducated elderly people, but also among a number of well’educated citizens, especially young people, who are displeased with the old elites that are not able to represent them properly.

In Northern European countries, on the other hand, we can see that populist and extremist parties attract mostly the poorer people, uneducated, the so-called “losers of globalization”, whoare afraid of these new phenomena – afraid that the EU will worsen their living conditions and steal their dignity, that their nation will become less sovereign. They are more attached to the nostalgic past, when their countries were more independent and strong by themselves.

A sentiment which is quite common in almost all European countries is that the lack of trust towards the old parties comes from the fact that they are “becoming all the same”, as Michael Bröning writes in an article on Foreign Affairs: “In contrast to the United States, where political differences between Republicans and Democrats have remained deep, European mainstream parties have in the last decade moved ever closer toward the ideological center. In the case of many left-wing parties, the shift was explicit. Parties deprioritized ideology and embraced what was presumed to be a post-partisan pragmatism.”

It is not unusual to hear from average citizens that the political programs of the key parties in their countries are almost identical. The electoral campaign thus becomes a show were the most appealing and clever leader who succeeds in gaining more votes governs. But the reality is that more frequently, the national election final results are the main problem at the core of a stable and capable government: as it happened in Spain and Italy after last elections, for instance (in the former this year, in the latter in 2013), the final results did not permit one single coalition to form a new government which would be stable and able to implement its program. Therefore, in these cases a larger coalition between parties that apparently should not have anything in common becomes the only chance to form a new lasting government.

We could say that populism is a natural effect of the lack of democratic accountability. If the promises and values which are at the heart of a democratic system seem to be broken by the established parties in power, here come these new movements, yelling against old politicians who betrayed their people, and promising to change the corrupted system, if they are elected.

The main argument to gain citizen’s trust is that the old elites are no more capable of representing the people, they delegitimized themselves as they stopped doing their electorate’s will. Attacking the traditional parties is the principal weapon they have to increase their relevance and influence.

Another typical trait of such groups is that they always have someone to blame for the current problems and crisis through which the country is going, and something that European populist parties have in common, is blaming the European Union for most of the national difficulties, and of course, if we are in the EU and if we allowed the organization to enlarge its power, weakening national sovereignty, it is the elites-in-power’s fault.

This causes the spreading of anti-EU sentiments, which are growing in the last years among all Member States. Certainly, the fault is not entirely on the side of the anti-Europe propaganda of extremist groups: the EU has problems, and they cannot be underestimated – starting from the democratic deficiency, which causes a sense of distance and distrustfulness since Brussels’ politicians are somewhere far away. The right approach to adopt in order to dissolve these sentiments should be cooperating together to decrease and gradually eliminate the gaps between institution and citizens.

Is populism a completely negative factors for European and national politicians, or could it have some positive outcomes? Well, it depends on the attacked elites and institutions’ reactions. If the main result is to criticize and stigmatize the actions of these groups without reforming and trying to regain the lost accountability of the electorate, the consequences will be potentially dangerous for the “old” political systems. People’s distrust and disillusionment will be confirmed, and the new parties will have a better appeal. Would they be able to properly govern, and to revolutionize the “corrupted” system? Probably not, because they usually propose simple solutions to very complex problems. They seem to be more able to yell and denounce the injustices endured by citizens than to resolve them. In any case, the governing politicians should open their eyes and stop being blind and deaf to the citizens’ claims, and start rebuilding a trustful relationship with the electorate, before it is too late.

Gloria Leccese
Liberalni Institute