Europe’s populists: a present and rising danger


Picture of Edward McMillan-Scott
Edward McMillan-Scott

Although there is a strong element of grievance in the politics of populism, one factor which is common to almost all of the continent’s populist parties is an anti-EU sentiment. It is the degree of this – and fundamentally its effect on governments – which is causing most concern among mainstream parties.

A fanciful book, Apocalypse 2000, written in 1987, features the use of the European Parliament as a continental political platform for a populist Left/Right demagogue elected in Britain – Olaf D. Le Rith (Adolf Hitler) – who eventually seizes power across Europe. With centrist parties like the British Conservatives giving ground to populists at home and now across Europe, we should all be watchful. Let’s look at some of the most recent, worrying developments.

The populist challenge to the UK

In the UK’s May general election, the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) came second in 120 of the 650 constituencies and third in the popular vote, garnering nearly 4 million votes, although it won only a single seat. David Cameron’s tour of EU capitals seeking a redefinition of the UK’s relationship with the EU does not stem from any conviction on his part – Cameron has always been content-free on Europe – it comes about because of his fear of UKIP, and of the hardline eurosceptics in his own party.

I was involved in a minor skirmish at the beginning of the Conservatives’ European turmoil when, as leader of the 36 Conservative members of the European Parliament in 1999, I was tasked with negotiating a more detached relationship with the Christian Democrat/Conservative European People’s Party (EPP) Group. Ten years later, David Cameron, under yet more pressure from the Right, pulled the Conservatives out of the EPP and created the European Conservatives and Reformists group with nationalists like Poland’s Law and Justice and controversial fringe parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD), to which Cameron’s grouping now gives credibility. I left the Conservative Party in protest. Cameron’s split with the mainstream only adds to his negotiating task ahead of the UK’s EU membership referendum. Within the EPP, he would have had direct access to most of the EU’s top leadership in Brussels and national capitals.

The populist challenge to Europe

The rise of populism, especially on Europe’s Right, began to cause international concern after the European Parliamentary election of 2009, when Time magazine’s cover story, ‘Far Right Turn’, argued that “extremist parties in Europe are feeding off the economic crisis and the loss of trust in mainstream politics to extend their reach”. In May of last year, following the next and even more shocking European election, Time wrote, ”Anti-E.U. populists may have scored big at the ballot box, but they’re wrong on foreign policy”; not just wrong, but dangerous.

By last summer, one-third of the 750-member European Parliament was of the Right, largely a consequence of the continuing eurozone crisis and economic stagnation across much of Europe.  A new phenomenon had also emerged: populism of the Left, represented notably by Greece’s Syriza and Podemos (‘We can’), a Spanish party founded in early 2014 based on the radical Indignados movement. The success of Podemos in Spain’s recent regional and local elections, coupled with the success of the anti-establishment Ciudadanos movement, has shattered previous expectations for the general election later this year.

The populist opportunity for Putin

While Europe’s mainstream was anxious, these results encouraged Vladimir Putin’s international ambitions. His developing support for populist parties of Left and Right came into its own over his annexation of Crimea, which many supported. Putin’s strategy is based on his continental ‘Eurasian Union’, the brainchild of Moscow guru Aleksandr Dugin. Decrying liberalism, the aim is to break up the EU, sever transatlantic links and promote nationalism. Marine Le Pen is the most prominent of a troupe of populist or extremist leaders to visit Russia or Crimea. Tellingly, a resolution criticising Russia in the European Parliament on the 10th of June drew out these populist parties. UKIP and the Front National teamed up with other anti-EU parties to vote against the non-binding resolution, which ultimately passed by 494 votes against 135 with 69 abstentions.

Like the totalitarian dictators of the 1930s who funded foreign populist movements, whether Mussolini, Hitler, or indeed Stalin’s early funding of Hitler through Kurt von Schleicher, Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1932, Putin has been funding today’s extremists. Last November, French investigative journalists revealed that the Front National have received at least €9 million in loans from a Kremlin-linked bank. German media and the Austrian opposition say the AfD and the far-Right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) are also financed by Russia; allegations they each deny. And in Greece, Putin’s funding of the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn did not stop Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras making Moscow his first port of call as premier, resurrecting old geostrategic fears.

Reversing the trend

German political scientist Florian Hartleb, who specialises in the rise of populism, has written that “while there is no incontrovertible proof that demystification through participation in government is an effective strategy for successfully combating Right-wing populists, there is no doubt that the worst response strategy is ‘toleration’ because this allows populists directly to exert influence on a country’s political decision-making without being directly held to account for it.”

Polish columnist Paweł Świeboda has called for more pro-EU activism, saying “Much of the frustration of European citizens has to do with the policy that originates in Brussels. The institutions have tended to assume that they are bound to be on the virtuous side and their case will prevail. They have feared becoming embroiled in national party political squabbles. This strategy has run its course and will need to be replaced by more active messaging.”

What we can be clear about is that Far Right populism will not disappear of its own volition. Ms Le Pen has recently announced the formation of a new Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament. This gives her a front row seat and her far-Right team a platform, and €17.5m of public money over four years. As le Pen put it, “far more firepower than ever before”.

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