Features, Origins and Impacts of the Populism in Europe

By Mei Zhaorong

The disturbances of the world carry with them profound and complicated changes, and increasing uncertainties and instabilities. Amongst the disturbances, the Brexit referendum, populist rise in Europe, and Trump’s election as the U.S. president are the biggest stirs in international relations.
In recent years, the rise of far-right populism across Europe has led to major changes among the political parties of many European countries. There are some most prominent cases. Populist parties won nearly one fifth of the seats in the European Parliament election in May 2014, with a surge in seats from less than 50 to over 140. In northern Europe, Sweden Democrats has become the third largest party in the Swedish Parliament, while the Danish People’s Party has made it into the ruling coalition as the country’s second largest party. In Eastern Europe, the Law and Justice Party governs Poland alone with a majority in the Parliament, and the Fidesz of Hungary rules together with other parties. More noticeably, the UK Independence Party played a key role in the Brexit referendum, and populist parties in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands are enjoying a surge of support. In 2017, Holland, France and Germany will hold parliamentary or presidential elections, and Italy will probably hold its parliamentary election earlier than scheduled. The upcoming elections in France, Germany, and Italy, the three backbone EU member states, would have a more far-reaching influence on the European political scene.
National Front, the radical right-wing populist party in France founded in 1972, has become the third largest political force behind the traditional left-wing and right-wing camps. In 2002, its then president Jean-Marie Le Pen made to the second round of the French presidential election and only lost the race because the left and the right rallied against him. As the party tops the country’s opinion polls under the leadership of his daughter Marine Le Pen, it seems almost certain that the party will reach the second round in the upcoming April presidential vote, but it remains to be seen whether there will be another defeat in the runoff contributed by the left and the right. If she wins the French election, and delivers her anti-immigration, anti-EU and euro zone-exit platform, the victory will end up a heavier blow on the European Union than Brexit.
Formed in 2013 during the European debt crisis, the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was initially founded against bailing out southern European countries with German taxpayers’ money. Though scorned by the mainstream media then, the position stroke a chord with some common people. In the summer of 2015, when the European debt crisis was edged out of headlines by the influx of refugees, the AfD took the opportunity and enriched its platform, advocating euro zone exit and direct democracy, and against cultural diversification and the spread of Islam in Germany. By these policy stances and seizing on the discontent of ordinary people towards Merkel’s refugee policy, AfD entered state parliaments in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt with strong showings in March 2016, became the second largest party in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with a 20.8% share of votes last September, and entered the state parliament in Berlin with a share of 14.2% two weeks later. By then, the AfD had gained representation in 10 of the 16 German state parliaments. According to polls, the AfD will be entering the federal parliament after the September election this year, but couldn’t dominate German politics.
Founded in 2009, the Five Star Movement has been growing in its size and influence, and has become the largest opposition party in Italy. It advocates direct democracy and detests the ruling by elites. Its anti-establishment and anti-globalization position and platform against the expansion of the power of the EU is hailed by lower-middle classes, especially young students and the working class. In the 2013 election, its poll already overtook that of center-right parties, and was right after the center-left Democratic Party. In June 2016, two young females of the party won the races for mayor in two important cities—Rome and Turin. In December 2016, the Five Star Movement motivated a record-making 65% of voters to reject the constitutional referendum, which was launched by the then Prime Minister Renzi to implement his reform and remove institutional barriers, and forced him to resign. With Italy’s stagnant economy, heavier sovereign debts, unfolding banking crisis, employment difficulties for young people, the Five Star Movement is likely to win if there is an early election.
The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), founded in 1956, had limited influence until the 1980s, but was having a 20% approval rating by the end of last century. This party pursues referendum democracy, and advocates xenophobic and even racist slogans. In 1999, the FPÖ, as the second largest party with a share of vote surging to 27% in the election, formed a right-wing coalition government with the ÖVP. As a result, Austria was once sanctioned and isolated by other EU member states. In 2011, the party launched a new platform named “Australia First”, which means although it identifies with the integration of Europe, it is against globalization and transferring sovereignty and national powers to the EU, and maintains that member states should have more rights to self-determination. With a flagging economy and a staggering unemployment rate, and increasing pressure brought by immigrants and refugees, poll ratings of the FPÖ have been climbing. Polls show that, the FPÖ is likely to become the largest party in Australia’s parliament if the parliamentary election takes place now.
In the Netherlands, the right-wing Party for Freedom headed by Geert Wilders began with anti-Islam claims of closing mosques and banning Koran. Later it picked up anti-EU positions, claiming that Brussels and Islam were two major threats to the Netherlands. The party alleges that, economic globalization, technology advances, rigid political systems, and pressure from the EU and urban elites in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague are behind the current predicament of the Netherlands. According to Western media, such rhetoric is able to sway “the majority of people” and its nationwide support may well bring success in the general election this March. Even if Wilders cannot become the Prime Minister under the current Dutch political system, his influence over Dutch policies is still to be reckoned with.
What are the features of European populism? Western scholars point out that, as a political style, populism is good at demagoguing, addressing the public while bypassing traditional elites, and making the most of mass communication tools. The rise of populism in Europe varies from country to country, but politically shares something in common, which could be summarized into three features: First, anti-globalization. They seek to reduce globalization’s impact on national economy, object euro, global finance and trade deals advocated by the Obama administration, doubt or even resist European integration, and blame the development of globalization for the economic distress and social injustice in Europe. Second, xenophobic nationalism and local culture protectionism. They oppose immigration and multi-culture, deeming that immigration threatens the national identity. Third, aversion to rule-based decision-making. They are impatient with the limits on spontaneous problem solving imposed by rules, and crave for strong individual leaders to have their own way and break the “existing order”. Their policy proposals often lack deep thoughts and their deeds don’t match what they say.
The rise of European populist parties has its origins in the structural crises of political and economic systems in the West. First, it’s a result of the continued influence from the international financial crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis. Economic globalization is supposed to be the objective requirement for enhancing social productivity and a sure result of technological advances, and has been a push behind global economic development. However, globalization is a double-edged sword in that it has brought social injustice and a growing wealth gap. Although the EU boasts about “solidarity” and “common development” , the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, and that between Southern and Northern Europe is visible and tends to expand. Take Germany, the richest and most developed country in Europe, as an example. According to the report on 13 December 2016 from the website of the ARD, the poverty rate in Germany has reached 15.7%, a historical high, and in 2015, over 6.7 million Germans were over-indebted. Moreover, despite the conveniences and reduction of trade costs brought by the euro, it is congenitally deficient, because it is a single currency without a single financial and economic policy. And plagued eurozone countries were not allowed to shake off their distress by depreciation and hence increased export, so some countries are disappointed in European integration and are thinking of breaking the tether of the eurozone. Second, it reflects that the European democracy is in crisis, and the traditional large parties have generally lost voters’ trust. To be specific, grassroots are increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling of political elites. More and more voters believe that traditional mainstream parties could no longer represent their interests, as can be seen from their huge loss of votes in recent years. On the EU level, member states are discontented that the huge and haughty bureaucracy at the EU headquarters dictates member states, yields low efficiency at the cost of huge public wealth, draws up policies that are not down-to-earth, and has limited the sovereignty of member states. That’s why euroscepticism and anti-EU sentiments have been continuously on the rise and many people have cast their votes to populist right-wing parties as a protest. Third, it is stoked by the issue of immigrants and refugees. The single market of the EU, which features the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor, has resulted in a huge influx of workers from poor countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans to rich countries like the UK and Germany, in pursuit of generous welfare. People of the recipient countries are strongly against the influx. The inflow of numerous refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and the resulting terrorist attacks and social instabilities have also given rise to the fear and dissatisfaction of European countries including Germany and France, and have increase the appeal and rallying power of populist forces.
At the same time, right when populism is rising in Europe, Trump was elected president of the U.S. to the surprise of European and American mainstream. Trump’s words and deeds not only destroy Obama’s political achievements and policy legacy, but also echo voices of populist party leaders in countries including the UK and France. They have formed mutual encouragement and support. Besides, Trump supports Brexit, labels the EU as “a vehicle for Germany”, openly presents a gloomy future picture of the EU and divides the EU. He claimed that NATO was “obsolete”, and warned European allies to pay for the cost of American protection since the defence budget of most of them hasn’t reached the threshold of 2% of their GDP. Trump talked about improving relations with Russia, contradicting with EU countries regarding their sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine issue. He said Merkel’s immigration policy was a “catastrophic mistake” and imposed the controversial “travel ban”. These rhetorics are contrary to the basic rationale behind EU diplomatic and security policies, thus have resulted in the strained relationship and conflicts between the U.S. and the EU, and encouraged and supported European populism.
It has to be pointed out that, although leading populist figures in Europe have won the hearts of grassroots through demagogic slogans, it doesn’t mean that their policy statements could address the structural crisis of economic and political systems in the West, or the discontent and concerns of lower-middle classes. In nature, Trump’s “America First” and “make America great again” are consistent with Obama’s ambition reflected in his comments “I do not accept second-place for the United States of America” and “the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation… it will be true for the century to come”. Both represent the interests of Wall Street’s monopoly capital and America’s interests in maintaining its global hegemony. Trump’s random policies and orders have met with fierce criticism and opposition in America and Europe. It remains to be seen to what extent his policies and orders could be implemented.
In the face of rising populism in Europe, increasing trade protectionism, and Trump’s provocative rhetoric on China during and after his campaign, we should retain political composure, a sober mind in observation and calmness in our response. On the one hand, we should be fully aware of the severe challenges and have a preparedness plan; on the other hand, we should take stock of favorable conditions and opportunities and maintain confidence. Moreover, we should give full play to our strengths and actively work on related sides. China is no longer what it was. It has sufficient capacity and means at its disposal to deal with challenges. So long as we have a cool head, and the courage and strength in fighting back, we could expect a transition of China-U.S. relationship to relative stability amongst complicated contests and contentions, and in particular, a win-win and mutually-beneficial partner in Europe for China’s realization of the Two Centennial Goals.   

Mei Zhaorong is Former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Federal Republic of Germany; former President of the CPIFA.