Populism is struggling to break through. Ever since the 2014 European Parliament elections, commentators have been talking about a rising tide of national populism sweeping away traditional European parties of the left and right. Brexit seemed to confirm this narrative, and for a time it looked liked the populists were poised to take control in elections in France, the Netherlands, and Austria.
That’s not what happened. The first wobble was in the Netherlands, when the Freedom Party of anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders was beaten soundly into second place by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Next came the defeat of the far-right Norbert Hofer in the Austrian Presidential poll by the Greens. Finally, and most recently, Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant Front National was sent packing in the French Presidential vote by a relative newcomer to politics, Emmanuel Macron.
Even more remarkably, Macron seems to have definitively crushed the attempt by the Front National to break through in legislative elections for the National Assembly. His En Marche! party is predicted to take more than two thirds of the seats in the second round on 18 June, leaving the centre-right trailling in second place, with only a handful of seats for the far-right Front National.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Georgia, who believes that Marine Le Pen will come back stronger in five years’ time. Sure, she didn’t win the most recent vote, but if Macron doesn’t deliver then she could win the next one in 2022.
To get a reaction, we took Georgia’s comment to Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission. How would he respond?
For another reaction to Georgia’s comment, we also took it to Anton Pelinka, Professor of Political Science and Nationalism Studies at the Central European University of Budapest. What did he think?
Well, I think in both the French and Austrian case, it’s obvious that there is a majority against right-wing populism. In both cases, Macron and Van der Bellen, were able to mobilise a majority of centrist and leftist voters against far-right populism. That means far-right populism is significant, but not the silent majority it sometimes claims to be. There is a majority against far-right populism; it’s important to unify this potential of anti-extremist sentiment, and this happened in France and in Austria.
Next up, we had a comment from João was 100% sure that populist parties would win the recent elections in France, the Netherlands, and Austria. Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, how did he get it so wrong? How would Frans Timmermans explain what happened?
Then we had a comment from Enric, who points out that the vote share for populist parties is still going up, even though there haven’t been major breakthroughs since Brexit. In other words, he thinks the ‘populist tide’ is still rising. What would Timmermans say?
Finally, we had a comment from Konstantinos, who believes that to win the Dutch election, Prime Minister Mark Rutte adopted Wilders’ nationalist-populist rhetoric and embraced most of Wilders’ political agenda. So, does that mean that Rutte is a populist now? How would Frans Timmermans respond?
To get another perspective, we also put Konstantinos’ comment to Philippe Legrain, a political economist and writer (and founder of the Open Political Economy Network) who has written about populism extensively. What would he say to Konstantinos?
Finally, we put the same comment to Professor Pelinka. How would he respond?
Well, I think the Dutch case underlines there is no clear borderline between populism and non-populism. To win elections, centrist parties can be tempted to take over some of the populist agenda. Though this is what we call ‘populism light’. It’s a difficult strategy because on the one hand it can prevent right-wing populism from winning, but on the other side it can mean that the agenda of right-wing populism in the guise of centrist parties in government is still victorious. So, yes, it is a danger. Populism light is, on the one hand, a possible strategy to succeed against right-wing popopulism, but on the other hand it could mean that the substance is almost the same.
Can the EU survive populism? Why did national populists fail to breakthrough in the recent French, Dutch, and Austrian elections? And can mainstream political movements defeat populism without becoming populist themselves? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts at the EESC Civil Society Days (#CSdays2017)!
IMAGE CREDITS – CC / Flickr – David B Young
In partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) – Civil Society Days 2017 #CSdays2017.
For more information about the Civil Society Days 2017, please check: www.eesc.europa.eu/csdays2017