Populism: An Internal Worry of EU’s Future

By Vasilije Krivokapić

The long-lasting days of stability, progress and integration of the EU are long gone. After the infamous 2008 recession crisis that shook the foundations of the fragile world economic system, the EU has been stagnating and endangered, as it was facing the biggest conundrums from its inception. Besides the already mentioned economic crisis, debt crisis in southern member-states (especially Greece), Brexit, refugee and migrant crisis and most notably the rapid rise of populism. Rather worryingly, right-wing populism encompasses as one of its tenets a new phenomenon, euroskepticism, which many high ranking officials and analysers regard as the biggest menace to the project of European integration. This led to a significant rise in the number of seats held by populist parties after the 2014 European Parliament elections, as well as victories for some in their national elections. 2016 proved to be a turning point, when populism has emerged on the mainstream in big fashion, with the UK citizens’ decision to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as the new US president. This has legitimised the already evident growth of populism in many European countries.

The current state of affairs

“One could drive from the Aegean Sea all the way to the Baltic Sea,

and be in a populist held country”. [1]

At this moment, populist parties are the leading political force in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, as well as the Baltic States and Greece where left-wing populism has been prevalent. And then, there is Austria. After the elections in late 2017, Austrians have elected the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which together with the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) formed a coalition government like no other in Western Europe. Even though the current chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, who also happens to be the youngest world leader, is determined to keep out any euroskepticism from the agenda. The coalition partner, on the other hand, has raised a lot of suspicion and discontent among big EU member states that Austria will follow the path of Poland and Hungary. So far, the harsh rhetoric on anti-immigration has been somewhat tamed, albeit the ruling coalition has mentioned on numerous occasion its ambition to become closer allies with the Visegrad Group countries. This implicates that Austria will remain a prudent member state, which will however be more resilient and reserved towards the prospects of the further aspirations of the European integration project.

The last German elections and recent polls have shown a sharp rise to popularity of the right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), a party synonymous for anti-immigration, anti-establishment, anti-Islam and euroskeptic views. I deliberately mentioned last polls, as it overtook the one of the two traditional forces of German politics, the SPD party, and currently is the second most supported party in Germany[2]. Analysts have stated that the lax and welcoming migrant policy, as well as incidents and terrorist attacks contributed to the worrisome rise of this party, which gained a respectable 12.6% of votes in the last elections which at the same time brought the worst results for both CDU and SPD in their respective history.

Another country that was under constant and relentless attack by the officials in Brussels is Poland, where Justice and Security party (PiS) is at the helm. Jaroslav Kaczyński, the president of the PiS party expresses clear populist ideas present throughout Europe. The intentions to reform the judiciary and political system, seen as regressing and undermining the Copenhagen criteria, EU almost sanctioned. The most evident “outbreak” of far right sentiment was the last Independence Day celebrations, which attracted more than 60.000 attendees, some of who were sympathisers of the far right on the political spectrum. Clear discontent towards imposed EU quotas on immigrants were to be seen, as even Neo-Nazi movements and parties overshadowed the celebrations. For some time, Poland has been reluctant and suspicious towards the EU, since it is seeking more sovereignty and a slower pace in its further integrations with the supranational organisation. This will be the case for the time to come, as no opposition party looks ready and popular enough to overthrow the current establishment.

New challenges up ahead; new gains for populists or regression?

This year won’t probably be a pivotal or ground-breaking as 2016 was, but it will still entail some possible occasions for populist parties to either gain new grounds or solidify their already unrivalled role. The elections to look out for in the next year will be held in Italy, Hungary and Sweden. These three countries couldn’t be more different regarding their political systems or ruling parties, but what they share in common is the “uncertainty” which is called upon by contesters and critics of right-wing populist parties, which could lead the way to new crises and a bigger democratic deficit in aforementioned countries.

The first of these pivotal elections will take place in Italy on March 4. These elections will be, to put it mildly, a complete mess, as polls currently show no clear party which could emerge as victorious. The newly incorporated election system, which is a mix of both first-past-the-post and proportional representation is further complicating the situation, since it is virtually impossible for any party alone to create a government. Therefore, even before the elections, coalition talks are underway, where almost all projected coalitions are not possible without some populist party, be it left or right wing. Italy is struggling; its national debt is 130% of the GDP, unemployment is rising and the distrust towards incoming migrants is ever more evident. In the last poll that has been conducted Five Star Movement is leading, and projected to win most seats in both the lower and upper house of the parliament. This movement instigated by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 has sharply risen to popularity with their unorthodox mixture of both left wing tenets (sustainable development, environmentalism, social benefits) and some tenets more accustomed to right wing populism (Euroskepticism, anti-immigration, anti-establishment). Even though they are first in every poll so far conducted, it is unlikely to see the Five Star Movement in the government, since they haven’t expressed any will to form coalition with other contestants. This could interestingly lead to the return of Silvio Berlusconi, who even though convicted with fraud and banned for 6 years in attaining any high ranking position, with his Forza Italia and their far right Lega Nord, Brothers of Italy and Us with Italy could eventually form an unlikely and very frightening coalition, at least for the folks in Brussels. Remzi’s centre left Democratic Party, with their already established coalition partners are the only who could block populist parties from entering the government, but the complex and very tumultuous political system are giving a headache to anyone willing to predict what will happen on March 4. One thing is for certain; the 2018 Italian elections will be the talk of the town in the coming weeks, with the eventual outcome resulting in either a status quo or a U-turn.

Hungary is a stand-alone compared to the other two, as the Orban’s Fidesz party has already been in power since 2010, being so far on all subsequent elections unrivalled by any other political force. Elections in 2018 will be an approval rating test, with current polls giving a landslide victory for Fidesz. Orban’s Hungary has been heavily criticised in Brussels for being an illiberal democracy, with a large anti-immigration, nationalistic and even anti-Muslim sentiment. What also could be regarded as worrisome is the fact that the far right Jobbik party is currently sitting at the second place in polls, which shows that right-wing populism will remain ever present in this country. Hungary is experiencing a high economic growth, which is followed by a reduction of institutional sovereignty, censorship of media and the constant pressure put on various member of the civil society, as well as universities. Orban is by many in the West regarded as the “Putin” of the EU, even though he portrays Hungary as the so called “defender of the Western values, principles and way of life”. This discrepancy will only continue to growth after another landslide election victory in 2018, as on the one hand Fidesz will try to “restore family values”, keep illegal immigration to a minimum and with a protectionist approach enlarge the economy and give prosperity to the Hungarian people.

This year’s Swedish elections will pose as a test for the current establishment and their rooted lax practices regarding immigration, welfare state and multiculturalism. Sweden welcomed a significant number of refugees and migrants from 2014 onwards, which on one hand showed an unrivalled sense of responsibility and altruism, but on the other it led to the polarisation of the society and subsequently to the rise of anti-immigration parties, most notably the Swedish Democrats. There were more than 300.000 asylum requests from 2014 until today, mostly coming from war-torn countries such as Syria and Eritrea, albeit through 2017 there has been a sharp decrease of asylum requests accepted.[3] Nowadays, the Moderate Party, being the second in polls, is trying to outmaneuver the SD by setting out a time limit for how long can asylum seekers stay in Sweden, as well having no contact with the SD party. The party that leads the polls is the ruling Social Democratic Party of the prime minister Stefan Löfven, which will seek out a probable coalition with the Moderates, in an effort to outweigh the potential hazard of having a right wing populist party in the government or even consulting it (as seen in Denmark with Danish People’s Party). The strategy is so far working, as the Moderates have recently overtaken the Swedish Democrats in polls, but it is still uncertain whether this will last, since the elections will take place in autumn.

***

Even though many thought that after the demise of populist parties was inevitable, it is wrong to assume that their influence would start to dwindle. Elections in France and the Netherlands, where populist parties (Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom) failed to gain any influence, should’ve been the start of the fall of populism in Europe, but Austrian and even German elections proved them wrong. All eyes will be on Italy, since the elections on March 4 could instigate another wave of distrust and alienation towards the EU. The European society is again becoming polarised on some crucial issues, especially towards immigration and the future of the EU project. This will therefore bring more uncertainty and unpredictability for the years to come.

Photo: Berkeley Review

[1] Rise of populism in Europe ‘a real threat to democracy’, EuroNews, 29 December 2017, http://www.euronews.com/2017/12/29/rise-of-populism-in-europe-a-real-threat -to-democracy-

[2]AfD surpasses SPD for first time in German poll, Politico, 19 February 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/afd-surpasses-spd-for-first-time-in-german-poll/

[3] Migrationsverket, https://www.migrationsverket.se/English/About-the-Migration-Agency/Facts-and-statistics-/Statistics.html