top of page

The long shadow of Populism in Europe

Source: Pexels

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Populism.

Populism is a political phenomenon that has always been intertwined with politics itself, ever since the creation of mass parties. While populism emerged in Europe as early as the mid-19th century, it only really became politically significant in the 21st century. Today, populist parties exist in all 27 EU member states. Even though they don’t hold office everywhere, they play a significant role in many national parliaments, as well as in the European Parliament.

Research indicates that nearly one-third of Europeans currently support populist, far-right, or far-left political parties, reflecting a significant rise in backing for anti-establishment movements across the continent, posing a growing challenge to mainstream politics. An analysis conducted by over 100 political scientists in 31 countries revealed that, in the previous year's national elections, a historic 32% of European voters opted for anti-establishment parties, a notable increase from 20% in the early 2000s and 12% in the early 1990s. This trend has pushed Europe's political landscape rightward, prompting researchers to consider categorizing some well-known centre-right parties as potentially bordering on the far-right. The PopuList, established in collaboration with the newspaper The Guardian five years ago, tracks populist, far-left, and far-right parties in Europe from 1989 to 2022. The latest edition identifies 234 anti-establishment parties, comprising 165 populist parties (mostly far-left or far-right), with 61 classified as far-left and 112 as far-right, acknowledging that not all far-right parties are necessarily populist.

Source: Graphic produced by The Guardian based on the Popu-List

Populism: a brief, historical overview

The roots of populism in Europe can be traced back to the late 19th century in the Russian Empire when the sentiment of hatred of the local peasantry for the governing elites brought to the creation of the so-called the narodnichestvo movement. Although this was mainly an initiative of middle class and intellectuals speaking up for small farmers, whom they depicted as the emblem of morality, the idea at the basis of the movement was looked at as inspiring by other Eastern European countries, which witnessed the birth of national agrarian movements in their turn. The case of Russia and its bordering countries was not the only one that Europe saw in that same period. While extremist right-wing movements such as the Völkische Bewegung - the ancestor of the Nazi Party - in Germany and the mouvement boulangiste - fuelled by a strong revanchist attitude - in France were starting to get a grip on the geopolitical landscape, Marxist and Fascist ideals started to spread across the continent, advocated by elitist groups looking to defend “the people” from their prevaricators. Delving into more recent history, the aftermath of World War II was marked by a much quieter political panorama, partly due to the establishment of communist rule in the Soviet Union and its satellites, partly to the desire to preserve the new-born, fragile equilibrium in the West. In the following years, however, reactionary, and conservative movements like the Austria Freedom Party were born, to challenge the system toward which the support and constraints given by the US were bringing Western Europe. These parties remained isolated and harmless, overall, up until a turning point for the history of the world as we know it today: the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was the moment in which, thanks to the crumbling of the Soviet Union, right-wing, populist movements gained back their original momentum since the end of the war, concomitantly with the formation of the first contemporary populist left-wing parties. An example of the latter is the Party of Democratic Socialism in reunified Germany, born in 1990 and striving to create a new integration between East and West while expressing its nationalistic views.

In the 21st century, Western European countries experienced a further increase in prominence of populist movements, marked by the rise of leaders like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. These movements often centred on anti-immigration sentiments, Euroscepticism, and opposition to the perceived negative impacts of multiculturalism, which were bolstered by episodes like the economic austerity following the financial crisis of 2008, and the migration crisis of 2015. In the wake of the crisis, populist leaders like Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, and Matteo Salvini, in Italy, positioned themselves as anti-establishment figures, promising to address economic inequalities and restore national sovereignty. As of today, populism in Europe is still on the rise, with events such as Giorgia Meloni, member of the ex-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia, becoming Prime Minister of Italy with the elections of 2022, and the Swedish Democrats, neo-Nazi party, obtaining the second largest number of seats in Parliament. What are the implications of ascending populism, though? To fully grasp the importance of this phenomenon, it is first necessary to give a definition of populism itself.

So, what is populism, exactly?

Populism doesn’t have a precise and concise definition because it is a heterogeneous social and political phenomenon, with many different faces, aims and ideological orientations. It has, however, some common features that are very recognizable and are shared among populist movements all around the world. Almost all populist movements are indeed characterized by the fact that they offer easy solutions to oversimplified problems of society, by an aversion for globalization, by an anti-elite, polarizing rhetoric and most importantly by the attempt to depict themselves as “champions of the people'', who defend democracy and morality, using propaganda that sometimes even features fake news and conspiracy theories to some extent. Despite different political orientations among populist movements (some of them are far-left while others are far-right), these features are almost always present. Their rhetoric, which is based on the idea of “us against them”, causes an increasing polarization of the society. The “us” are the common, virtuous people and “they” are the corrupt, self-serving elites, whose interests are protected by the traditional parties and politicians. The people are one homogenous group with shared experiences and problems, and this often implies that, if someone has a different opinion or is against the populist movement or leader, they are not part of the people, but of the elite or their friend. This polarization creates a vicious cycle: the more polarized society is, the more polarizing propaganda is effective, thus increasing the support for populist parties who have an incentive to become more and more extreme.

Moreover, according to the ideological side of the movement in question, other alarming characteristics emerge. On one hand, far-right populists are also mostly sovereigntist and also extremely conservative. For example, they consider international institutions like the EU as enemies aligned with the hated elites, or they see immigrants as a threat for their national identity and security and accuse them of trying to replace the nations’ main culture, religion, and ethnicity with their own or they depict them as criminals, sometimes even terrorists. Furthermore, right-wing populism defends the patriarchal structure of society. This translates, of course, in attacks on women’s reproductive rights and on their opportunities of emancipation. Moreover, this defence of the patriarchy also implies attacking LGBTQ+ minorities, their rights and their freedoms. Another shade of right-wing populism is climate change denial, or more often opposition to actions against climate change. But why all of this? Because some parts of society feel threatened by immigrants, by LGBTQ+ acceptance, by women’s emancipation, and because international laws and regulations, like those of the EU, often harm their economic interests. Environmental regulation often harms the interests of many people whose life depends on certain types of industries that would be severely damaged by reduction of emissions policies, carbon taxes, and similar actions. Right-wing populists try to catch the consensus of such people, depicting all the things mentioned above as part of the elite or its will, and they promise solutions. These solutions often result in xenophobic, racist, or homotransphobic legislation, or in the international isolation of the country.

On the other hand, left wing populism can appear less harmful, because such movements are mostly supportive of minorities and of environmental policy. However, they stress very much the anti-elite and anti-globalization components of populism, and typically are very distrustful of traditional media, the banks, international corporations, and lobbies. Another target of left-wing populism criticism is typically the US-led western block, leading some of these parties to go against anything related to NATO or the EU. In general, these movements perceive and depict as threats the socio-economic structures that seem to harm the sovereignty of the people and seem to increase inequalities. Left-wing populism calls for more equality, more direct democracy, more environmental action and pacifism. Despite this being agreeable positions on papers, the typical problems of populism are still there. Promising easy solutions to complex economic problems that affect equality, for example, may cause harm to the economy, ultimately harming the very people they wanted to protect. Redistributing too much, which is something that many people consider positive, may drive away foreign and domestic investors or human capital. Too much direct democracy can allow demagogues to lure people into taking dangerous choices through referendums; and environmental policies and choices that are too strongly driven by ideology could even be counter-productive for the green transition, for example leading to bans on greener sources of energy, like nuclear.

How does populism originate?

Populism doesn’t simply come into existence out of the blue. It comes in waves through history and is fuelled by other problems and trends. In a nutshell, we could say that the root of this phenomenon is insecurity. In particular, financial insecurity, caused by economic shocks, like the global financial crisis of 2009, sharply increases the number of people who struggle to make ends meet, eroding the middle class. Unemployment, inflation, and other adverse economic trends make the situation even worse. All of this has increased inequalities over the recent years, and with it distrust and anger towards the elites, like banks and traditional political parties. These problems are further worsened by globalization, which despite having caused unprecedented economic growth, is also responsible for the displacement of low-skilled jobs from high-income to low-income countries, which increased unemployment in the West. Globalization also means immigration, which has put often low-skilled workers in competition with each other. And globalization also means more cultural changes caused by foreign influence, which inevitably alters local traditions. Furthermore, in the recent decades, the West has undergone a process of gradual shift in values, from traditional and conservative views of society to more liberal and diverse positions. This has created a sense of insecurity in those parts of society who were previously at the center of the patriarchal system and the only beneficiaries of it, like white male conservatives in the US and in Europe. For them, achievements such as the emancipation of women, the normalization of non-traditional families, and the acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities are threats. So, in practice, economic insecurity made people angry and distrustful of the system, globalization made people feel threatened by foreigners and the change in value made some resentful of the current times. All of this created high demand for populism movements, parties, and leaders, who have grown exponentially exploiting the dissatisfaction of a large chunk of the electorate. Left-wing movements promised easy and quick economic measures to relieve people from the burden of the financial situation, and right-wing politicians vowed to protect national identity, sovereignty, and ethnicity.

Since we have described populism in broader terms, let’s look at the faces of two populist parties in major European democracies.

Right-wing populism: Germany, the AfD

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, founded in 2013, has played a significant role in German politics, evolving from its initial focus on Euroscepticism to becoming a broader right-wing force. Being at an all-time high at the opinion poll, it is gradually acquiring great acknowledgement in Eastern Germany, and regional elections, which are set for 2024, seem to be worryingly promising for its leaders. Frequently labelled as a populist party, the AfD’s characterization is rooted in key aspects of its political stance and strategies. As already mentioned, one defining feature of populism is an anti-establishment sentiment, and the AfD has adeptly positioned itself as a political force challenging mainstream elites. As a matter of fact, Björn Höcke, the Parliamentary group leader in Thuringia and most influential representative of the party, frames political insiders as out of touch with the concerns of everyday citizens, stating that they have betrayed their people, and presenting himself as Germany’s saviour instead. Treasuring the distress that has permeated the European Union since the 2015 immigration crisis and the large-scale migrant flow of the past two years, the party taps into the sentiment of protecting the nation from perceived external threats, making nationalist and anti-immigration policies central in its agenda, and emphasizing the need to preserve the Germans’ national identity and cultural values. Furthermore, the AfD’s stance converges with populist tendencies through the theme of Euroscepticism, which is common among politicians of the member states adopting this kind of rhetoric. The party’s members are harsh critics of the Union, especially when it comes to its handling of economic and security issues (like the presence of Muslim communities on German soil); by manifesting such discontent in public, they carry out the idea that supranational institutions undermine national sovereignty.

While the label of populism is not universally agreed upon, these characteristics and many others - like the aversion to the LGBTQ+ community - collectively contribute to the perception of the AfD as a populist party. In German politics, the AfD has secured representation in federal and state parliaments, challenging the traditional party landscape. Despite gaining support in some regions, the AfD has faced opposition and scrutiny, with critics expressing concerns about its impact on social cohesion and democratic norms. The party's evolution and influence have made it a focal point in discussions about the changing dynamics of German politics and the broader European political landscape.

Left-wing populism: Spain’s Podemos

Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) and Alberto Garzón (Izquierda Unida) in a rally together of Unidos Podemos on June 23, 2016 in Jerez de la Frontera.

There are fewer populists on the Left end of the spectrum than there are on the Right. In 2016, Spain’s Podemos was the only left-wing populist party in power in Europe, as part of a coalition. It emerged in 2011 from the Indignados movement, fuelled by discontent against inequality and corruption. Inspired by Latin America's Pink tide leaders like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, Podemos officially launched in January 2014. It aimed to challenge EU policies, specifically opposing austerity measures. In the 2014 European Parliament election, Podemos secured 7.98% of the vote, electing five MEPs. In the 2015 general election, Podemos gained prominence, securing 21% of the vote and becoming the third-largest party in parliament with 69 seats. In 2016, facing political deadlock, Podemos formed an electoral alliance, Unidos Podemos, with United Left, Equo, and regional left-wing parties. Although the coalition received 21.2% of the vote, it couldn't surpass the political impasse. In April 2023, Podemos initially declined to join the left-wing Sumar alliance due to differences but eventually reached an agreement for the upcoming general election in December 2023. However, conflicts arose over candidate selection, leading to a split between Podemos and Sumar in December 2023. Podemos broke ties, and its five MPs moved from the Sumar group to the mixed group in Congress. Podemos (‘We can’) represents a political ideology that emerged from the radical left's revaluation following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Soviet Communism. It serves as a tangible illustration of populism, not confined to a specific ideology but understood as a discursive logic—a political narrative that can accommodate diverse ideologies. Populism, whether from the left or right, is fundamentally illiberal, and, as we previously explained, it relies on two key tenets: the creation of an enemy and the denigration of representative democracy. Indeed, Podemos proposed an alternative model of 'direct' or 'participatory' democracy where the people make decisions without delegation to representatives, critiquing traditional democratic structures as “compromised by elite interests”. In fact, Podemos rejected the 1978 Constitution and the reconciliation agreements that facilitated Spain's transition to democracy, aiming to dismantle the democratic regime established in 1978. The party contended that the Constitution, supported by a broad spectrum of political forces and voters, meant Spanish democracy was a continuation of Franco's dictatorship in disguise. Despite being a delusional notion, this perspective held a significant place in Podemos' narrative. To reinforce its critique of the Spanish constitutional system, Podemos aligned with nationalist forces in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Navarre, and Valencia, which advocated for territorial independence and the right to unilateral secession.

Finally, Podemos, despite not presenting extreme conservative reforms and repressive policies against minorities, as some of the European right-wing parties do, still poses potential dangers to the democratic stability of Spain: the combination of rejecting foundational democratic frameworks and promoting divisive nationalist agendas positions Podemos as a potential destabilizing force, raising concerns about its impact on the national unity of the country.

The dangers of populism for Europe’s future

As mentioned above, populism is a dangerous phenomenon that may pose a serious threat to the democratic tenure of countries and as a consequence to the future of the European Union. But why? If populist politicians and parties promise to protect the people and act in their interest, how could this be a problem for democracy? First of all, as we have already seen, some forms of populism -in this case right-wing movements- exploit the fear of the diverse and the diffidence towards the “different” of the majority to gain electoral advantage. This implies that minorities, who are “diverse” and “different”, end up as the target of populist policies once these movements get in power. A healthy democracy is a pluralistic one, and even if such minorities are not stripped away of the right to vote, it often happens that their voice is silenced through explicit or implicit bans and regulation. A typical example of this are the infamous Hungarian laws against LGBT “Propaganda”, which triggered in 2021 an EU infringement procedure. As if this was not enough, populists in power have the tendency to erode the pillars of liberal democracy, such as the independence of the courts and the rule of law. There are various explanations for why this happens. One of these, shown in the paper “The Shift to Commitment Politics and Populism: Theory and Evidence” of 2023 by Luca Bellodi, Massimo Morelli, Antiono Nicolò and Paolo Roberti, identifies the root of the problem in the strong commitment that populist politicians make to the electorate in order to be elected or re-elected. Policies and actions needed to fulfil such promises however often meet the resistance of the democratic systems of check and balances, such as the independent courts and the bureaucracy. So, in order to overcome such obstacles, the populist leaders may depict these institutions as parts of the elite that opposes the wellbeing of the people. At this point, the government dismantles their power, by passing constitutional amendments or by appointing loyal judges and bureaucrats. A country in this situation slowly enters a process of democratic backsliding in which the more time the populist party stays in power, the more challenging it becomes for oppositions to win the election.

Another threat that comes from populism, especially far-right, sovereigntist populism, is Euroscepticism. As the name suggests, Euroscepticism is a political position of opposition to European integration. Distrust for EU institutions, linked to the abovementioned anti-elite rhetoric of populist politicians, is a dangerous force that threatens the very existence of the Union. We must not forget that this kind of populism is the reason why Britain left the EU following the referendum in 2016 and is also a force that slows down further integration.

But how can Europe overcome populism?

Populism is a problem that is very difficult to tackle. It creates a vicious cycle of distrust and polarization that thorns apart strong and weak democracies alike. Oftentimes, policies that are supposed to reduce it have the opposite effect. For example, laws and systems against the spread of fake news and misinformation may be accused by populist leaders of reducing freedom of expression and information, increasing the people-elite polarization. However, the recent electoral results in Poland bring us hope. Following the elections held in October, a new coalition led by Donald Tusk won the majority of parliament seats and prevented the previous right-wing, populist majority from leading the government for another term. These have been very good news for the EU, which can only benefit from having one less sovereigntist government around. But what can we learn from these elections? First of all, it is important that, if possible, oppositions to populist movements join together under the leadership of a charismatic figure, like Tusk, who has the moral stature needed to defeat, in terms of popularity, its populist counterpart. Furthermore, high electoral turnout in the opposing coalition is another factor that helps to defeat populists. Indeed, during these elections 74% of Poles cast their vote, a historically high turnout. The people who oppose populism must be aware that each election is a historical moment in which the future of their country, and of Europe, is decided.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. As for many other problems, reforms at EU level are needed. These reforms should aim at undermining the sources of populism, like the perceived distance of the EU institutions and their high degree of complexity, which are factors that fuel the “distant elite” rhetoric. This is why it would perhaps be a good strategy to first of all increase transparency, but it would also be important to increase democratic participation of Europeans in the institutions that are meant to represent them. And speaking of undermining the sources of the problem, as we have seen, economic hardships and insecurity are one, if not the main, source of demand for populism in the electorate. Decreasing inequalities and bringing people out of poverty are for sure goals that, besides benefiting society as a whole, also benefit the fight against populism. It is important to reduce the damages that globalization has inflicted upon certain segments of the population, so that the “good old days” nostalgia and autarkic feelings do not emerge.

Concluding remarks

As we have said, populism, whether it comes from the left or the right, is a dangerous phenomenon. It originates from the suffering of many and their insecurity, and It may lead to even more suffering and insecurity. Economic disasters, the oppression of minorities, illiberalism, and even wars are the price that we pay when their propaganda wins.

Populism has already grown roots in European soil. AfD in Germany and Podemos in Spain are just two examples, but in every European country there are movements like them, some of which have become very influential. Italy has been governed and is being governed by coalitions formed partially or completely by populist parties, the United Kingdom left the EU because of populism, and Hungary’s democracy is crumbling. Viktor Orban, during a speech in 2014, expressed ideas that are a truly concrete example of why we should be opposed to his politics:

“We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy”

This is exactly the problem. There cannot be true democracy if it’s not liberal, if it doesn’t protect the rights of every individual, if the pillars of separation of power, rule of law and media independence are attacked. Populism is a deceitful force, which doesn’t take over countries through a quick coup d'état, but through a slow poisoning of society. In the end, it kills democracy under thunderous applause, as it did in Turkey, Hungary, and as it could do in the US.

Europe and Europeans must not fall for the trap any longer. We must continue to build a healthy, democratic society that says no to polarization and radicalism, no to illiberalism, no to populism.



Recent Posts
bottom of page