The Populist Wave in Europe

The Populist Wave in Europe

By Ryan Ricks 

In March 2018, a wave of populism quickly overtook Italy as two rival populist parties fought for control of the Italian government. On March 26, 2018, I published an article about this event and how it connects to similar events happening across Europe that seemed to have stemmed from the US 2016 presidential election. It’s been 1.5 years since then, and some things have changed as others have stayed the same. In many European countries, populism and nationalism have been on the rise, quickly gaining votes and joining governments. These populist parties are characterized by being anti-euro/anti-EU and being anti-immigration. 

Checking back in on Italy, the right-wing League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement formed a government together in June 2018. The leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, detailed later, has become a dominant figure both in Italian politics and in European politics at large. 

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has quickly gained a significant amount of power considering it was only formed six years ago. It won 12.6% of the German vote in 2017. Just like the Italian populist parties, the AfD is anti-euro, a common theme among many European populist parties. The AfD is also anti-immigration, and their stance has only been bolstered by the millions of undocumented immigrants allowed into Germany annually. The AfD has representatives in every state parliament in Germany, and the anti-immigration sentiment sweeping the country has also caused Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the European Union herself, to stiffen her own stance on immigration. 

In France, after the utter defeat of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front (FN) party in 2017, the rebranded FN party, now called the National Rally party has become more popular, so much so that in some polls it is ahead of President Macron’s liberal LREM party. Like other populist parties in Europe, the National Rally party is against the euro. The next French presidential election will be in 2022. 

In the UK, Brexit, the “British exit” of the European Union, is still being fought for in the British parliament. The third Prime Minister since the first referendum on Brexit in 2016, Boris Johnson, has now taken power in Britain after the resignation of Theresa May. The deadline for Britain’s exit has been extended from its original date of March 29, 2019, to October 31, 2019. 

In Spain, the evidence of the spread of the nationalist movement has been the sudden rise of the far-right Vox party, which entered parliament for the first time on April 28, 2019, with 10% of the vote. The Vox party is anti-immigration and has called for the unity of the Spanish state. 

Even more traditionally left-leaning countries have joined in on this populist wave as well. According to the BBC, Sweden, which has accepted more asylum seekers per capita than any other country has also seen the rise of a populist party within its borders. In the 2018 general election, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) party won 18% of the vote after entering parliament for the first time in 2010. 

In Finland, the far-right Finns Party came within 0.2% of beating the Social Democratic Party in April 2019. The Finns Party is opposed to immigration and more radical policies to fight climate change. 

In Estonia, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) has only grown more popular since first entering the Estonian parliament in 2015. As of now, it has 18% of the vote. The leader of the EKRE, Martin Helme, once said that only white people should be allowed to move to Estonia according to the BBC. 

Other countries that have also been affected by the populist wave are Hungary, Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, the Netherlands (though the movement has seemed to subside there for now), and the Czech Republic. 

The advances of populism in Europe have not just been limited to individual countries—they span across Europe itself. Matteo Salvini, mentioned earlier, has become the principal individual responsible for the unification of Europe’s nationalist parties. He has allied with Germany’s AfD, the Finns Party, and the Danish People’s Party. These parties competed in the European Parliament elections in late May of this year. Together, they earned 25% of Parliament seats, which while less than expected for populist leaders such as Matteo Salvini, still demonstrate how populism is a potent force in Europe. 

So what does this all mean? The populist wave has gotten stronger since early 2018. When combined with the political climate of the United States, with the 2020 election coming around the corner, it paints a picture of continued growth of nationalist sentiment in the western hemisphere. In the United States, nationalist Republican candidate Donald Trump has already begun his reelection campaign, and moderate Democrats such as Joe Biden are performing well in debates and polls. 

Even though the populist wave has slowed down, seemingly both in Europe and the United States with the rise of more progressive forces to combat the nationalist, conservative ones, it is still evident that we can’t count populism out just yet. Populist parties are gaining or have a significant amount of power in most European countries. If they continue to capitalize on that power, their influence could continue to grow. 

The next biggest event to keep our eyes on when analyzing populism in the western hemisphere is probably the new October 31 deadline for Brexit. Will the thing fought for nearly three years now finally come to pass? Or will it be delayed further? Either way, the result will be significant, because it will tell us a lot about the state of nationalism. Is the movement over, or is it just beginning? Perhaps we are just about to find out. 

Image Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal 

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