Populist parties claim that they are the only ones who care about people’s preoccupations, while the elites are deemed to be solely motivated by their own interests. Populist parties thus consider themselves as anti-system and anti-establishment. This simplistic rhetoric has seduced more and more Europeans this last decade. A variety of electoral results illustrates the rise of extremist populist parties, particularly in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party obtained 22 seats in the National Parliament elections in 2011, in France, where Front National leader Marine Le Pen obtained 17,9% of the votes in the presidential election of 2012, and in Hungary, where the extreme-right wing party Jobbik won 47 seats in the national parliament in 2010.
At an event organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation at the permanent representation of the State of Hessen to the EU in Brussels, experts debated the threat posed by the rise of extremist populism in Europe, with special focus on the upcoming European elections. What impact will these parties really have and what can mainstream parties and civil society do to stop them from gaining more attraction? “We need to get people to vote!” claimed Barbara Böttcher, Head of European Policy Research at Deutsche Bank. In a study published by DB Research on the economic and political implications of a strong extremist presence in the European Parliament, the impact of extreme populist movements was assessed in three scenarios. In order to avoid the most pessimistic scenario, allocating 28% of expressed votes to extreme populist parties, Ms Böttcher insisted on the importance of getting people out to vote. On a more optimistic note, Matthew Goodwin, author of the Chatham House report “Right Response. Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe”, said “don’t panic!”. In his view, the result will probably not be as bad as often depicted by the media. He painted a more mixed picture, recalling that there are many EU member states where extremist populist parties are nearly inexistent.
Moreover, the impact of populism on European policies will largely depend on the capacity of populist parties to organize among themselves in order to influence the European legislation. All panelists agreed on the difficulty for populist parties to build a solid, cohesive, stable political group for a long period due to their diversity. Certainly, populist parties share common ideas and visions, but great differences remain: the UK Independence Party cannot be compared with the Austrian FPÖ or the Swedish Democrats. All these populist parties do not stem from the same anti-establishment feeling. This explains the clear refusal of the Danish People’s Party to seal an alliance with the Front National, because of its anti-Semitic history. Nonetheless, the impact of populism shall not be underestimated. It represents relevant threats for European democracies and the European integration project. It could jeopardize European solidarity and unity by promoting protectionism and nationalism.
In order to fight populism, the reasons pushing voters towards extremist populist parties have to be addressed. According to the mainstream opinion, the rise of populism is principally due to the economic crisis. In other words, voters of populist parties would cease to support them, if economic growth would regain strength and the unemployment rate would decrease. But for Matthew Goodwin, the economic crisis only reflects the upper part of the iceberg. Indeed, voters of extremist populism are not only part of the population prejudiced by globalization, but also feel culturally threatened by migration. Immigrants, in particular Muslims, are often perceived as danger to national identity and culture. Moreover, these voters feel abandoned by their representatives and do not trust national and even less European institutions in their capacity to respond to their expectations and to address their needs. Populist parties thrive on the fear of a loss of identity and disconnection between the citizens and the institutions.
Populist rhetoric is one of the main challenge for mainstream parties, in requiring from them to adopt a clear position towards these issues and populist rhetoric. “Don’t copy!” called Rainer Wieland, Vice-President of the European Parliament. The adoption of populist rhetoric by mainstream parties as a response to extremist populism cannot be the right response to the rise of populism. On the contrary “people will always vote for the original!”, reminded Mr Wieland. István Sértõ-Radics, Mayor of Uszka in Hungary, thinks that real policies on concrete issues are the only way to address people’s feeling of disconnect with politics and the government. In his view, local politics is the best arena in which to fight populism, as it is more closely linked to the citizens. The data show: votes for populist politicians at the local level are low in comparison to their results in national and European elections. At the national and European level, the key for success of mainstream parties lies in communication. European citizens need to understand the role and impact of European policies and at the same time feel connected to the European project and with each other.
The main task ahead will be to re-frame the narrative and communicate about Europe. The European Union is a project of peace, prosperity and mobility we should communicate about by alluding to people’s sentiments.