Across Europe, one in three voters chose protest parties and anti-establishment candidates in last month’s European Parliament elections.
Populists did well in both creditor and debtor countries, showing that protest parties are thriving even where economic conditions are not so bad. Many of them straddle the old left/right political divide. In her criticism of the euro, for example, Front National leader Marine Le Pen sounds remarkably like French far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But her anti-migrant and anti-Muslim stances are traditional of the far right.
The angry cry from European voters deserves a deeper hearing. The easy response for mainstream parties is to hear it as a protest against the EU and migration—and jump on that bandwagon. But much deeper concerns are driving people away from mainstream parties.
Many European voters are sceptical that traditional political institutions represent them anymore, including national as well as EU ones. And there is a great sense of insecurity about cultural identity and traditions being eroded right across Europe.
Their economic concerns won’t be relieved anytime soon. The euro has stabilized, but many southern Europeans are wondering if economic dynamism and jobs will ever return. Northerners aren’t feeling the pain so much and may have jobs, but they are wondering if they can rely on the welfare state to protect them as they age.
The crisis revealed the dark side of globalization—that interdependence means permanently greater vulnerability to turbulence elsewhere in the world. Even in wealthy European countries, the state has limited powers to protect citizens from insecurity and rising inequality. The world has changed, undermining social contracts. Taxes stay high but economic security cannot be assured. And citizens in many countries have the impression that elites serve their own interests rather than the public interest.
Populists have tapped into all these fears and resentments. They don’t offer policy solutions or clear options. But they are adept at channelling frustration and hopelessness into hostility towards both elites and minorities. It is much easier to pin the blame on politicians and those on the margins of society—especially Roma, migrants and Muslims—than the faceless forces of the global economy.
How Will the Populist Surge Affect European Politics?
The populist blame game is having a big impact on national politics. Already many parties of the center are leaning much further to the right on migration. During national election campaigns over the next few years, they may well adopt more extremist exclusionary rhetoric on the grounds of “defending national identity” and “protecting our culture.” Already both mainstream right and left are talking more about the need to protect wages and restrict labor migration from one EU country to another as well as from outside Europe.
Beyond rhetoric, there could be serious assaults on the infrastructure that protects the most vulnerable marginalized groups, much of which was put in place at EU level. Already there is an attack on the whole concept of human rights in the UK, and talk of withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights that seems to be spreading to Spain. Other member-states are challenging the EU by not complying with fundamental rights principles, such as limits on freedom of expression in Hungary and discriminatory collection of personal data from Roma in Italy.
The populist surge will also have an effect in the European Parliament itself, which recently gained major new powers under the Lisbon Treaty. Given the Parliament’s position as a co-legislator, populist MEPs could make it more difficult for the EU to adopt progressive legislation and policies, especially where they share common ground—for example in opposing migration, asylum, development aid, and EU standards and policies that protect marginalized groups.
Anti-EU and xenophobic populist parties will have nearly a third of the seats. They are far from unified and have many different views. Some of these MEPs have an openly racist agenda, many express xenophobic views and some use hate speech. Others disavow racism but criticize immigration.
How will they behave? In the past, populist MEPs have mainly used the Parliament as a source of personal funding and a podium from which to broadcast their messages over YouTube. They made xenophobic and anti-elite speeches in the Parliament and uploaded them to the internet, but most did not get much involved in the details of parliamentary decision-making. Partly this was tactical, because anti-system MEPs were seeking to show their supporters they were not part of the system. But it was also because they disagreed on many issues, and they did not have policy goals that would motivate them to act or vote with others.
A big change lies ahead if a much better resourced and organized populist front forms a party grouping to get public funding. Then it could invest in using the Parliament to block EU legislation, funding and resolutions, or as a way of putting political pressure on governments. They could attack EU foreign policies too, including the asylum fund and development aid, as well as human rights promotion.
At a minimum, the larger numbers of populists will make bolder attempts to challenge the EU political system and disrupt parliamentary business. If they use speaking time and tabling of questions to disrupt debates and voting, the president of the Parliament will find it increasingly difficult to keep order and maintain momentum behind proceedings, which will slow down legislation and approval of policies and funding. They could also bring the whole institution into disrepute if the antics of demagogues and xenophobes dominate media coverage of the Parliament.
Early signs are that the populists will try to organize themselves to have more impact in the Parliament than in the past. Marine Le Pen has already declared she wants “to have a group, carry out amendments in plenary sessions and grant reports, all of which cannot be done when you are nonattached, especially if you are from the National Front.” UKIP won’t join her group, but others will. These parties disagree on many issues—from Israel to gay rights—but they are likely to vote together with UKIP and others on anti-migration and anti-EU measures.
The Parliament will be more fragmented overall, with the populists pulling many center-right MEPs further to the right, especially on migration. That will make the European Parliament more unpredictable as its party groups lack the kind of disciplinary measures used in national parliaments such as the whip system.
What Are the Implications for Policies That Help Keep Societies Open?
Five areas to watch for populist influence are:
- The Parliament has hitherto been a stronger supporter of Roma rights and social inclusion than reluctant member-states and Commissioners. The Parliament has pressed the Commission and national governments to maintain momentum on initiatives for Roma inclusion, in particular the National Roma Integration Strategies. It has also made EU funding available for NGOs to monitor implementation of national strategies, and for programmes to promote equality. Populist MEPs could try to stop the Parliament supporting such initiatives in future by pushing centre-right parties into opposing these initiatives.
- Through election observation missions and joint parliamentary committees, MEPs have an influence in other countries beyond their powers in the EU. Populist MEPs have recently used their positions to endorse flawed elections (Azerbaijan) and to promote the rights of ethnic Hungarians over those of Roma (Serbia). An increase in these MEPs is likely to further undermine the EU’s credibility and its leverage in promoting human rights in the rest of the world.
- The European Parliament will have to approve the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the EU would become more accountable to citizens if it were under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, anti-EU MEPs are likely to perceive it as giving greater powers to European institutions and favouring minorities – and so block it.
- The Parliament shares responsibility for approving the EU’s budget, so populist MEPs could try to steer EU funding away from causes such as equality and social inclusion for minority groups.
- Populists could attack key parts of the EU’s infrastructure that protects open societies that are up for review by the next Parliament, such as the returns directive on asylum-seekers, and the mandates of the Fundamental Rights Agency and the FRONTEX border agency.
What Can Supporters of the Open Society Do?
The open society needs much more public defense from its many quiet supporters in Europe. Protection of rights, freedoms, and diversity can no longer be taken for granted by all Europeans who have enjoyed a quarter-century of peace and tolerance. Problems are growing that can no longer be dismissed as a passing phenomenon because of the economic crisis.
There three areas where concerned Europeans could focus their efforts to pull energy away from blame and fear into positive action:
- Limit racism in the public debate: If many more populists start using the European Parliament to broadcast hate speech, the rise in racist rhetoric will also have an impact on national politics. How can we make it harder for populist parties to use political debate as a medium for hate speech and incitement to violence?
- Connect national and European politics: In both European and national politics, centrist parties are moving towards extremes, and anti-racism norms are being eroded. How could anti-racism and pro-tolerance norms be bolstered by bringing other voices into political debates?
- Look deeper into how European societies are changing. Research shows that there are many long-term trends behind the latest election results, particularly mistrust of elites, and dissatisfaction with public institutions and representative democracy. How can Europeans find fresh ideas to revitalise democratic life in their countries and make political institutions of all kinds more accountable to citizens?
In response to the populist threat, the centrist EPP, Social Democrats, and Liberals are likely to form a grand coalition to push through major votes where there is no ideological left/right divide—starting with the choice of the next president of the European Commission. This would mean more deals between the parties behind closed doors rather than in the public debate, which is not good for democracy.
If the mainstream parties use a grand coalition to maintain their status, citizens will ask why they bothered to vote. Instead, political leaders of the center should focus on reforming the EU and delivering the benefits of European integration to citizens by making progress on issues like services liberalization. Instead of hiding behind a grand coalition, they should open up public debates about the future of European society beyond Strasbourg and Brussels. And traditional parties need to get their act together on communicating through social media, especially to explain why the EU is useful.
They also need to defend the open society from rising intolerance and nationalism. The greatest benefit of living in Europe is personal freedoms that allow citizens to express their opinions, and choose lifestyles according to their values, preferences, and beliefs. The EU has helped to build an infrastructure of rights and rule of law that protect these benefits and foster tolerance and diversity. European societies are an extraordinary enabling environment for people to live and let live. To let these gains be eroded by the politics of fear and hate would be a tragedy.