Europe's Turning Right -- Here's Why
The consolidation of national populism in Western democracies
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Liberals have fundamentally failed to respond to the populist revolts that erupted in 2016. That’s the conclusion you’d draw were you to take a look at the latest election results and polls in Europe —where nearly a decade on from the shock votes for Brexit and Donald Trump in America national populism is reaching new heights.
In the Netherlands, most recently, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom enjoyed their best ever election result, topping the polls with almost 24% of the vote. In Germany —where academics once cheered on the ‘Green surge’ and proclaimed the populist tide was over— the Greens have flopped while the Alternative for Germany is second in the polls, on its way to being the strongest force in the East of the country.
In Sweden, too, the Sweden Democrats just enjoyed their strongest ever result, polling over 20% of the national vote and now effectively running the government through a confidence and supply agreement. In Finland, too, the Finns Party just enjoyed a new record result, polling 20% before joining a ruling coalition government.
In France, Marine Le Pen, now leader of the second largest party in the National Assembly, is comfortably ahead in polls for the 2024 European Parliament elections and could, quite plausibly, become the next president of France in 2027—especially if the onslaught from Islamist terror and mass immigration continues.
In Austria, the Freedom Party, the original trendsetter for national populists, has now fully recovered from a damaging scandal and is once again back as the leading force in national polls. In Spain, support for Vox just dipped but the party is still, remarkably, present in eighteen of the country’s nineteen regional parliaments and is now helping to run five of them. And in Portugal, where there’s an election next year, Chega is now polling third nationally, significantly up on its result at the last election.
Elsewhere, it’s much the same. Italy remains firmly in the hands of Georgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy continues to dominate the polls. Law and Justice in Poland recently lost power but it was not exactly a heavy defeat, while in Hungary Viktor Orbán is still, comfortably, topping the polls. Britain might be one of the few Western democracies without a successful populist party and, if I’m right, is on its way to electing a Labour government. But even there something is bubbling beneath the surface, with Nigel Farage’s Reform party now picking up in the polls.
Across the European Union as a whole, meanwhile, where some 400 million voters will elect a new European Parliament next year, the latest polls point to big gains for the national populist ‘Identity and Democracy’ group, which is forecast to jump from being the fifth to the third largest group in the parliament, as well gains for the European Conservatives and Reformists group, which includes Meloni.
And further afield, while voters in Argentina just swung behind the strongly anti-socialist, anti-elite populist Javier Milei, and voters in Australia firmly rejected an elite-backed proposal to wire woke identity politics into the constitution, in America Donald Trump remains in a strong position in both the national and state polls, which suggest he could yet have a second term in the White House. It’s not hard to see, in other words, 2024 delivering as many shocks as 2016.
So what’s going on? Many on the left will tell you the resurgence of national populism is merely another symptom of the post-Covid financial crisis, with inflation driving a largely unprecedented cost-of-living crisis and undermining living standards. They have a point. If you look at all the elections that have been held around the world since inflation peaked —as I told a company’s annual conference recently— then the general story, from France to Sweden, from Argentina to Italy, is incumbent governments being punished by voters, either finding themselves kicked out of office or finding their political power dramatically weakened.
But on a deeper level, the resurgence of national populism is clearly about much more than just inflation. As I argued in my book National Populism, published in 2018 and written with Roger Eatwell, this was always going to become a much stronger and sustainable force than its critics were willing to accept. Why? Because of how four deep-rooted currents in Western democracies are now colliding to carve out considerable space for movements which seek to prioritise the interests, the culture, the values, and the ways of life of the majority group against what they see as self-interested, corrupt, narcissistic, and incompetent elites.
So, if you really want to make sense of what’s unfolding across Europe and why I still think this is only the start rather than the end of another major populist rebellion then you need to take a step back, make sense of these four currents and grasp why, as I’m about tell you, they’ve only become even stronger since 2016 …