Has Europe reached peak populism?
It may seem perverse, in the week when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) posted record scores in two regional elections, to even whisper that anti-EU populism may have peaked in Europe. Yet a series of events and votes in Italy, Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic suggest the tide could be turning against the anti-establishment nationalist movements that have upended politics across the Continent, leaving the barbarians howling in frustration at the gates.
That doesn’t mean that the social and economic distress that turned many working-class, rural and poorer voters against the traditional political parties, the parliamentary system and the European Union has gone away. But the populists seem unable to secure a majority for their radical, anti-European course almost anywhere.
The most obvious case is Italy. Former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose far-right League Party was sharing power uneasily with the anti-establishment 5Star Movement (M5S) in Western Europe’s first populist government, thought the country was ripe for a hard-right turn and pulled the plug on the coalition in mid-August, demanding an early election.
While “Il Capitano” toured the beaches, taking bare-chested selfies with supporters and breathing fire at Rome, his attempt to consolidate power collapsed. His erstwhile coalition partners held their noses and agreed to form a government with the mainstream, center-left Democratic Party instead. Italy has pulled back from the brink, at least for now, and is set to revert to more moderate, EU-friendly economic and migration policies.
In Spain too, populists of the far left and extreme right appear to be losing ground. Salvini’s failure has dented his party in opinion polls and raised first doubts about his leadership. But Italy’s wheel of fortune spins fast. The would-be strongman and master of social media may be back soon if the economy continues to flatline and the new coalition falters.
Given the chaotic state of U.K. politics, public fatigue at endless battles over Brexit and the unattractive hard-left alternative offered by the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson may yet manage to purge and reposition the Conservative Party as the true Brexit party and win a general election next month. But that looks less likely after his big gamble on suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit has faltered.
Meanwhile Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party crushed the Conservatives and beat Labour in the European Parliament election in May, may once again face the frustration of setting the Conservatives’ agenda but failing to achieve a breakthrough in the U.K. parliament.
Exhibit C is France, where President Emmanuel Macron looked to be in deep trouble six months ago with the grassroots anti-establishment Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Jackets) staging often violent demonstrations every Saturday and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally surging in the polls.
Now Macron is back in the saddle, most of the Yellow Jackets have gone home, at least for now, and Le Pen fell short of a game-changing victory in the European election. With unemployment falling and the economy holding up, populism seems to have hit its glass ceiling in France.
Austria’s coalition between conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) crashed and burned in May when the anti-immigrant movement’s leader was exposed on video offering contracts to a purported Russian businesswoman in exchange for illicit funding. Ejected from government, the FPÖ is still polling at around 20 percent but looks unlikely to return to power after this month’s snap general election. In Spain too, populists of the far left and extreme right appear to be losing ground as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist minority government gains in popularity.
In Germany, the AfD’s surge in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony left them still in opposition; all the mainstream parties seem determined to shut them out of power locally and nationally.
To be sure, ruling right-wing nationalist parties scored spectacular victories in the European Parliament election in Poland and Hungary and continue to defy EU censure over the rule of law and civil rights. But Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, may lose his absolute parliamentary majority in an October general election despite his popular combination of welfarism and Catholic nationalist social conservatism.
Meanwhile, fears of an illiberal populist wave sweeping the whole of Central Europe have proven overblown, with a liberal democrat winning the Slovakian presidential election and billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš facing mass protests over his alleged conflicts of interest. Still, mainstream politicians would be wrong to see the ebbing of the populist tide as a reason to relax. The underlying drivers of nationalist politics are still there.
The erosion of some of the foundations of 20th century European democracy — political parties, trade unions, religious communities and industrial jobs for life — has left societies more volatile. Growing income inequality, concerns about migration and the disruption of low-skilled jobs by globalization provide a continuing seed bed for the politics of nativist anger in Europe and in the United States.
And social media offers an instant outlet for all forms of protest, amplified by fake news and other manipulation. There’s also the fact that populists don’t need to be in power to set the agenda — especially on hot-button issues like immigration, where they have successfully shifted the discussion from how best to welcome refugees and integrate economic migrants to how to buttress “fortress Europe” and make it harder to enter the Continent — no matter how valid your claims to asylum. The tide may have broken, but there’s still plenty of mopping up to be done.