There are no populist governments in power in Western Europe. But populist parties are still on the rise, and their leaders are undeterred.
Since the first migrant wave in 2015, parties that were considered fringe in Western Europe began to gain in polls. The Alternative for Germany, the League in Italy, and the National Front in France, previously at less than 5%, started receiving double-digit percentages in elections to the surprise of many. They fought against a rising tide of mass immigration, which they said was destroying Europe’s identity, and they fought against dire economic conditions leading to low birthrates and youth without hope.
Despite their momentum, these movements have largely failed to attain power (except in Italy, where the League’s populist government collapsed in August). Establishment politicians still reign. The European Commission is governed by Ursula von der Leyen, the longest-serving Cabinet minister in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. The European Central Bank’s leadership will be replaced by Christine Lagarde, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (who was convicted for fraud after using government money to pay out a businessman but suffered no punishment). And more than three years after the Brexit vote in June 2016, the United Kingdom still hasn’t left the European Union.
The head of the conservative and anti-EU party Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet, told the Washington Examiner this failure is due to a lack of commitments by anti-establishment parties to overtake culture.
“Real power is not exclusively in Parliament, but in our schools, legal institutions, bureaucracies, editorial boards, TV shows, and so on,” he said.
Baudet says he is greatly inspired by the Italian left-wing philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who set out a theory where the Left was able to establish itself as the dominant ideology: “He understood the need of culture as an undercurrent. The globalist movement has been very successful in monopolizing this undercurrent.” Baudet claims the future of the movement rests in whether they will be able to become more than just a political party.
In the Latin countries of Europe, nationalism and populism are words used by the opposition to discredit the new conservative parties, but the opposition prefers to use the word “sovereignitism.”
The Spanish conservative leader of the populist party Vox, Santiago Abascal, told the Washington Examiner that despite some recent setbacks, he is optimistic about the future of the movement: “Europe continues to live in days of change, the oligarchs ruling our continent have not been able to articulate an answer to the problems facing Europe.” As a result, he believes their parties will continue to grow.
“This is no longer a marginal movement,” he added. Abascal stressed the need to return to the sovereignty of nations by giving power back to citizens to combat the Establishment’s globalizing policies. As long as this decision-making power rests in the hands of Brussels bureaucrats, it will be difficult for populist movements to attain power.
Francesca Donato, a representative for the League, a member of the European Parliament, and the head of the Eurexit group, told the Washington Examiner that the populist movement in Europe continues to grow in terms of public support, even though it remains outside the halls of power.
“In terms of my country, Italy, our party is stronger than ever. Outside the institutions, the people continue to give more and more support to us,” Donato said.
The rise of Greens in Germany and the previous Five Star Movement in Italy, with whom right-wing populist parties share many ideological positions, also show a demand for change. The problem rests in how these parties can become part of the system without compromising their principles. The leading populist Five Star Movement in Italy has largely betrayed what it stood for by allying with the center-left Partito Democratico (the equivalent of the U.S. Democratic Party) in order to remain in power when Italy’s government collapsed in August.
Europe’s populists could also question whether they should rely on President Trump for support. In America, national populism won the 2016 election, setting the stage for his equivalents to do the same in Europe. But the Trump’s administration new tariffs on several European governments are raising questions on whether American national populism is mutually exclusive with Europe’s equivalent.
While populist leaders in Europe showed support for Trump’s win, Trump hasn’t always reciprocated. In August, Trump welcomed the new Italian government at the expense of Italy’s populist leader. Despite this, European leaders continue to see Trump as a strategic ally.
“The United States is a friend, even if it does not necessarily share our same interests. I’m happy Donald Trump won against Hillary Clinton overall. On the main issues, I think he is right,” Baudet said, adding how “immigration, the threat of Chinese products being dumped on our markets, [Trump’s] emphasis on new geostrategic relationships with the Middle East and Russia are all issues I agree with, but I also think he is operating in a complex playing field.”
Abascal also shared a similar viewpoint, where he supports the president but understands the interests of America come first for Trump: “Trump is the president of the United States of America, not the world, and therefore will always [represent] the interests of Americans. It is pure common sense.” Abascal argues that defending the sovereignty of nations above the interests of international elites and multinational corporations is what he wants for Spain too.
Donato said she believes Trump supported Italy’s new government at the expense of populist Matteo Salvini for purely diplomatic reasons. “The League continues to have the support of the Trump administration in terms of content — the fact he supported Giuseppe Conte when they met is normal, as a leader of an allied country,” she said.
Populism in Europe grows among the people but diminishes among those in power. Having public support is not enough. The Establishment that has run Europe for decades is not handing over the keys and is ready to ignore popular cries for change. As a result, Europe’s national populists are making new plans to attain power and see America as an example of what might await them. Time will tell whether they will be able to succeed.
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