Populism is back
European voters are once again fighting back against a distant, globalist establishment.
I’m sitting in a bar at the Place du Luxembourg, near the European Parliament in Brussels. My two drinking companions are policy advisers who work with members of the mainstream conservative European People’s Party (EPP). They really don’t like what I have to say.
I point to the remarkable success in the Netherlands of the Farmer-Citizen Movement, the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), in last month’s provincial elections. This agrarian political movement came from nowhere and is now so popular that it has more than double the provincial seats of the nearest party to it. Suddenly, the BBB is on course to become the largest party in the Dutch senate, when its local representatives appoint senate members next month.
Then I move on to the rise of the Finns Party in Finland. In last weekend’s parliamentary elections, the Finns Party came second and its leader, Riikka Purra, received more constituency votes than any of the other party leaders. The large percentage of young people voting for the Finns Party suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, populism is not confined to older voters.
I can tell that my drinking companions are getting fed up, so I resist the temptation to remind them that in nearby Flanders – a stone’s throw from where we are sitting – the party currently topping the polls is the separatist Vlaams Belang (Flemish Movement). I also make no mention of the fact that the Freedom Party of Austria now has a clear lead in the polls. I say nothing about the Sweden Democrats, which emerged as the second most popular party in Sweden’s election last September. Nor do I dare remind them that Giorgia Meloni’s populist Brothers of Italy party secured the highest vote share of any single party in Italy’s recent election that same month. There is no point in rubbing salt into this open existential wound.
However, what I do want to tell them is that their friends running the European People’s Party risk losing touch with political realities. Having embraced the prejudices of the mainstream media, they tend to regard populism as nothing more than a scourge on the political landscape. Often, it seems that what establishment parties want to do is place these upstart parties and their voters under quarantine and prevent them from participating in political life. The EPP, just like its centre-right and green cousins in the EU, wants to create a populist-free world.
This was much in evidence during and soon after the Covid pandemic. Mainstream political parties and their friends in the media hoped that most people had become so scared of the pandemic that they would reject radical movements and instead support the ‘sensible’, mainstream technocratic blob.
‘Populism has been a victim of the pandemic’, declared The Times in January 2022. ‘The Great Reset: support for populist politics “collapsed” globally during the Covid pandemic’, ran a headline in SciTechDaily around the same time. ‘Populist politics lost support globally during the pandemic’, asserted CNBC in January last year, breathing an audible sigh of relief.
The numerous reports of populism’s demise have turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Before I can explain why the movements challenging the old political establishment throughout Europe are here to stay, one of my companions turns to me, points her finger at my face and exclaims: ‘You really are a populist, aren’t you?’ She seems to expect that I will respond defensively and avoid associating myself with the P-word. When I nod in response to her question, she asks how an educated author and former university professor like me could possibly call myself a populist.
My response is simple: ‘I am a populist because I believe in democracy and in the capacity of the people to make the right choices.’ I try to point out that my companions’ animosity towards what they label ‘populism’ may be explained by their psychological distance from the lives of working people. I say that, in some cases, anti-populism is a symptom of demosphobia – a fear of the demos, or the people. They look at me with incredulity. I can tell I am not getting through to them.
We have reached an impasse. In my view, this is because of the gulf that separates the worldview of globalist-oriented elites and how the great majority of people understand their predicament. For their part, my companions believe that I ‘simply don’t get the complexities of our 21st-century world’. Apparently, my commitment to popular and national sovereignty shows a lack of sophistication and reveals my inability to keep up with the times. Although they don’t say it, they probably imagine that my support for populism is proof that I am a chauvinist, if not a xenophobe. Thankfully, they are too polite to denounce me as ‘far right’, at least to my face.
Despite disagreements like this, I am committed to continuing such conversations to ensure that more people can break out of the Brussels echo chamber.
Since I started working in Brussels, I have been continually reminded of how most Eurocrats live entirely within this echo chamber, seeing everyone outside it as unenlightened and backward. This anti-sovereigntist technocracy, outwardly arrogant but inwardly psychologically insecure, is itself a threat to democracy and the spirit that sustains it. Eurocrats’ globalist outlook instinctively sneers at national culture and traditional values. They regard patriotism and loyalty to the nation with deep contempt. If they had their way, then the very values that constitute the foundation of European civilisation would be under threat. As things stand, the only obstacle that stands in the way of this globalist project is the rise of populism across various nations.
Many of the attitudes associated with populism reflect what political philosopher Hannah Arendt characterises as the search for pre-political authority. That is why the family, the home, community solidarity and the nation are so significant for the populist movement. This quest to gain meaning through pre-political solidarity is frequently expressed through affirming traditional family and community life, religion and patriotism. This attempt to reorient the basis of political morality cuts directly against the grain of the postmodern cultural norms that prevail in the Brussels bubble.
Should the populist project gain further ground and succeed in influencing the younger generations, then there is the potential for something new and exciting. This will not happen spontaneously. These new movements are still finding their feet. They are yet to turn their ideals into a strategic vision. They still need to connect the people’s aspiration for solidarity and community to a political outlook oriented toward the future.
All of this, like the populist movement itself, is only just getting started.
Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.
Picture by: Getty.