Populism in Europe? It’s not that popular and it’s a Fad Erik Jones

Since Brexit there has been much made of the rise of populism. There has been a perception that populism is on the rise across Europe since the financial crash of 2008. Much of the media reported on Brexit, UKIP, the rise of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and Norbert Hofer in Austria. But is populism really on the rise in Europe or has it had its last hurrah? 

The media has been reporting an increase of populist movements in European member states. If Nigel Farage, Nigel Lawson, Michael Gove and many others on the anti -European side are to be believed, then Brexit was the first step to dismantling the EU. Populism has come in many guises over the centuries.[1]

A modern definition of populism was offered by Cas Muddle of the University of Georgia in 2004 who defined it as the people against a corrupt elite. He described this as the “thin ideology” which can be bolted onto a “thick” ideology such as socialism, nationalism or racism.[2] Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others have described themselves as nationalists fighting for the ordinary people against multiculturalism, immigration and Europeanism. These particular political figures would like to see the dismantling of the European Union.

Over 2016 and 2017 there have been a number of elections and referenda- the Swiss referendum on citizenship, the Austrian Presidential election and Finnish local elections have all taken place. But one of two seismic political events in Europe in recent times was Brexit. In the UK, David Cameron decided that it was time to have a referendum on the leaving the European Union. Of his reasons we can only speculate. Some have argued it was to placate eurosceptic Conservative MPs, eighty-one of whom had, in 2011, led a backbench rebellion to vote in favour of an EU referendum despite a three-line whip. Arguably, Cameron had never expected to win an outright majority in the 2015 general election, and the pledge for an EU referendum was therefore a means to bring about the most temporary of party unities- one that would be dropped immediately once in coalition.There certainly wasn’t an overwhelming public demand for a referendum. There wasn’t an incremental increase of UKIP MPs putting pressure on the Tory Government or the previous Labour one. There were no serious demonstrations in the streets. There were no security threats from France or Germany, Britain’s historic enemies. There was no imminent economic collapse. Despite all these things not happening, Britain held the referendum anyway and the Leave side won… just.

Since June 24th, we have read about Le Pen of the National Front, Wilders of the Freedom Party, Alternative for Germany and 5 Star in Italy, just to name a few. We have seen reports of how populism is on the rise across the whole of Europe. The European Union is under existential threat.[3] We’re going to destroy the EU say some.[4] Really?

In the UK, Vote Leave triumphed in England by 6% and in Wales by 5%. They lost in Scotland by 24% and in Northern Ireland by 11.6%.  Across the UK as a whole Vote Leave won by a slim margin of 3.8 per cent.[5] It’s hardly a landslide. The areas where Vote Leave won its highest percentage of the vote were some of the most deprived areas in the UK.[6] Areas such as Stoke, Stafford and Sunderland are suffering from Tory austerity, eighties privatisation, zero hour contracts and the gig economy. Vote Leave argued that the people in those areas have been left behind by globalisation[7] and it was all the EU’s fault. However, though people voted to leave the EU, it didn’t mean they support a populist party.

In March 2017 there were two Parliamentary by-elections in Britain- one in Stoke-on-Trent and another in Copeland. UKIP did not win either of these seats. UKIP polled fewer votes than the Liberal Democrats in Copeland and were beaten by the Labour Party in Stoke on Trent.[8] UKIP is supposedly on the crest of the biggest wave they could ever have, but they still can’t capitalise on this success. Before the recent 2017 election, UKIP had contested six general elections with a total of 2,321 attempts at getting a candidate elected. Only Douglas Carswell of Clacton and Mark Reckless of Rochester and Strood had succeeded and both left the party.

UKIP does not send any representatives to Westminster, Holyrood or Stormont. Holyrood and Stormont are elected under a proportional representative system and they still fail to get elected. The only chamber in which UKIP has members is the Welsh Assembly where they have six members from the list. Maybe they peaked. But the recent British General election would seem to indicate that they have collapsed completely. Following their electoral performance, UKIP’s fourth leader, Paul Nuttall, resigned.

The electoral failure of UKIP goes against the perception that secular nationalism or populism is on the rise across Europe. UKIP’s difficulties on the electoral front have been mirrored across the continent. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party was presented as the right-wing candidate who was going to become the largest party in the Dutch Parliament and free the Netherlands from the tyranny of the EU.[9]

The victorious party was VVD, or the Liberal Party. Led by Mark Rutte, they won 33 seats, compared to the 20 seats taken by Wilders’ PVV which are being sidelined by the rest of the Dutch Parliament.[10] There are 150 seats in the chamber. Other parties to gain seats in this Dutch election are the Christian Democrats, the Greens and D66 (Liberals). These parties are pro-European. If the seats of all the centre/centre left parties are added together they have 85 seats.[11] The pro-European vote increased from 2012.

The turnout at the Dutch election was 82%- the highest for 30 years. Wilders wanted the Dutch people to come out and vote. They did. Wilders may not have been on the receiving end of an electoral drubbing, but the Dutch people did vote against him and his populist ideals. The Freedom Party only polled 13 per cent of the overall vote and has not reached the heights of 2010 when they won 24 seats. In the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel it was “a very pro-European result” and a “good day for democracy.”[12]

There have been five further major political events in the EU since June 2016: the Swiss referendum on citizenship; the Austrian Presidential election; the Finnish municipal elections; the French Presidential election; and the British General Election. 

Switzerland held a referendum on easing third generation immigrants’ path to citizenship. Immigrants have to be living in Switzerland for 12 years before they can receive citizenship, and their children do not receive automatic citizenship rights even if they are born in Switzerland. The changes were to make the path to citizenship easier for third generation immigrants. The right-wing party, the People’s Party, objected to these changes on the grounds of cultural dilution and the potential of trouble makers entering Switzerland. The People’s Party stand for tightening controls on immigration and gaining citizenship, and were accused of being anti-Islamic during the referendum.[13] The Swiss people voted in favour of the changes to allow the path to citizenship being simplified and rejected the People’s Party stance on citizenship and immigration.

Austria held the final round of voting on electing the President. The President’s office is largely ceremonial and does not hold power of foreign affairs and other high political issues. Nonetheless the President’s office is still influential on the domestic front. The candidates in the run-off were Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-European and the anti-European Norbert Hofer, who wanted to hold a referendum on the European Union membership. The final was due to take place in May 2016 with Van der Bellen winning by 0.6%. Due to irregularities in the postal vote the Austrian Constitutional vote ruled that the final round should be rerun. The December rerun was tipped to be a similar result with Van der Bellen winning by a narrow margin. While the Austrian people selected Alexander Van der Bellen for a second time, the result was not the same. In December’s rerun Van der Bellen won by 7.6%. Hofer’s votes were down by nearly 100,000.

Finland held their municipal elections in April this year. The anti-European party, the Finns Party was swept aside in the results. The Finn’s Party vote was reduced by 3.5% to 8.8%, with a loss of 425 seats.  The openly pro-European parties polled 88% of the vote.

There are many media outlets who claim that the EU is about to collapse, but we’ve had similar stories in the past regarding the single currency. “The Euro is days away from collapsing”; “the single currency is coming to an end”[14] were the choice headlines of the day in 2012. The Euro is still around despite all the pessimistic reports of the time. The real litmus test for the European Union was the recent French Presidential election. The two main candidates in the race were Emmanuel Macron of le Marche and Marine Le Penn of the National Front. Le Penn went into this election in buoyant mood with Brexit and her continually increasing popularity in the polls. However recent electoral history was not on her side and it continued in that vein with her hopes being crushed in an election that changed the landscape of French Politics.

Le Penn succeeded in getting through to the second round where she faced the newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who convincingly defeated her. Macron, with 66 per cent of the vote,[15] took the Élysée Palace and became France’s youngest President with a party which was less than one year old and never having held elected office before.

Since then the National Front’s vote has tanked just like UKIP’s as they won a meagre seven seats in the recent National Assembly elections. This is not Presidential level support. The NF has gone from winning 34 per cent of the presidential vote to the smallest party in the National Assembly in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, Macron’s new party, now rebranded Le Republique en Marche (LReM), has succeeded in winning an absolute majority with 361 seats in the National Assembly. Just a few short months ago LReM and the NF were Presidential rivals.

Just like the NF in France, the populist parties across Europe have disappeared off the radar now that the elections have passed. These parties do not have any discernible power, they do not have policies of substance nor do they have the charisma to maintain their presence. Had Le Penn won the French election the EU would have been in danger, regardless of the pro-European vote in other countries. But she didn’t win and probably won’t in the future. The rise of Populism across Europe was exaggerated by an out of date form of media and the EU’s existential crisis was misleading and overstated. In fact, the opposite has occurred as Europe’s capitals (with the exception of London) are now discussing deeper integration fiscally and militarily.

Macron is an unabashed European and supports the European Project. Though he does say the Union needs to be reformed. Some of his reforms include a central budget for the Eurozone and a parliament for the Eurozone. This would require deeper and further integration between the nations of the EU if they are approved. There has been movement on the military front with the sanctioning of a budget which will allow the EU to procure military equipment for the first time. The EU has also set up a military headquarters earlier in the year. It is a matter of irony that the event that was perceived as the catalyst for destroying the EU, Brexit, may now be the event that triggers the road to Federalism.

The UK was a consistent opponent of a European military as the British saw a European force as unnecessary duplication of NATO.[16] With the recent election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the USA and his uncommitted stance to NATO, Europe has decided to move forward with the creation of a European military. With the recent conflict in the Ukraine it has become clear that the military powers of Britain and France are no longer real military power. The EU stepping forward and take on a more pro-active role on this front.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President speaking in Prague at the unveiling of a new multi-billion Euro plan to help fund European Defence research, “I see the tide turning.” He was referring to the growing support for military co-operation in Europe’s capitals, specifically Paris.[17] European leaders are due to discuss defence plans at summit in Brussels on 22-23 June 2018, ironically on the anniversary of Brexit. France, Germany and Italy want to look at ways that they can integrate, finance and collaborate more on the military front.[18]

Angela Merkel after the recent G7 get together declared that the USA and UK are no longer reliable allies and that Europe must control its own future.[19] Merkal and Macron are now seen as the new Franco-German axis to drive the continent forward. But Merkal faces her own electorate in September. The Alternative Right for Germany is likely to win seats in the Bundestag for the first time. Under a proportional representative system this was probably inevitable. The AfD stand on a German nationalist, anti-Islamic and economically liberal platform, but are unlikely to win enough seats in the Bundestag to cause concern. They are likely to gain seats from the list vote. But will it be Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz who will be Chancellor? It is most likely to be Merkel and with her stance on asylum seekers, immigration and the EU being polar opposite to that of the AfD, and Merkel’s re-election will be the final nail in the coffin of the so-called populist movement in Europe.

Over the past year much has been said about anti Europeanism, populism, Brexit, Frexit, Oxit and every other (e)xit. This period is the last hurrah of populism- its dying squeals, the final heaving of a jurassic attitude.  The younger generations want to travel and study abroad, experience new cultures, broaden their horizons, learn a language and (god forbid) marry a foreigner. It is doubtful that these populists will get to do any real or lasting damage to the EU. 

In the recent British election, the Conservative Party was on the receiving end of what the British called an “electoral kicking.” The Tories were so arrogant that they went into an election to gain a larger majority and ended up losing the slim majority they did have. It’s also being dubbed the “Revenge of the Young.” The polls suggest that the younger voters in the UK are more pro-European than the elder generation and that they are angry and frustrated with being ignored by the political system. The British Election the figures suggest that younger voters turned out in higher numbers than usual.

Euroscepticism may have won the day in England and Wales but is has not prevailed or gained power in other parts of Europe. Europe has come out of this period in-tact and stronger than ever. There has been an increase in the pro-European vote across mainland Europe, an unabashed pro-European elected to the French Presidency and the continued popularity of Angela Merkel has dispelled the so-called Threat of Populism in Germany.

On the economic front the Eurozone countries are now experiencing an upturn in fortunes. The GDP of the Eurozone is expected to grow by 1.7% this year and unemployment has fell to the lowest level since May 2009.[20] At the peak of the economic crash, unemployment in the eurozone was 12.1%. It is now at 9.5% for the nineteen nations in the eurozone.[21] Macron is looking to reform the French economy and with his experience in the Finance Ministry and his previous career he should be able to initiate reforms, what those reforms look like only time will tell.

If Merkel wins the next election, which it looks like she will, then she may relax the austerity measures in the southern states, mainly Greece. There has never been a time where austerity has created economic prosperity. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s both the UK and the USA cut their budgets. Over the next ten years both countries stagnated economically. It was not until FDR’s New Deal and Britain re-armed for war did either of these countries come out of recession. Spending money gets a country out of recession. If the austerity measures in Greece are relaxed then Greece may begin to prosper, making the Eurozone stronger. The economic future of the EU is looking up just as “Great” Britain begins talks to leave the bloc.

The EU will come out of this period stronger and more unified than ever before and a lot more confident in its future negotiations. Not sure how that will work out for the UK in Brexit talks. Apparently, according to Farage, they need us more than we need them. And what about Populism? What Populism?


[1] John Lichfield, “EU referendum: Would Brexit destroy the European Union?” The Independent www.independent.co.uk 21st June 2016.

[2] The Economist Explains, “What is Populism?” www.economist.com, 19th December 2016.

[3] Daniel Boffey, “Rising Euro scepticism ‘poses existential threat to EU’” The Guardian Newspaper 3rd March 2016.

[4] John Lichfield, “EU referendum: Would Brexit Destroy the European Union?” The Independent Newspaper, 21st June 2016.

[5] BBC News – referendum results.

[6] Mike Kelly, “North East unemployment still the worst in the UK,  figures reveal” The Chronicle Live, 20 July 2016. 

[7] Kate Allen, “Theresa May makes plea the those ‘left behind’ by globalisation” The Financial Times, 20th September 2016.

[8] Andrew Sparrow, “By-elections: Labour defeated by Tories in Copeland, but win in Stoke” The Guardian, 23rd February 2017

[9] Vickie Oliphant “Now for Nexit: Geert Wilders says FIRST job as PM will be to call a EU referendum” The Express, 9th February 2017.

[10] Matthew Weaver, Claire Phipps, Alexandra Topping, Hanna Yusuf, “Dutch elections: Rutte starts coalition talks after beating Wilders into second – as it happened.” www.guardian.com, 16th March 2017

[11] Matthew Weaver, Claire Phipps, Alexandra Topping, Hanna Yusuf, “Dutch elections: Rutte starts coalition talks after beating Wilders into second – as it happened.” www.guardian.com, 16th March 2017

[12] Matthew Weaver, Claire Phipps, Alexandra Topping, Hanna Yusuf, “Dutch elections: Rutte starts coalition talks after beating Wilders into second – as it happened.” www.guardian.com, 16th March 2017

[13] AFP News agency, “Swiss referendum on citizenship after anti-Muslim row.” www.aljazeera.com, 12th February 2017.

[14] John Lichfield, “Review of the eurozone in 2012: A crisis of debt and identity” Independent, www.independent.co.uk. 22nd December 2012.

[15] Murdoch, J. Ehrenberg-Shannon, B. Wisniewska, A. “French Election Results: Macron’s Victory in Charts”, www.ft.com, accessed 20/6/2017

[16] Muller, Robert. “Warning of U.S. desertion, EU chief calls for European defense”

[17] Muller, Robert. “Warning of U.S. desertion, EU chief calls for European defense”

[18] Muller, Robert. “Warning of U.S. desertion, EU chief calls for European defense”

[19] Yew, L.K. “Macron and Merkel can make Europe great again”

[20] Allen, K. “Brighter skies over Eurozone as growth and employment pick up” www.guardian .com, accessed 19/6/2017

[21] Business News “Eurozone Unemployment Falls to more than a 7 year low” www.thestar.com, accessed 19/6/2017