The Fate of European Populism

The Fate of European Populism

In recent years, anti-establishment and anti-immigration populism has unsettled Western and Central Europe. Leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Jörg Haider in Austria, Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini in Italy, Christoph Blocher in Switzerland, and the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands pushed themselves onto center stage in politics. For longer or shorter periods, some were in power. Movements once lodged securely on the far right were thus able to engage a mass electorate and challenge a political establishment that seemed unable to address the fears of ordinary Europeans. Although the political success of right-wing populist parties has ebbed over time-and especially after their failing performances in government-their impact on “intellectual” discourse and the political-cultural climate of Europe remains.

This unprecedented impact of right-wing populism derives from a political identity crisis across Europe. The disruptive effects of globalization and the retrenchment of welfare states have been accompanied by fundamental changes in the party systems. The older mass parties that have ruled most of the region since the end of the Second World War-the Christian or Conservative Democrats and the Social Democrats-have lost members, voters, élan, and a monopoly on ideas. Because they are in most countries the pillars of the parliamentary system and the welfare state, their slow but steady decline affects European societies as a whole. At the same time the classical ideological left/right cleavage gave way to unprecedented and unexpected coalitions and cohabitation of former political enemies. This produced political spaces for outsiders who railed against the political establishment.

Another complicating factor might be called the paradox of the Holocaust trauma. Europeans seem unable to cope with ethnic diversity. Intellectual discourse was long characterized by a species of political correctness that praised “the foreigner” for enriching society while turning a blind eye to the de facto segregation of many new immigrants and the stresses they placed on social welfare systems. These circumstances did much to provoke populist-xenophobic reactions. Consequently, Europe faces two dilemmas: how to maintain communitarian welfare states under conditions of ongoing immigration and whether the ethnic future of Europe will be characterized more by multiculturalism or assimilation.

There is also widespread unease over the process of European integration. What should have been a proud achievement of cosmopolitan cooperation between nations has become, instead, a cause of insecurity and alienation. Despite the claims of Eurocrats in Brussels, many people see the European Union not as the shield against, but as the “ugly face” of globalization because of its one-sided market liberal approach. Ten states, mostly from the ex-Soviet bloc, are about to join, and their impa...