19 May 2014

Brussels teeters as Europe’s populists catch the mood of the day

The boisterous tide of populism is the story of this year’s Euro elections.

The last election took place in 2009, and that makes this the first taking of the people’s pulse after years of economic trauma and austerity.

This election was always going to be interesting but it threatens to become seismic. There is now a real prospect that political parties that believe in the dismantling of the EU will become a dominant voice in its parliament.

Even if their numbers don’t dominate, they will have the power to define the debate and set the mood. The Strasbourg chamber may be about to become the host for a virus that seeks its destruction.

The themes that unite France’s National Front, Holland’s Freedom Party, Ukip or Denmark’s People’s Party – to name but a few – is not just a growing distrust of Brussels as a meddling outside power, but disenchantment with established politics, a fear of globalisation, anger at large corporations and the gaping chasm between the 1 per cent and just about everybody else.

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It is a pungent yet murky soup of disgruntlement flavoured by what has become the defining crisis of our age: the plight of the middle class. That is the seed bed for the politics of protest.

Meanwhile politicians everywhere, especially ones that are actually in power, grapple with solutions. America produced the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left. Both are different answers to the same problem. One has already vanished. The other is shaping the Republican party. Both are by-products of the Great Recession.

In Europe there are the common themes. But every populist party comes dressed up in a bespoke national costume. Hungary’s Jobbik party has a paramilitary unit with scary-looking caps and insignia and an alarming propensity for anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric in a neighbourhood where eastern European prejudices from a dark and distant era have proved particularly stubborn.

Germany’s Alternative for Germany party was founded by a bunch of Eurosceptic economics professors who combine high-minded opposition to the euro as a misguided monetary experiment with the baseline lingo of the Stammtisch, the table of (disgruntled) regulars you can find in any Kneipe or bar.

But unlike Britain’s Ukip, they are adamant that Germany should only leave the euro not the EU, and they worry that the current austerity medicine prescribed by Berlin to patients in Athens, Madrid or Rome will merely cause an anti-German backlash and undo years of post-war healing. In other words, the Alternative for Germany displays a very German angst.

But they do want to limit its powers, and their two biggest rallying cries are a drastic cut in immigration and the absolute protection of the welfare state, especially for the elderly. Their supporters hate “welfare tourism”, although they are somewhat fuzzy about the actual numbers. Their support and their language reminded me as much of Ukip as it did of the Tory right.

And in Denmark’s case it is the country’s ruling Social Democrats, the traditional party of welfare, that has most to fear. Like France’s National Front, the People’s Party has gone through a process of careful grooming since it was first created in 1995.

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Morten Messerschmidt, its star candidate in the Euro election, is a 33-year-old politician with a name straight out of Scandinavian crime fiction and the blond looks out of a glossy marketing journal. He also has the best eyebrows in modern politics. Although the veneer came off very quickly when I asked him about his views on immigration and Denmark’s small Muslim minority. These populists love a good political fight but they hate being grilled by the ghastly mainstream media (that would be us).

There are two things that struck me. In most European countries the established parties are scared of the new populist kids on the block because they are in a position to steal much-needed votes in national elections, but also because they know that by attacking these parties head-on they are offending many of their own voters. The populists have caught the mood of the day, and the only medicine against that kind of anger is results.

Before Europe’s economies improve and people feel the warmth, the populists will continue to swell their support. One thing that will curtail their strength is they are unlikely to act as a block. In their desire for respectability, the populist parties are very keen to distance themselves from each other. Ukip calls the Le Pen’s National Front racist, Marine Le Pen’s calls Hungary’s Jobbik party objectionable, and Germany’s AdF thinks Ukip is too rabble-rousing and unsophisticated.

They won’t be forming a disciplined voting block any time soon. However, the post-WWII assumptions on which the ever closer union of Europe was founded have been blown apart, and that is the real challenge for Brussels.

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2 reader comments

  1. Russell says:

    In Italy there is general disenchantment with most mainstream political parties. But this gap got filled with populist rabble-rouser Beppe Grillo and his Cinque-Stelle followers — already elected to a few local and national seats.
    His anti-EU and even anti-euro stance appeals to the ignorant (at the moment, many).
    Serious voters will therefore vote traditionally in order to block Grillo’s access to Bruxelles and limit the spread of his semi-Fascist tendencies. But the main anxiety is a large abstentionism, from North to South this Sunday.

  2. Andrew Dundas says:

    Voters sense that the EU Parliament is a kind of fraud. One that’s inconsistent with the intentions of the EU. Perhaps they’re right?

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