Populism in Europe and Its Russian Love Affair

2017-01-19

Executive Summary

Populists are increasingly dominating politics in Europe. This paper provides an overview of the populist landscape in Europe, including its history, its ideological underpinnings on both the political left and right, and the factors that have contributed to its resurgence.Although populism often responds to real grievances, it rarely offers credible policy solutions. Instead, as the examples of Poland and Hungary suggest, when populists accede to power, they can succumb to authoritarian tendencies, weakening institutional constraints on that power, including the traditional checks of the judiciary and civil society. The rise of populism is of immediate practical interest to US policymakers. Europe’s populists routinely channel subversive Russian propaganda and help erode Europeans’ trust in the EU, NATO, and liberal democratic politics at large. Some of them even have financial ties to the Kremlin.

To rise to the populist challenge, Europe’s political elites need to do more than just pursue their traditional strategy of isolating and delegitimizing populists. Instead, they have to offer policy solutions that resonate with their electorates and address the grievances that are currently driving voters into the open arms of populist charlatans. The United States can help, too—most importantly by holding its European friends and allies to high standards of democracy and rule of law, helping them combat Russian disinformation, and fostering greater economic openness and dynamism.

Introduction

In 2016, Western politics were shaken by two events of potentially historic importance: the Brexit campaign’s success in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. Both appear to be symptoms of a dramatic political realignment transforming Western politics beyond recognition. Instead of the traditional divide between the political left and right, a new cleavage has emerged between centrist establishment forces and those who are challenging the status quo from populist positions.

For example, Trump has attracted the support of many disenchanted voters who previously supported Democratic presidential candidates. On matters of economic and trade policy, his rhetoric often mimicked that of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the far-left candidate who lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. In the UK, the campaign to leave the EU united the populist right and the antiestablishment segments of the Labour Party.1 While its conservative and libertarian critics saw the EU as synonymous with overregulation, redistribution, and socialism, its left-wing enemies saw it as a vehicle for neoliberal reforms lacking democratic accountability or transparency.

European electorates, traditionally apathetic toward the EU, are growing more receptive to the implicit or explicit rejection of the European project integration at heart of the current antiestablishment backlash. The common European currency and European institutions at large are blamed for Europe’s poor economic performance since the 2008 global economic downturn. The 2015 refugee crisis, together with the wave of terror attacks that struck Paris, Brussels, and Nice, has amplified the existing anxieties over immigration and has given birth to a narrative that associates the EU with an unqualified endorsement of open borders.

Populists often contrast ineffective policies of European leaders, the cumbersome functioning of EU institutions, and the woes facing the European project with Vladimir Putin’s strong and decisive leadership and his embrace of traditional values. Worse yet, they oppose policies aimed at curbing Russia’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Populism’s simultaneous resurgence across Europe and the Kremlin’s efforts to assert its dominance in the post-Soviet space belie any illusions that may have once existed about the inevitable triumph of democratic capitalism in Europe or about Europe “whole and free.”

In response, mainstream politicians might be tempted to counter populism by embracing some elements of populist agendas, such as tighter immigration restrictions or government control of the economy aimed at protecting domestic jobs.2 To some extent, that reaction is understandable. The grievances driving today’s populist revolt are real and cannot be ignored. However, it would be a mistake to use those grievances to justify policies that would damage economic performance further, undermining the sense that existing political and economic institutions are able to deliver widely shared prosperity.

Before any strategy can be devised to counter populism, it is necessary to understand it. The term “populism” is vague and refers to both political strategies and styles, as well as to policy platforms. In the former sense, populism is a matter of degree—all political messages, wherever they come from, “are adapted to what one assumes voters want to hear.”3

Populist narratives can be found on the left and the right. Their narratives overlap significantly: both left- and right-wing populists stress the silent majority’s anger that has been betrayed or left behind by a self-serving, out-of-touch elite.4 The specifics differ across countries and include the capture of politics by the financial industry or big business, austerity policies, stagnating incomes and loss of employment, too much political correctness and inability to respond to security threats, or immigration in general.

Notes

  1. The campaign Labour Leave, led by Kate Hoey, was a part of the Vote Leave campaign ahead of the June referendum. While the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stated his support of the UK’s continued membership, he refused to campaign openly in favor of Remain. See, for example, Chris Spillane, “Corbyn Hit with Claims of Brexit Sabotage,” Politico, June 26, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/corbyn-hit-with-claims-of-brexit-sabotage-labour/.
  2. In this spirit, although without mentioning specific policies, former US Secretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers called recently for a new agenda of “responsible nationalism—an approach where it is understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective.” See Lawrence Summer, “Voters Deserve Responsible Nationalism Not Reflex Globalism,” Financial Times, July 10, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/15598db8-4456-11e6-9b66-0712b3873ae1.
  3. Andreas Johansson Heinö, Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index 2016 (Stockholm: Timbro, 2016), 8.

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