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Freedom comes at a price — European voters may not want to pay it

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe.

Last autumn, centrists delightedly seized upon signs that populism was finally ebbing.  

But as the world moves from one crisis to the next, Europe’s cohort of populist nationalist leaders have started making their moves, ready to mine voter frustration, exploit openings and make the most of the turbulence caused by the seismic economic effects of the pandemic, now compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The game is changing once again — and populism is far from out. 

In 2021, two populist luminaries who rode to power on waves of anti-elitism anger — Bulgaria’s Boyko Borissov and the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš — were ousted. And although its voting numbers held up in the east of Germany, the Alternative for Germany party saw a national drop in support during the country’s parliamentary ballot last September.  

A survey published by British pollster YouGov in November similarly found support for populism had declined in 10 European countries across the previous three years, suggesting its electoral appeal may have peaked. The populist tenet that the “will of the people should be the highest principle in a country’s politics” no longer resonated as forcefully as it did, YouGov concluded. 

Other pollsters agreed, saying the political tide was seemingly turning against populists in Central Europe and elsewhere on the Continent, and that support for such sentiments across Europe had fallen sharply since the advent of COVID-19. Populist leaders had been unable to revive their fortunes by exploiting public frustration with pandemic restrictions or vaccine mandates as they had hoped.  

There was some restoration of public faith in expertise too. Tony Barber of the Financial Times suggested populists’ “trademark scorn for expertise” helped Joe Biden defeat then United States President Donald Trump because it unsettled many voters who were “worried about their health and livelihoods.” 

And as incumbent governments and establishment parties strove to cushion lower-income and rural populations from the economic misery of the pandemic, they reduced recruitment opportunities for populists, whether left or right of the political spectrum. 

But this year, there’s a different story. The outcome of the French parliamentary elections and far-right opposition candidate Marine Le Pen’s electoral performance, the increasing strength of Giorgia Meloni’s national-conservative Brothers of Italy party, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s landslide win in April all suggest populism has hardly given up the ghost. 

Populists have shifted political tactics and moderated their once broader Euroskeptic aims — as in the case of Meloni. They now voice more interest in focusing on changing the bloc from within than following in the footsteps of Brexit. “I think after the COVID crisis, the EU needs to reinvent itself and find a new soul,” Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League party, said. Far-right populists have also been quick to learn from Orbán, tailoring their economic policies to the left-behinds and the ballooning numbers of the middle class who are now falling behind.  

Along these lines, while acknowledging that populists didn’t have a “good pandemic” last year, political scientist Matthew Goodwin predicted they’d bounce back, seizing on the political tumult that generally lies downstream from crises. “Emerging evidence shows it looks fairly certain the Great Lockdown will actually exacerbate divides in our society that began to sharpen a few decades ago, and were then worsened by the Great Recession,” he said.  

Now, with another recession looming and risks of stagflation rising, governments have their work cut out for them to cushion the effects on those left behind and those falling behind. But with debt-to-GDP ratios rising, they’ll have much less freedom to spend as they wish. 

Voters buffeted by serial crises and economic shocks are increasingly frightened, truculent and scornful of incumbent governments — they want quick fixes and show signs of looking to punish incumbents who fail to offer some relief. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean political anger will benefit populists — especially if they’re the ones looking to keep their seats. This was clearly highlighted by Slovenia’s April election, which saw Robert Golob’s Freedom Movement defeat Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party. Fearful and frustrated voters are likely to jump on any political bandwagon able to communicate their disdain or upset the political apple cart most effectively.  

In last week’s by-elections in Britain, for example, voters clearly voted tactically, backing the candidates that would be most able to deprive Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives of victories. This resulted in the irony of the pro-Brexit Tiverton and Honiton constituency, in the rural southwest of England, electing the candidate of the country’s most pro-EU party — the Liberal Democrats.  

As economic misery worsens there are signs that many Europeans are once again doubtful of experts and expertise, and incumbent governments and central banks risk political backlash. In a poll published in Britain on Sunday, 49 percent said the Bank of England hasn’t been doing all it can to reduce inflation — only 16 percent said it had been. And 59 percent said they disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the economy — up nearly 20 percent from a survey conducted just half-a-year ago. 

Economic anxiety is also behind a widening divide between European governments and their voters when it comes to the war in Ukraine. A poll conducted for the European Council for Foreign Relations suggested that while Europeans feel great solidarity with Ukraine, there’s a serious split regarding the West’s long-term goals, with 35 percent wanting the war to end as soon as possible — a so-called Peace Camp — and a Justice Camp of 25 percent, supporting the idea of waging even a protracted war until Russia has been clearly punished for its aggression.

Clearly, we’re looking at “a growing gap between the stated positions of many European governments and the public mood in their countries,” all bound to the economy. And as European leaders argued this week that the “price of freedom” is well worth paying, they will have to use all their persuasive skills to convince voters that, indeed, it is and that it requires sacrifices to be made — otherwise, the “Ukraine gulf” between electorates and incumbent governments could grow. 

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