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EU: Will Populist Parties Run (Ruin) Europe? - by Judy Dempsey

Populism and Nationalism, two destructive political forces
Populism is on the rise in Europe but is unlikely to win enough votes to run Europe. Yet the risk that populism will run Europe by proxy is real if mainstream governments do not address the phenomenon’s underlying causes.

Leaders of the center-right and center-left are racing to embrace right-wing populist demagoguery in the hope of catching a few votes. This tactic does not pay off, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico discovered in Slovakia’s parliamentary election on March 5. His embrace of the right-wing anti-immigration card boosted far-right parties more than his own. If voters want xenophobia, they will choose the real thing.

But Fico’s experience does not seem to be persuading mainstream politicians to stop chasing right-wing populism. Governments’ responses to the refugee influx are paralyzed by a fear of populism’s rise in upcoming elections.

Worse still, populists are framing the way in which the refugee challenge is debated. These fears are blocking the emergence of alternative solutions, in turn giving populists even more ammunition. If mainstream politics does not recapture the debate with alternative proposals and a vocabulary that reflects its principles (those that have held Europe together), it will put itself at the mercy of a populist minority.

Contrary to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s boldest dreams, illiberal national populists will not run Europe anytime soon. In many countries, the shrinking center still just about holds. But this should provide little comfort. Populists don’t need to run Europe to ruin it. Of course, the poison works best in countries where authoritarian populists control the government. The proudly illiberal regimes of Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, would fail to meet the Copenhagen criteria for acceding EU states.

But populists do not need to control the government to feed on and fuel a new age of fear in Europe: fear of the Other (especially Muslims) and fear of global competition. Populists’ seemingly easy answers—pull up the national drawbridge to keep Muslims and competition out—put pressure on terrified establishment elites and drag political culture to previously unseen lows, depriving policymaking of the oxygen of reason.

This trend is now also threatening to engulf Germany, so far one of the last islands of liberal democratic normalcy. If you want to know what a neurotic Germany feels like, take Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer as a harbinger of things to come. Not a pretty prospect for the dream of a self-confident liberal Europe in the twenty-first century.

Populist parties already run many European countries. Look at Central and Eastern Europe, where populists formally make up the government, or at France and the UK, where they set the tone of the political debate to a greater or lesser degree. There are reasons to believe that populist and other fringe political forces will increasingly shape Europe’s political landscape and polarize it along liberal versus illiberal or globalist versus territorialist dividing lines.

But the real question is not whether populists are likely to grab power in one or two more EU member states—although a French presidency led by the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen would be the end of Europe as we know it. The real (and currently materializing) threat is that so-called mainstream parties will gradually give up their fundamental principles of human rights, civil liberties, equality, and openness out of panic fear of a populist surge.

The rise of populism is sometimes a high but inevitable price to pay for a firm policy of not bowing to external pressures. The right-wing Alternative for Germany versus Chancellor Angela Merkel is a case in point. Perhaps Europe needs to accept this price. And instead of seeking to accommodate populists, Europe should try to mobilize those large parts of society that have lost not only confidence in the elites but also the belief that the stakes in today’s politics are high. If liberal democracy and open societies fall in Europe, it will happen by default, not because of an outright rejection by the people.

Read more: Judy Asks: Will Populist Parties Run Europe? - Carnegie Europe - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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