Populism marches in the direction of the European Parliament. May’s 22-25 elections on the new Assembly in Strasbourg may deliver unexpected results. At a time when the EU gets a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, after six years of severe economic downturn, the movements announcing their “no” to politics, to institutions, to Europe, to banks, to the Troika, have reached their peak of popularity: they are present in several countries with various movements and political groups, with different leaders, preparing to collect votes and bring the wind of anti-Europeanism within Community seats.A serious, in-depth analysis of the phenomenon is lacking, and it cannot be settled with a set of anathemas in the name of democracy. The forces that explicitly describe themselves as “populist”, or those feature some of its traits, are the expression of widespread discontent that stems from recession, rampant unemployment, young generations that see a dead end to their future… To this gloomy picture should be added equally complex symptoms like globalizations, which seems to expose the Old Europe (also in demographic terms), to include the competitiveness of emerging economies, migrations, destructuration of traditional cultures… The question is whether there is a more or less direct relationship with the crisis, territorial revanchism, new social particularisms, the eclipse of ethical values and if such dynamics have political consequences when they are coupled by the most adamant forms of nationalism, by anti-Europeanism which at times encompasses xenophobic stances.Some of the answers have been given by prominent “populist” leaders (a simplistic label which fails to reflect many of those involved) such as French politician Marine Le Pen, at the lead of the Front National (FN): “Welcome to the populists at the European Parliament. Is someone perhaps afraid of the people’s judgment?” she recently declared at the EU Parliament. “All common policies go against the interests and the will of the people. 2014 elections will act as a referendum: yes to France, no to Europe”, she argued. The limit to the capacity of establishing future alliances between populist and eurosceptic leaders has also been unveiled. In fact, populism is often coupled by the exaltation of the homeland-nation concept, thereby making individuals feel distant and different from their fellow others.The presence of nationalist-populist leaders throughout Europe is rather homogeneous, ranging from Le Pen’s FN in France, to the UK (notably the Independence Party, UKIP, led by Nigel Farage), from The Netherlands (Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders) to Belgium (Vlaams Belang). More to the north the phenomenon is deeply rooted in Finland (True Finns), Sweden (Swedish Democrats) Denmark (People’s Party). Anti-EU fringes have grown stronger also in Eastern Europe: Hungary (Fidesz, in the government with Premier Orban; Jobbik), Bulgaria (Ataka), Romania (Great Romania); as well as in Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia. Years ago, one the homelands of populism, (Austria) witnessed the birth of the Freedom Party, Fpö, led by its now deceased leader Jörg Haider. To the South, Italy follows the wake with the Northern League, the 5 Star Movement, led by Gianroberto Casaleggio and by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo) and Greece, perhaps the EU country most severely affected by the crisis, that counts on “right-wing” populism with the Golden Dawn party, and “left-wing” party Syriza. At the German elections of past September Alternative für Deutschland, the party against the single currency, gained remarkable success. And the list could go on.While in every Country these movements are expressed via varied slogans, they all share a set of common traits, namely, an evident emphasis on national sovereignty to the detriments of supranational and European options; a long list of “noes”: no to the euro currency, to Schengen, to EU enlargement, to migrations, and to austerity, along with the recovery – albeit equivocal – of so-called “traditional values”. Accordingly, these are: the land, the family, the homeland, and even Christian religion from an anti-Muslim perspective. Populist demagogy – often fuelled by inconclusive national leaders and by sluggish socio-political media analyses – wages against EU institutions, an easy scapegoat. Europe is thence viewed as distant, ineffective, burdened by too much red tape, accused of legislating on useless issues and of lagging behind in providing urgent answers to citizens’ needs. These may be severe accusations, but they are not completely ungrounded.From this perspective, political “palaces” – in Paris, London, Brussels, Rome, Berlin or Warsaw alike – should call themselves into question. It is likely that in May more than a third of European voters will refer to the Front National, Ukip or Vlaams Belang. The so-called populisms raise serious questions to national governments and to the European “common home”. Those questions cannot be overlooked, nor dismissed, as they also involve the cultural and academic realms, the media and the Churches. “Christians are not exempt from populism”, warned a document issued by COMECE – Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community – at the end of 2010. “Populism – the bishops added – is the opposite of the idea of European integration” which “is totally incompatible with the Church’s universal vocation.” These are clear pillars for a new beginning. The present issue of SIR Europe features the first of ten reports providing an overview of ‘populist movements’ throughout EU countries. The next commentary will be published by SIR Europe, Friday January 31st.
Elections for the Assembly in Strasbourg might herald the success of eurosceptics