Europe Facing the Populist Challenge

The Italian right-wing party Lega Nord demonstrates against the Monti-government in November 2012.
Foto: Il Fatto Quotidiano / Flickr, Lizenz: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

February 20, 2013
Dick Pels

In our book Populism in Europe we emphasise, first, that the new right-wing populism is not the rehearsal of something old but represents a new political phenomenon; secondly, that it is not an unfortunate political incident or historical accident but that it is here to stay – as a stable addition to the current landscape of European politics. Indeed, as a pan-European phenomenon, it represents the severest internal challenge to and test for the viability of the European project to emerge since the beginnings of European integration.

Populism presents a much graver challenge to the theory and practice of liberal democracies than is often acknowledged, not merely in terms of its media-political and organisational style, but also in terms of its ideology. The new right-wing populism is not alien to our political traditions, it is closely linked to them, making it necessary to seriously scrutinise our positions and reinvent our own ideals of liberty, democracy, identity, and tolerance. This presents a special challenge to us Greens, since the green and populist movements appear to be interconnected in unexpected ways, representing adversarial sides of the same cultural politics which (at least in the West) has emerged in the wake of the educational and meritocratic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

New right-wing populism not alien to our political traditions

Rather than dwelling too long on definitions, let me adopt the minimal characterisation of populism as proposed by Mudde (2007), with its three interdependent features of nativism (a weaker variety of nationalism), authoritarianism and popular sovereignty. However, more important than such generalisation, is the need to emphasise the sheer variability of populist movements and parties even within Europe. For this purpose, we may introduce a threefold differentiation: 1. between leftwing and rightwing populism; 2. between first and second generations of populist movements, and 3. between (North)western, Eastern and Southern varieties of populism.

The first distinction asserts that populism also features strong left-wing traditions, including significant similarities between left and right (such as powerful anti-elitist, anti-party and anti-bureaucratic sentiments and a penchant for direct democracy). Indeed, in a number of European countries, one may currently discern a shift in the populist protest vote from right to left, while the traditional mainstream parties continue to crumble (cf. Greece, where the political middle barely holds, the rise of the Piratenpartei in Germany, the success of Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Stelle movement in Italy, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, and perhaps also the Palikot movement in Poland).

First- and second-generation populism

The second, generational distinction appears to overlap to some extent with the geographical one. First-generation parties such as the Front National, the Flemish Block, the FPÖ and Lega Nord tend to have roots in the radically nationalist, anti-Semitic and homophobic past. This applies even more to parties such as the British National Front, the German NDP, Ataka in Bulgaria, the Slovakian National Party, Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece.

In the European Northwest, on the other hand, there has emerged a second generation of populists who are careful to distance themselves from such a disreputable 'brown' past. More recently established parties such as the Dansk Folkeparti, the True Finns, the Sverige Demokraterna, the Dutch LPF (Pim Fortuyn’s party), Geert Wilders´ Freedom Party and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) in Belgium have all adopted a more civic, centrist and liberal-democratic face, having emerged in quite a few cases as offshoots of established liberal parties. In France, this generational shift is possibly literally under way with the recent succession of Marine Le Pen to the FN leadership. The biological racism (especially anti-Semitism), militarism and territorial nationalism of the older movements is replaced by a softer cultural nationalism, which calls for the defence of an indigenous ‘lead culture’ and national identity against a generalised Other, which is often (but not necessarily) identified as Islam.

Cultural nationalism

The most dramatic example of this generational shift is perhaps offered by De Wever's N-VA, which recently gained around 30% of the municipal vote (37.7% in Antwerp), all but replacing Filip Dewinter´s Vlaams Belang. De Wever proclaims a ‘humanitarian nationalism’ as part of his master plan to split Belgium and have Flanders enter the European Union as an independent member state. Islamophobia does no longer play a prominent role. Neither does euroscepticism, which turns the N-VA into a quite exceptional case within the broader family of populist nationalisms. All evils are projected upon the Belgian federal level: excessively high taxes, a rampant social parasitism, the open borders policy which permits too many ‘passive’ immigrants to enter, but especially the excessive transfer payments made by the hard-working Flemish to the ungrateful and lazy Walloons. In this fashion, Belgium perhaps represents a miniature version of Europe, emphasising an unbridgeable cultural and economic divide between a thrifty, hard-working, honest North and a lazy, parasitical, mendacious South.

This polarisation in terms of North against South is accompanied by what may be described as a ´materialist´ turn, softening the cultural polarisation on issues such as immigration, Islam, and national identity. For example, in the recent national election campaign, Geert Wilders has interestingly ‘swapped enemies,’ substituting Europe for Islam and Brussels for Mecca as main symbolic targets of attack. Turning away to some extent from defending Dutch national culture and identity against the threat of islamisation, he currently focuses upon the excessive funding by hard-working Dutch taxpayers of ‘lazy’ and corrupt southern countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain. This comparative softening of the anti-immigrant (anti-Islamic) stance in the North is balanced in the South by an almost classical ´cultural´ response to the economic crisis, where many observers brand the Golden Dawn party in Greece as neo-fascist or neo-Nazi on account of its outspoken discriminatory language and racist violence against foreigners.

The legend of hard-working Northerners vs. lazy Southerners

The current banking and sovereign debt crisis has hence promoted a shift from cultural to economic issues and from cultural to welfare nationalism (´our money first´ rather than ´my people first´). While it would be wishful thinking to claim that polarisation around the issue of Islam is a thing of the past in Northwestern Europe (remember Breivik), it has nevertheless receded, giving way to more traditional left vs. right issues and hence favouring both the traditional and the populist political left.

Without exaggerating such claims, we may therefore highlight at least one major difference between the Northwestern and the Eastern/Southern brands of populism. While liberal individualism has become a building block of national identity in (at least some) Northwestern countries – values to be defended against religious and other forms of conservative collectivism –, Eastern and Southern populisms tend to gravitate towards more traditional and reactionary forms of nationalism that are closer to the first than to the second generation, if they do not revive the racist radicalism of the thirties. Moreover, since liberal modernity, democracy, and secularisation enter through the door of European integration, resistance against liberal, free-thinking and secular values necessarily takes the form of anti-Europeanism and the defence of national, especially conservative Christian traditions. In this sense, nationalist populism, both in its more liberal and its collectivist guises and with or without Islam as its main scapegoat or enemy, has everywhere become the most intense challenger of the project of European integration. 


Dick Pels works for the Bureau de Helling (Netherlands).

The German version of the book "Populism in Europe" can be ordered here.