A year ago, many observers feared that the eruption of populism that contributed to Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump would continue to spread uncontrollably across Europe. Anne Applebaum warned that it would be “the end of the West as we know it” if Marine Le Pen were to become the next French president. Another analyst predicted “a coming European Dark Age.” However, with the so-called European super-election year now over—following elections in key states such as France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands—it is safe to say that the continent weathered the populist challenge better than expected. At the same time, populism remains a key factor of contemporary European politics and will continue to play a crucial role in the upcoming elections in 2018 and beyond.

The Ghost of Populism Still Walks

The year 2017 was a mixed bag for populism in Europe. In several European elections, populist parties consolidated their position. In Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany, populist politicians and parties outperformed expectations. Populist parties now sit comfortably in some national parliaments (such as in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland has 13 percent of the seats in the Bundestag) or even in government positions (such as in Austria, where the Freedom Party joined the new governing coalition, and in the Czech Republic, where ANO 2011 formed the new government). However, in two crucial elections, in France and the Netherlands, right-wing populist parties and politicians underperformed against expectations; the far-right National Front party lost badly to Emmanuel Macron and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom ended up in second place with only twenty seats and was excluded from the governing coalition. Both Le Pen and Wilder, however, performed better than they did in their respective previous elections.

Erik Brattberg
Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is an expert on European politics and security and transatlantic relations.
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Of course, Europe’s populists come in many shapes and forms. While most broadcast anti-establishment and anti-immigration sentiments and embrace national sovereignty, they vary considerably on policy toward the EU—from hardline opposition (exhibited by Poland’s Law and Justice Party, France’s National Front, and the Dutch and Austrian freedom parties) to opportunistic transactionalism (exhibited by the Czech Republic’s ANO 2011).

Furthermore, anti-establishment does not necessarily mean anti-European, as Macron’s victory illustrated. Although hardly a populist, Macron ran on a distinct anti-establishment platform, which successfully exploited French fatigue with the traditional parties while holding onto a fundamentally pro-EU line. The adoption of (some) populist elements by Macron’s La République En Marcheparty, such as its unorthodox campaign style and strong resemblance of a grassroots movement, could hence be seen as a positive counterreaction. Macron’s unexpected performance underscores that harsh anti-EU populism is not always a winning strategy. Reinforcing this fact is the recent rise in the EU’s popularity, with 40 percent of Europeans now having a positive image of the EU and 68 percent of Europeans identifying themselves as citizens of the EU.

Mainstream Parties Going Populist

The impact of populist parties transcends their polling results in individual elections. Populist parties and politicians are now able to significantly shape national discourse in several European countries by framing themes and topics in the political debate and influencing policymaking through their presence in various national parliaments and governments. Moreover, they contribute to the political fragmentation, making it harder for mainstream parties to form majority-capable coalitions and forcing the latter to react to populist forces, and, in some cases, even adopt some of their policies and language. Several mainstream parties, especially center-right ones, sought in 2017 to mirror populist parties’ tactics and rhetoric as well as borrow some of their policy elements.

In some extreme cases, this development underlined the erosion of the postwar centrist consensus that has guided much of European politics for decades. The Austrian case is particularly relevant in this context. The country’s center-right party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), has under its new wunderkind leader, the thirty-one-year-old Sebastian Kurz, incorporated populist elements—above all on immigration—to lure away votes from its far-right rival, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). His strategy proved successful but also paved the way for coalition talks between Kurz’s conservatives and the far-right populists that have resulted in a coalition. That said, even with the FPÖ back in government (the party had already governed in a coalition with the ÖVP from 2000 to 2005), Kurz is still expected to pursue an overtly pro-European policy. Whether he will be able to bridge that gap remains to be seen.

Viola Meyerweissflog
Viola Meyerweissflog is a research assistant with the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Earlier this year, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and leader of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), successfully tried a hybrid approach while campaigning for reelection. He absorbed the rhetoric of right-wing populists and wielded a harsher message on immigration, stating that people who “don’t like it here [in the Netherlands]” can leave. During his victory speech, he also spoke of defeating the “wrong kind of populism,” hence implying there is a correct type of populism that he himself represents. In relative terms, however, the VVD still lost 5.3 percentage points in comparison to 2012, while Wilders’s Party for Freedom was able to gain 3 percentage points. It is too early to judge whether this “good populism” approach will hold up over time.

In Germany, the situation is even more complex. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did not embrace the movement toward right-wing populism. However, some politicians in the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), overtly flirted with it by sharply criticizing Merkel’s refugee policy and hosting Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orbán in 2015 and 2016. Interestingly, though, neither Merkel’s staunch moderate centrism nor the CSU’s flirtation with the phenomena helped to win the center-right bloc votes in the September 2017 federal election. In fact, both parties lost many seats, while the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was able to recruit an estimated 1.47 million former nonvoters and 1 million ex-CDU/CSU voters. This, as well as Kurz’s remarkable success in Austria, leaves Germany’s center-right bloc pondering how to best cope with the AfD’s rise. Having failed to uphold one of its core principles—to not allow any party to gain ground to the right of the CDU/CSU—Germany’s center-right is now puzzling over its future direction.

Decline of the Social Democrats

If 2017 was a mediocre year for Europe’s center-right parties, it was even worse for Europe’s center-left parties, especially social democratic ones. In the Netherlands, the Labor Party (PvdA) lost twenty-nine seats while receiving only 5.7 percent of the vote. The French Socialist Party suffered a historic defeat in France’s presidential and legislative elections—a performance so abysmal that many experts question the party’s future existence. Similarly, the Czech Social Democratic Party won only about 7 percent of the vote in the latest election, while Germany’s Social Democratic Party obtained only about 20 percent—its worst performance since World War II.

The ongoing decline of Europe’s social democratic parties, which predates 2017, is tied to the common view of social democrats having become a comfortable part of the governing elite, with little commitment to an ideology of challenge and change. Center-left politicians like Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder have been accused of failing to offer a “fundamental critique of capitalism or any sense that market forces should be redirected to protect social needs.” The importance of this critique has been amplified by the social and economic fallout from the global financial crisis in 2008.

One clear exception to this trend is the surprising gains of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party in the UK’s general snap election in June 2017, where the party won 40 percent of the votes, just shy of the Conservative’s 42.4 percent. Corbyn notably abandoned the centrist “new Labor” policy of Blair in favor of a more leftist form of social democracy, laced with anti-globalization and anti-establishment sentiments. Another similar example is the gains of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing party, La France Insoumise, which won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round, substantially outpolling the French Socialist Party.

It’s Still All About Immigration

Since the beginning of the migration crisis in 2015, European elections have increasingly become shaped by the debate over the three i’s: immigration, integration, and Islam. According to Eurobarometer surveys, immigration has been the leading concern among European citizens since the fall of 2015, surpassing other issues such as terrorism, the economic situation, and unemployment.

This trend was observable in all of the 2017 elections, particularly in Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In postcommunist Central European countries, immigration was even more dominant even though they have accepted far lower levels of Muslim immigrants.

However, in some countries, voters demonstrated greater concern about other issues. For example, in the Dutch election, voters’ main concern was healthcare, and in the British election, the Labor Party gained voters by steering the campaign toward inequality and other social issues.

While the overall number of refugees arriving in Europe continued to decline in 2017 from the peak of the migration crisis in 2015, the terrorist threat remains high in many western European countries and the issues of immigration, integration, and Islam are likely to continue to dominate European politics in the coming years.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

While populist parties did not sweep the 2017 elections as many had feared or predicted, they did consolidate a significant place in the European political landscape. Thus, any notion that Europe is out of dangerous waters politically is clearly premature.

In the coming presidential elections in the Czech Republic and Finland, as well as the general elections in Hungary, Italy, and Sweden, traditional European political systems and mainstream parties will continue to be tested. The movement-oriented, grassroots characteristics of some mainstream parties—as well as their gradual shift in policy positions on issues such as immigration—are likely to be sustained. Moreover, if mainstream parties fail to deliver on promised reforms, the allure of the populist challengers may grow even stronger.

Viola Meyerweissflog is a research assistant with the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.