By Romesh Ratnesar
TWO AND A HALF years ago, few Spanish citizens had heard of the far-right party Vox, let alone planned to vote for it. Co-founded in 2013 by a Basque politician named Santiago Abascal, Vox fielded candidates in 10 regional parliamentary elections but failed to win a seat in any of them. In Spain’s 2016 general election, Vox received just two-tenths of 1% out of more than 23 million votes cast. The party remained shut out of every level of Spanish government.
No longer. In last December’s elections in Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region, Vox won 11% of the vote and helped oust the Socialist party from power after 36 years. It is now the country’s fifth most popular party. (In 2016, it didn’t make the top 12.) In national elections last month, Vox did less well than it had hoped — but still won 10.3% of the popular vote and 24 seats in parliament. It is one of several far-right parties in Europe poised to join the European Parliament for the first time.
Until recently, Spain’s run of solid economic growth, along with its multicultural tradition, seemed to inoculate it from the right-wing contagion spreading in other parts of Europe. In 2018, however, Spain received more migrants than any country in Europe, with most crossing from Morocco into Andalusia. That helps to explain Vox’s rise, but the party’s agenda goes beyond immigration. It inveighs against Catalan secession as much as it does against foreigners. Its leaders assail feminists and gay rights, defend gun ownership and bullfighting and call for Spain to assert sovereignty over Gibraltar. And it has capitalized on public anger at corruption scandals involving politicians from traditional parties.
The emergence of Vox highlights the reach and potency of European populism, even in countries that have long been immune to it. It demonstrates that the appeal of far-right parties is not just about Euroskepticism or restricting immigration. Voters often gravitate to populist alternatives for parochial reasons, having more to do with local grievances than with global trends.
To an extent, the disparate nature of populism has led some pro-European political leaders to underestimate the seriousness of the challenge. It’s also why trying to fashion a response remains so difficult.
European populists share some common goals. Like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, they aim to upend the political order, rattle elites and defend traditional culture from perceived external threats. But populism is far from monolithic. Right-wing populists like Vox and Alternative for Germany support steep tax cuts and reductions in public spending, while other anti-establishment parties that have risen to power, including Italy’s Five Star Movement and Spain’s Podemos, favor redistributive economic policies, with a heavy role for the state.
Disagreements among populists exist on how to address climate change and gay marriage. Some are openly supportive of Vladimir Putin’s Russia (Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orban), while others call for confrontation (Poland’s Law and Justice party). Even on their signature issue, immigration, Europe’s populists diverge on how best to handle migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Italy’s populist government has called for new arrivals to be distributed across the bloc, rather than processed in the country in which they enter — an idea that Hungary and Poland adamantly oppose.
Unlike Europe’s established parties on the center-right and center-left, which have historic ties to institutions like trade unions and churches, populist parties lack well-defined constituencies. A 2018 study of voters in 11 Western European countries found that on a demographic and ideological basis, supporters of populist parties had almost nothing in common with each other.
To disaffected voters, however, ideological cohesion matters less than the promise of disruption. In the last decade, populists have catalyzed and benefited from the fragmentation of Europe’s party system. Two anti-establishment parties from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, The League and the Five Star Movement, now run Italy’s government. Populists are in power in Poland and Hungary and are part of ruling coalitions in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovakia and Estonia.
Since 2000, the number of governments with populists in their cabinets has doubled, to at least 15 — and their ranks are likely to grow. An analysis of election results in 31 countries over the last two decades found that support for populist parties in Europe has risen from 7% in 1998 to some 25% today.
As they gain ground in national elections, populists are attempting to join forces across borders. Salvini, Italy’s nationalist deputy prime minister and interior minister, has courted Hungary’s Orban and forged an alliance with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party. He has also angered French President Emmanuel Macron by meeting with leaders of the yellow-vest movement, which continues to stage violent protests against Macron.
With far-right parties from Germany, Denmark and Finland, Salvini has launched a new continent-wide coalition, the European Alliance of People and Nations. France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, has joined Salvini’s alliance, as have smaller nationalist parties in southern and central Europe. Their aim was to galvanize Euroskeptic voters in advance of this week’s elections to the European Parliament and create, for the first time, a unified nationalist bloc in the 751-seat chamber.
A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations projects that Euroskeptic parties are on track to win more than one-third of the seats in the parliament. A voting bloc of that size would have the power to block regulations, overturn EU budget decisions and reshape the composition of the European Commission. It would likely seek to weaken the EU’s efforts to sanction member states for flouting democratic norms — as the current parliament has tried to do with Poland and Hungary — and reduce development aid to non-EU countries. On issues like migration, defense, cybersecurity and the environment, the increased clout of nationalist parties will make it harder for the EU to speak with a single voice.
How much long-term damage this might do to the European project is debatable. The remoteness of EU institutions makes them an easy target for populists. Yet 60% of Europeans believe EU membership is a good thing, up 13 points since 2011. While a handful of parties, like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, advocate their countries’ withdrawal from the EU, the vast majority of populists prefer to stay in the union. Italy’s Salvini, whose party has called the euro “the main cause of our economic decline,” has more recently dropped his threat to exit the common currency.
Disagreements over Europe could compromise the populists’ ambitions to act collectively in the Parliament — as mainstream parties across the continent (and the U.K.) have learned the hard way. And adopting obstructionist stances that stall passage of the union’s roughly 140 billion-euro annual budget, or block policy making on trade and taxation, could backfire against populist leaders if European economies suffer as a result.
All that said, the European political landscape is likely to get more turbulent, not less. Matthew Goodwin, a scholar on populism at Chatham House and the University of Kent, points to the trend of “dealignment”: the drop in the number of voters who say they feel attachment to traditional political parties. Majorities in Italy, the U.K. and France say that “traditional parties and politicians” don’t care about their problems, while 63% of voters under 24 say “new political parties and movements” are better able to find solutions than mainstream parties.
Dealignment can benefit groups on the left and right: In Germany’s regional elections last fall, the biggest gains were made by the resolutely pro-European Greens. The main effect of declining voter loyalties, however, is the creation of space for populist insurgents — like Italy’s Five Star Movement and Spain’s Vox — to vault to power, until even newer alternatives come along to replace them.
How long the upheaval lasts remains to be seen. Suffice to say, populism does not spell the end of the European Union — just the end of the EU as we know it.