EUROPE HAS A dissonant new voice. Anti-Muslim, anti-elite, anti-globalisation and increasingly anti-Brussels, populists now count for something in the Nordic countries, among the Dutch and Flemish, in France, Italy and Austria, and in parts of eastern Europe. They come in many varieties, but all claim to represent what Pierre Poujade, France’s original post-war populist, called “the ripped-off, lied-to little people”.
These movements are sometimes described as neo-fascist. Some of them indeed are, and all of them embrace odious and intolerant views of one sort or another. But to dismiss them as fascist, and thereby safely rule them out of European political life, offers the liberal mainstream false comfort. Over the past few years populists have found ways to set themselves apart from a neo-Nazi ideology. Many support gay and women’s rights (all the better, they think, to bash the Muslims), and many are fervently pro-Israel. They are here to stay.
Europe’s populists are not likely to form governments; they lack the votes and are completely unequipped for office. However, mainstream politicians do not know how to see them off. So their obsessions and their resentments have seeped into the debate, even among those who would never vote for them.
This matters just now for three reasons. First, because the euro and its independent central bank are elite projects par excellence. The high priests of Europe’s political class handed down the edict that Europe needed its own currency. They forced their economies to converge during the 1990s and masterminded the extravagantly complex job of issuing new notes and coins. Now that the technocrats have been shown up as bunglers, the anti-technocrats stand to gain. Second, populists are nationalists and protectionists and reject both the idea of paying to save Europe’s troubled periphery and the sort of structural reforms that Europe needs for growth. And third, populists feed the widespread mistrust of Brussels and all its works, which will constrain the options available to fix the euro.
To understand how populism has taken root, look at what has happened in the Netherlands, once the very model of a tolerant, pro-integration member of the EU. In his study of the murder of Theo van Gogh, a film director, by a radical Dutch Muslim in 2004, Ian Buruma borrows the term regenten to describe the modern Dutch elite. Like the self-confident 17th-century ruling class of merchants smugly gazing from the portraits of Frans Hals, the 21st-century regenten looked out for themselves and neglected the things that bothered ordinary people.
In the Netherlands the beef was with the immigration that created “dish cities” of Turkish and Moroccan households tuned to satellite television from abroad. The regenten were all in favour of multiculturalism and in no hurry to press immigrants to assimilate. In the early 2000s a flamboyant gay university lecturer called Pim Fortuyn made a political career out of condemning what he saw as Muslim intolerance and regenten neglect.
What did this have to do with Europe? At first, nothing at all. But after Fortuyn, too, was murdered in 2002 (by an animal-rights activist, not a Muslim), another Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, took up his cause and increasingly exploited popular resentment against the regenten project of European integration.
As the EU has grown from six to 27 countries, the Dutch, who were among the founder-members, have felt their influence drain away. They have gone from being beneficiaries of European funds to net contributors. They feel they have had to take in migrant workers from eastern Europe who threaten their jobs. Sometimes the EU has imposed unpopular decisions, as when it ruled that the distinctive, often religion-based Dutch housing associations were discriminatory, or that Turks were exempt from a mandatory exam for immigrants because Turkey is an official candidate for EU entry.
The extent of anti-European sentiment became clear back in 2005, when the Dutch voted in a referendum to reject a proposed new constitution for the EU by a crushing 62% to 38%. It was the first time the Dutch elite had condescended to ask ordinary people about Europe and, says André Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam Free University, even people who had nothing against Europe found something in the constitution to dislike.
With Mr Wilders’s Freedom Party on one side and the anti-globalisation Socialist Party on the other, the pro-European, pro-globalisation middle is being squeezed out of Dutch politics. The centre parties used to win 80-90% of the vote. In the most recent election they got only 54%. Meanwhile, the tweets of Mr Wilders, whose party has just 16% of the seats in the Dutch parliament, manage to grab 40% of the media coverage of politics, reckons Mr Krouwel. “He has destroyed Dutch consensus democracy,” he adds.
A similar story is emerging across Europe, though the details differ. The True Finns are more Eurosceptic than anti-Muslim; the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats are obsessed by immigration; Italy’s Northern League is consumed by contempt for Naples and the feckless South, as well as immigrants and the EU; Belgium’s Vlaams Belang stands for Flemish independence; France’s National Front is being dragged away from its fascist, anti-Semitic past by Marine Le Pen; Hungary’s Jobbik has not even begun to change out of its jackboots.
But the punchline is the same. Heather Grabbe of the Open Society Institute in Brussels calls it “the politics of resentment against elites”. This sentiment makes office a dangerous place for populists. After Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party won 27% of the vote in an Austrian election in 1999 it joined a coalition government, but in the 2004 elections to the European Parliament it got only 6.3%. Out of power, the Austrian populists (now split into two parties) saw their overall strength recover to almost 30% of the vote within just four years.
These days populists prefer to stand half-in and half-out of government, where they can claim credit for policies on, say, immigration even as they disown the difficult decisions that ministers often have to take. That was the strategy of Pia Kjaersgaard’s People’s Party, which put its stamp on immigration policy in Denmark until the election of the Danish left in the summer. These parties talk tactics with each other, says Sarah de Lange of the University of Amsterdam. And so the Danes have been copied by Mr Wilders, pictured above, who supports a Dutch minority government but is not part of it.
The Dutch finance minister, Jan Kees de Jager, says that this leaves the Dutch approach to Europe unscathed. The government can pass legislation on the EU by calling on the support of the opposition centrist parties, depriving Mr Wilders of influence. That line is supported by surveys showing that the level of Dutch backing for “Europe” in the vaguest, most generalised sense has not dramatically fallen over recent years.
But this argument is not wholly convincing. Dutch attitudes to sovereignty have hardened. Politicians come back from Brussels to The Hague complaining that they could not get the deal they wanted. The idea of spending Dutch money to rescue the Greek economy was unpopular. If fixing the euro required another referendum, the government would struggle to win.
Don’t look for gratitude
Moreover, that Dutch vote against the European constitution was part of a Europe-wide popular backlash against the EU. The constitution was supposed to renovate the EU’s creaking legislative machinery as well as bringing Brussels closer to the people. But the people either did not understand it or were not interested. Having been rejected in France as well as the Netherlands, the constitution was reworked as the Lisbon treaty and was at first rejected again, this time by a referendum in Ireland. The treaty-cum-constitution limped into law in 2009, eight difficult years after work on it had begun. The instrument intended to fortify the EU with popular legitimacy won just three out of six referendums. Ten governments had backed away from promises of popular votes.
With Mr Wilders’s Freedom Party on one side and the Socialist Party on the other, the pro-European middle is being squeezed out of Dutch politics
The message is clear. However unpleasant some of the populists’ views are, they are on to something with the EU. Ordinary Europeans see Brussels as remote and elitist (see chart 2). As it happens, the European project was like that from the very beginning—and for the best possible reasons.
Look back to the founding of the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner, in 1957. What from the vantage point of 2011 might seem like an undemocratic fix was actually inspired statecraft. After the second world war many Europeans feared that the ghastly cycle of economic depression, instability and war was going to begin all over again. They were caught between the horror of German revanchism and the nightmare of a communist takeover. Europe was the antidote to the madness that had almost destroyed Western civilisation in two world wars, and it was to be administered by the regenten of the day. The architects of the EEC did not seek to harness popular enthusiasm, because it was such enthusiasm that had led to Fascism and Bolshevism.
No wonder that EU business has always been more about the horse-trading of the committee room than about the rhetoric of the debating chamber. David Marquand, a former British MP and a commentator on Europe, writes: “At the heart of the European project lay an unacknowledged but pervasive ambivalence about politics. In transcending the nation state, the founding fathers were also seeking to transcend—or rather to escape from—the messy, vulgar, clamorous irrationality of political life.”
Inspired by the quest for peace, Europe’s designers expected their creation to be justified by what the Brussels officials still call “output legitimacy”—that Europeans would accept the EU because it worked. But that is not what has happened. Today’s Europeans take peace for granted. They are more inclined to measure the EU by the prosperity it has brought. However, it does not get the full credit for that either because national politicians, instead of explaining how much the EU has contributed to Europeans’ wealth, take the credit for themselves. And many of them like to blame Brussels for everything that is bad.
The EU has not helped its own cause. Terms like “the community method”, “Coreper” or “co-decision” seem almost designed to scare people off. Its processes are comically obscure. Paul Magnette, a Belgian politician, reckons that there are 22 different legislative procedures and 30 legal instruments for decision-making in the EU—and that is only counting what is known as the “first pillar” of EU competencies (don’t ask).
All this has led critics to complain about the EU’s “democratic deficit”. But that line of attack is off-beam. The commission (which is unelected, but must be approved wholesale by the parliament) can only propose legislation and help to enforce it. New laws need the backing of ministers from national governments and the elected European Parliament. Compared with national capitals, Brussels is admirably free with information and briefings once you penetrate the jargon and the procedure.
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What the EU lacks is not democracy but popular engagement. It always has and it always will. There is a small industry churning out suggestions for how to remedy this. How about directly electing the commission’s president? Or sending national MPs to sit part-time in the European Parliament? Or staging Europe-wide referendums, so that a single country cannot hold the other 26 to ransom? None of them would change the fact that the EU is remote, impenetrable and elitist. However hard it tries, the EU will not be loved by European citizens—even those who are broadly pro-European. In the words of Anand Menon, a British academic, it is “structurally condemned to inspire apathy”.
“Public opinion is a new actor in the EU,” says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. “It limits what technocrats can do.” Beset by populist anti-elitism on one side and impenetrable technocracy on the other, the fate of the euro therefore lies squarely in the hands of national governments. And none more so than the duo that have long made the running in Europe, France and Germany.