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Europe’s populists who got left behind

This was meant to be its moment but across the continent, populism has peaked. So what is replacing it?

Marine Le Pen, who suffered disappointing election results in June 2021 - Credit: ABACA/PA Images

The recent defeat for Marine Le Pen in France’s regional elections confirms that a new political model is opening up in Europe. It is based on identity, not ideology, on interests not ideas, and on many variants, not a single reductionist populist one based on race, nation and hostility to Europe.

Twentieth-century binary left-right politics is dead. The giant 20th century unitary political formations that bestrode the stage in European democracies — Conservatives versus Labour, Social versus Christian Democrats, Socialists versus Gaullists — are fading away.

In the last decade academics like the Dutch professor Cas Mudde on the left, or the British professor Matthew Goodwin on the right, proclaimed the arrival of an unstoppable national populist wave that would conquer Europe. It was based on hostility to the EU, hostility to immigrants, and hostility to what came to be called “woke” politics: support for LGBT rights, for feminism, for anti-racism, or green politics that challenged car ownership or made roads and public spaces bike- or pedestrian-friendly.

These prophets of populism filled comment pages with proclamations that Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orban and parties like the AfD in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria or Vox in Spain were on the rise and here to stay. Donald Trump and the “Britain Trump” — as the former US president vaingloriously called Boris Johnson after the latter skilfully used Brexit to engineer his arrival in Downing Street — were seen as the future.

But just as 20th century politics has faded, so too have the early 21st century proclamations by both the right and left wings of the intelligentsia that populism was now the only game in town.

In France, it is the return of classic post-Gaullist centre right politics that is performing well at the polls, with big beasts of the Sarkozy era – but without the associated sleaze – keeping most control of regional councils. The left, in the shape of socialist-green alliances, also maintained control of the five regional councils they held.

Macron’s En Marche! party was not even formed the last time these elections were fought, so had no standard-bearers that voters had got to know. Instead, three heavy-hitting centre right politicians — Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pecresse and Laurent Wauquiez — now have to decide which of them will be the candidate to challenge Macron next year. They may yet fall out as none of the three suffers from undue modesty.

The Macron moment arose in 2017 as France had to choose between going down the nationalist populist road which academics like Mudde and Goodwin said was Europe’s future, or taking a break from old party politics and going for a non-partisan president. French voters opted for the latter. This should have been a warning to the prophets of populism that their horse was faltering. Indeed, Macron may now be bringing back to life party politics in France – one of the unintended consequences or ruses history likes to play.

In last month’s regional elections, Le Pen failed to make the breakthrough she needed and had predicted. This does not augur well for her chances in the Elysée race next May.

Her hope is that the two-thirds of voters who could not be bothered to turn out to vote last month will have sufficient enthusiasm for her Rassemblement National party to get into the run-off with Macron.

But the spark has gone from her style. Last time around, she seized upon Brexit as the model for France where she, following in her father’s footsteps, had been the champion of anti-European populism, calling for a rejection of the Euro and a referendum à l’anglaise on the European project.

She put Union Jacks on her social media platforms, but as Brexit turned into a four-year-long political agony for Britain and a steady weakening of the UK economy, she has stopped using the B-word as a model to follow.

The rampant Francophobia in UK Brexit circles – with attacks on France over fishing, vaccinations, or Macron’s European grandstanding – are not making any impact in France where there is low-level Schadenfreude at Boris Johnson’s difficulties: the Delta variant, a possible Scots-led break-up of the UK, DUP hardline utterances on the Good Friday Agreement, and the alignment of Joe Biden with European positions rather than English Brexit ones.

It would be too early to write off Le Pen, but the anti-European populist moment may have passed. Geert Wilders has faded, rather like Nigel Farage has here. Matteo Salvini is a very junior and docile supporter of the Italian prime minister Mario Draghi the consummate Eurocrat and former president of the European Central Bank. Salvini’s populist Euro-bashing turned off his Lega Party’s industrial paymasters who him told to pipe down and get back to mainstream politics. He told the FT this month that he now believed in a “strong Europe”.

Spain’s VOX has shifted the mainstream Spanish rightist Partido Popular a bit more right. But its Franco nostalgia nationalism has limited appeal. Spain needs full access to EU markets and arrivals of north European tourists. Indulging in the nationalist populism predicted by academics and the London monolingual Brexit commentariat has little attraction in a nation that has had its best four decades as an EU member state than any previous moments of Spain’s modern history. Viktor Orban got a red carpet welcome at 10 Downing Street by his fellow anti-Brussels prime minister, Boris Johnson but the Hungarian PM is seen more and more as a hateful homophobe, with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, openly calling on Hungary to quit the EU.

In Germany, the AfD is not growing in support. Instead, the Greens, who have shaped an eco-populism over 25 years, are looking like probable governing partners in post-Merkel Germany. The party is proving itself a sensible manager in state and big-city governments.

So while the SPD suffers the fate of other classic 20th century political formations, progressive and non-ideological politics is re-emerging in new forms.

Macron, for example, is as tough on Islamist ideology as anyone who writes for Policy Exchange or the Spectator might wish. The Danish Social Democratic-led government is reported to be cooperating with home secretary Priti Patel on opening processing centres for economic migrants, who pay people traffickers to be brought to Calais to embark on rubber dinghies and head for Dover.

The Danish Social Democrats lost power 20 years ago when they refused to listen to voters’ concerns on immigration. Now back in office, they ban marriages between a Dane and a non-EU citizen under the age of 24.

This is the new post-ideological style of winning power in Europe. It picks bits and pieces of populism, but incorporates them into wider political projects with strong elements of social investment to help the left-behinds, who were ignored in the long Thatcherite or neo-liberal era and at Davos gatherings of the super-rich and their fawning politicians.

Identity politics has been taken on board by more and more mainstream parties across Europe, who support regional and sub-national identities – in contrast to the southern English elite’s disdain for Scotland and its quest for respect for the Scottish nation.
Hardly anywhere does one single party rule exclusively in the manner of Boris Johnson’s Brexitised Tory party. Coalitions, arrangements, agreements, power-sharing, holding office for two years and then giving way to other leaders are the new norm in European politics (and beyond, e.g. in Israel) in the third decade of the new century.

The resignation of Sweden’s Social Democratic prime minister Stefan Löfven recently is a case in point. Löfven headed a heterogeneous minority coalition that lost a confidence vote in parliament — a first for Sweden. Löfven now has to see if he can form a new government or give another party leader a chance. But the populist, hard-right Swedish Democrats, once crudely racist, have had to tone down their extremism if their leader, Jimmie Åkesson, hopes even to enter a coalition, let alone form one. The price of power is pragmatic compromise, as rank Steve Bannon type populism won’t work.

Populism is based on the Führerprinzip – like Erdogan in Turkey or Orban in Hungary. But even Orban is now facing serious opposition from a broad-based coalition like the one that brought down Netanyahu in Israel. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s populism has so far turned out to be based on social democratic tax, borrow and spend largesse. Thus the term “populist”, which was so modish between 2010 and 2020, has run out of use in the era of Biden, the end of an all-embracing European project, and the patchwork of parties that form most of today’s governments across the continent. The professors will have to find a new describer for post-populist politics.