The Demise of Populism in Europe

Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

By Marcelo Fernandez de la Mora  

Regardless of any position on the political spectrum, populists engage in a manner of communication that appeals to the common citizen against a supposedly corrupt and out-of-touch elite. Despite a recent rise in this political movement, last month was devastating to populists, both left and right in Europe. On June 8, the British electorate decimated the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); Scottish Nationalists who had attempted to take advantage of Brexit in order to hold another independence referendum lost more than a third of their seats, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May might be forced to abandon her hard Brexit plan so that she can secure a majority in the House of Commons with the support of the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party. Despite Labour’s gains, it is unlikely that the party will soon return to power.

This anti-populist trend was seen in several other European governments as well. On 11 June, the mainstream Italian Center-right and Center-left parties triumphed, while the once popular protest Five-Star Movement’s support evaporated; a party that was running neck and neck with the governing Democratic Party weeks before and had secured control of Rome via local elections the year before now failed to make it to runoff elections in most major cities. On June 13, the populist and anti-immigration Finns Party split in half, resulting in the preservation of Finland’s moderate government. The next day, the left-wing populist party Podemos (We Can), which had origins from a mass protest movement in Spain, failed by a landslide to unseat the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The radical left-wing and governing Greek party Syriza yet again abandoned its anti-capitalist economic doctrines and submitted to the will of the IMF and the demands of centrist European Finance Ministers a few days later. Polls suggest that Syriza may lose to the center right New Democracy Party by up to fifteen points in the next general election.

The recent history of one of these once-popular populist parties may serve as a template for current and future populist parties. One of the most surprising examples is that of the right-wing UKIP’s fall from power. Founded in 1991, as the Anti-Federalist League, the party opposed the efforts of Prime Minister John Major to include the United Kingdom in the European Union and in the Maastricht Treaty. Unlike the modern party, the Anti-Federalists believed in a centrist agenda and espoused moderate views notwithstanding their opposition to Britain’s integration to the EU. The founder of the movement, Alan Sked, who was also a professor at the prestigious London School of Economics at that time, described the party as “a non-sectarian, non-racist party with no prejudices against foreigners or lawful minorities of any kind” without “recogniz[ing] the legitimacy of the European parliament.” Despite the party’s name changing to UKIP in 1993, Sked still emphasized liberal values and a resolute refusal to participate in what he considered an illegitimate institution. However, he claims that he was outmaneuvered by hardliners including Nigel Farage, and had no choice but to resign. “They took out the bit about no prejudices against lawful minorities and, as soon as I disappeared, they all decided they wanted to go to the European parliament and take their expenses,” he lamented.

Due to the fact that British seats were allocated to the European Parliament via a method of proportional representation, UKIP managed to win three seats. Subsequent elections resulted in consistent gains until 2014 in which UKIP won 25 percent of the vote and a plurality of British votes. UKIP’s publicity increased after the leader Nigel Farage almost died after a 2010 plane crash. Instead of splitting up like many small British parties, UKIP bade its time and built a strong support base. In 2002 the party had nine thousand members, sixteen thousand in 2003, and thirty two thousand affiliates in 2013. The 2014 European Parliament Election shook British politics. This was the first time in almost a century in which neither Labour nor the Conservatives had won a nationwide election. Fueled by the disastrous management of the migrant crisis, the failure of Labour and the Conservatives to fix the moribund economy and a general economic stagnation, working class and rural voters who felt that they were suffering due to the globalization and immigration caused by European Union, secured UKIP’s rise to power.

Emboldened by the growing feeling of Euroscepticism and worried by UKIP’s success in local special elections, hardline Conservatives moved further to the right and demanded that Prime Minister David Cameron be less supportive of the European Union’s attempts to take power from member states. In order to satisfy the conflict between moderates and more anti-EU backbenchers, he attempted to renegotiate Britain’s standing in the EU. He achieved some concessions from the European Commission, the European Union’s executive authority, but ultimately failed to gain a concession on immigration. Hoping that he could control his party by winning in a seemingly hard to lose referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership, Cameron called for a Brexit referendum and campaigned for the Remain side. Unfortunately for him, UKIP won the Brexit referendum. After this victory, it appeared that UKIP’s role in British national politics would be more relevant, but party leader Nigel Farage suddenly resigned, throwing the party into chaos. Fast forwarding to 2017, the party lost all of its seats in Westminster and was decimated in regional elections.

A party that had a promising future collapsed not only because it had already fulfilled its main promise and because its leader had resigned, but also because Brexit had severe economic ramifications. Brexit supposedly meant prosperity and better economic conditions, yet the collapse of the pound and capital flight from London hurt the people who had voted for Brexit the most. The question now is if the Republican Party will look at UKIP’s transformation into a populist party and realize that the new support that they gained in the 2016 election will last. This last election, the GOP promised to to re-industrialize the country by enacting protectionist economic reforms and to promote government accountability. However, according to most mainstream economists, Trump’s protectionist plan would hurt the American economy as well as his voters. Furthermore, the White House has suffered a variety of controversies ranging from the resignation of a national security advisor to conflicts of interest and dubious ethics. The lesson from UKIP reminds us that the people can just as easily abandon a movement as join one, and the GOP should take note of its current inability to promote good policymaking before the party suffers a defeat in 2018.