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Populism in Europe: Will the European Union change?

03rd May, 2019

Populism is seen to represent the true will of the people, often in opposition to the current status quo of a "liberal elite". In a European context, successful populism generally is found to the radical right, for example the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary, but populists can fall anywhere along the political spectrum and are not driven by a single ideology. Populism's recent surge in favour reflects the people's dissatisfaction with the political establishment's approach to addressing both societal and economic challenges.

Populist Europe

Greece was first to experiment with anti-centrist populism, when Syriza, a coalition of left-wing parties took power in 2015. The Greeks found that snubbing European Union (EU) fiscal rules created financial stress in the government bond market, outweighing gains from fiscal easing and causing a national crisis.

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party won the parliamentary election in 2017. This was the first time neither of France’s “standard” parties were elected in government, or featured in the second round of the presidential election. Macron instead faced National Front candidate Marine le Pen.

Le Pen is one of a new generation of European populists that are fragmenting politics across the continent. The most high-profile populist government is undoubtedly Italy, where the Five Star Movement and League formed a coalition despite holding many opposing views. Italy’s bond yields spiked, like Greece’s did, when the new Italian government tested the EU’s fiscal rules with its budget.

Poland and Hungary have also elected authoritarian governments that preach anti-EU sentiment and reduced civil liberties. In total, 10 EU governments are comprised of parties classified as populist, including Denmark and Spain, where centrist parties cooperate with populists to pass legislation.

With this in mind, the question must be asked: will this populist, anti-EU sentiment be reflected in May’s elections to the European Parliament?

Parliament today

 Currently two pro-EU parties – the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – of the centre-right and centre-left hold a majority. However, support for populist Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) has doubled from 11% in 2009 to 21% in 2014. Current opinion polls suggest up to one in four MEPs elected in May will be populist-leaning. With this outlook, the EPP/S&D look likely to have to work with other pro-EU parties to pass legislation.

Populist MEPs in the European Parliament are spread across its eight political groupings, with less than 5% of the governing coalition identifying as populist. Populist MEPs are instead found in smaller groups that range from one-third populist to entirely populist. This lack of a unified voice makes it difficult for populists to vote together and make an impact in the European Parliament.

Furthermore, the diverse objectives of populist parties are causing splintering between them, and they frequently disagree. Even within the populist groupings, populist parties do not necessarily vote together, with one such grouping voting together for just 27% of votes in a year. Undeniably, the current wave of populism is altering the dualist political environment to which Europe is accustomed. However, it seems unlikely we will see a vast shift in the policies and direction of the EU. Rather, it appears divisions will make it more difficult for centrists to form working majorities, force them to adopt policies that appeal to populist voters, and perhaps work with populist parties in government. The era of the two-party state is at an end.


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This article was taken from our April edition of MarketWatch.

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This article was taken from our April edition of MarketWatch.

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