Analysis. As Europe is facing a year of elections populist politicians are on the rise. Europe is turning inward, nationalist and defensive at an alarming rate. Mainstream politicians are nervous of giving populist parties more ammunition. But the weakness of moderates is also self-imposed. They have chosen to bunker down rather than break out. Courageous leadership and honesty is needed now, says Mark Rhinard, Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University and Senior Research Fellow at UI, Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Spare a thought for the moderate politician in Europe. No, those words are not often spoken. Politicians rarely elicit our deepest sympathies. But today’s political climate is cause for concern as mainstream political leaders find themselves pulled in impossible directions.
From one side, leaders are under attack by populist parties exploiting deep-seated public concerns. From the other side, most of those concerns are best tackled through European and international cooperation. The migration crisis can only be solved through honest cooperation and compromise if Europe is to remain open. Financial troubles require give-and-take amongst creditor and debtor nations. Fixing climate change demands sacrifices in labor-heavy industrial sectors. But proposing more cooperation is hardly a vote-winner when moderate parties across Europe are declining rapidly in the face of increasingly nationalist politics.
Politics across Europe bears out the point. France is in the midst of dégagisme: a populist urge to cast out leaders tainted by elected office. A long list of veteran moderates now sit on the sidelines, replaced by two leading candidates – Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – who have never held an executive title. Macron, along with the floundering François Fillon, remains the sole standard-bearer in mainstream French politics.
Austria has just barely managed to keep a moderate in office of the president. Alexander Van der Bellen squeaked by his far-right challenger from the Freedom Party, who garnered 46.7 percent of the vote.
The Netherlands, which sets political trends in Europe, will soon vote on two candidates from once-fringe parties – the ultra-liberal VVD, the party of the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the far-right PVV led by the popular Geert Wilders. Wilders is in the lead, based on agenda of kicking out Muslims and exiting the Eurozone. The once-powerful Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) is likely to drop from second to fifth in popularity at the polls. Germany’s AfD (Alternative for Germany) has been gaining votes since 2013, especially at local levels, by campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform.
For moderates, not everything is bad. Marine Le Pen is predicted to lose to either Macron or Fillon if all the mainstream parties band against her. The Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen actually increased his share of the vote when the Austrian presidential election was re-run in December 2016. The far-right PVV in the Netherlands, although ahead in the polls, tends to underperform on election day. Germany’s AfD experienced a set-back in regional elections in Germany. And Portugal’s surging Socialist Party may have written the script on how to revive the fortunes of mainstream political parties.
Are these events a turn-around for moderates or just a brief pause during a long-term slide? The fact is that populist parties are now in the driver’s seat of political agendas – if not in formal political office. The moderate Mark Rutte recently wrote an op-ed piece in a Dutch daily newspaper excoriating newcomers to “act Dutch or leave” – a page out of Geert Wilder’s populist handbook. Angela Merkel has found herself on the backfoot after Germany’s populist surge, making dodgy deals with Turkey to stop immigration. And Marine Le Pen has already transformed French politics, drawing blue collar socialist voters into the National Front’s voting roles. The evidence is clear in Brussels: very few new EU policies stand a chance of approval in an era when even mainstream politicians are nervous of giving populist parties more ammunition. Europe is turning inward, nationalist, and defensive at an alarming rate.
What can be done to change this trend? How can moderates reverse their electoral decline? Calling for ‘stronger leadership’ seems shallow, but one cannot deny that the weakness of moderates is self-imposed. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, mainstream leaders have chosen to bunker down rather than break out. Courageous leadership is needed now more than ever, to take principled stands in favor of a more open outlook and to explain how cooperation is, in many cases, the only way towards more effective policies. Honesty would help, too.
Globalization has not helped everyone, middle-classes are stuck in the status-quo, and European integration has had some negative effects on growth that need changing. But the message is reform not retrenchment, with more statesmanship and less pandering. The choice is stark: between Europe’s long history of bloody territorial conflict and more recent history of openness and prosperity. One can only hope the next set of elections in Europe will point the way towards the latter.