Populism’s future in Europe

Elections in France and Hungary suggest nationalist politicians are on the rise, challenging the European Union. Trends suggest that may not be the case.

French President and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron gestures at his election headquarters April 10 in Paris and French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen speaks during a March 14 TV show.

Two elections in Europe this month have raised concerns about the European Union’s unifying values at a challenging moment for security and economic stability. Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, won a second term on April 3. A week later French nationalist Marine Le Pen won her place in a run-off against President Emmanuel Macron to be held on April 24. Polls put her within striking distance of the presidency.

Mr. Orbán and Ms. Le Pen exemplify the kind of politics that gained momentum following the 2008 global financial crisis and the influx of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa a few years later: identity-based nationalism, inward-looking economic policies, and creeping authoritarianism. Both are longtime admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They oppose boycotting Russian oil and gas. Were Ms. Le Pen to win, her victory could disrupt European resolve against Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But their recent gains at the ballot box – the election in Hungary was seriously flawed, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – have added resolve by EU leaders to reassert the bloc’s democratic principles in member states seen as erring toward illiberal practices. Using a new measure endorsed by the European Court of Justice this year, EU officials last week decided to suspend special pandemic-related funding to Hungary and Poland pending reforms.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said last week that EU money for Hungary would be withheld because of corruption and public financing concerns. She said a similar action would be taken against Poland pending a restoration of judicial independence.

“You can’t be part of a club, not play by its rules, but keep all the money,” Daniel Freund, one of the European Parliament negotiators, told The Atlantic. “That just doesn’t work.”

The EU’s actions come at a time when the populist politics may be in retreat around the world. A study by The Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University found that, on average across 109 countries, support for populist leaders fell by 10% from early 2020 to the end of 2021. Among European countries, support for populist leaders or populist opposition parties has fallen about 5%, the study found. Furthermore, “support for key populist attitudes – such as belief in the ‘will of the people’ or that society is divided between ordinary people and a ‘corrupt elite’ – has declined in almost every country.”

The reasons for this change relate to the pandemic. The study found that by and large countries run by populist leaders fared worse during the COVID-19 crisis than better-run democracies.

A similar conclusion was reached in a study by the European Economic Advisory Group on the effects of the coronavirus crisis. “If there is a change in what is expected from governments, there may be a shift towards demand for competence,” the study found. “At the same time, populist politicians have not been very successful in this crisis. Whether this will reduce support for populism in the coming years remains to be seen.”

Germany’s recent chancellor, Angela Merkel, argues that populist leaders in Europe raise an existential question for the EU. Will the bloc move closer together in its policies or will it revert to being a common economic union where each country decides its own social and political path?

French voters may help answer that question in the days ahead. But in Hungary and Poland, European officials have already spoken. Their insistence on democratic principles sends a message that integrity in government is the best assurance of unity and equality.

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