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Is European politics beginning another lurch to the right?

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By Joshua Askew
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni waves to cameras as she leaves after swearing in at Quirinal presidential palace, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni waves to cameras as she leaves after swearing in at Quirinal presidential palace, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP   -  

Something is shaking European politics.

In September, Italy elected populist firebrand Giorgia Meloni, who on Friday became the country's first far-right leader since the war-time fascist Mussolini.

Days before the nationalist, right-wing Sweden Democrats made an electoral breakthrough, gaining 20.5% of the vote in an election dominated by concerns over gang violence and immigration.

Though there are some exceptions -- a pro-European, liberal recently saw off a far-right populist challenger for the Austrian presidency -- these two examples point to a possible populist, a right-wing resurgence in Europe, with populists polling well in Bulgaria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Finland.

So what is happening in European politics?

“What we are seeing is the rise of anti-establishment parties that promise something radically different,” says Sam Van der Staak at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

“Right-wing, left-wing is a misrepresentation, it is really about citizens expressing that they are not happy with politics and what the whole system of government is delivering.”

A difficult concept to pin down, populism is a political approach that pitches “ordinary people” against "elites". The term rose to prominence in 2016 with the UK Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

Alastair Grant/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
A man wearing a Donald Trump mask holds the flag of England, derived from Saint George's Cross, during a pro Brexit demonstration in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.Alastair Grant/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

Populism has now become “normalised to a certain extent”, says van der Staak. 

“Back then we were all scared that populists would take over, but this time I didn't read all that much outrage about the elections in Italy or Sweden.”

‘A new political force’

One reason for this is that some policy stances of populist parties across Europe and the political centre have converged, claims van der Staak.

“Tougher views on migration have become more accepted,” he told Euronews, noting how many populist parties have also dropped their resistance to the European Union.

“A few years ago it was all about far-right, far-left populists calling for overturning the mainstream. Now we are seeing a category that is somewhere in between.”

Far-right Italian PM-to-be Giorgia Meloni, a harsh critic of the EU in the past, repeatedly claimed in the run-up to the election that her Brothers of Italy party was not against Europe.

Another “more significant” factor fuelling populism in Europe for van der Staak is that “the current system of government is not working”.

“For a long time, social welfare systems have not been able to deliver […] and the traditional levers of government have been unable to provide the answers to socio-economic problems,” he says, citing problems in parliaments and polarisation across Europe.

The UK, traditionally viewed as a stable country, will see its fourth prime minister in three years this week, with parliament hit with years-long turbulence since the controversial Brexit vote.

‘We need to keep an eye on them’

Behind concerns around populism in Europe are questions about what populist parties will do once in office.

“What we are going to have to keep an eye on,” says van der Staak, “is what these anti-establishment parties do once in office.”

“Will they govern responsibly or will they go over the edge?” he asked.

According to a forthcoming report by IDEA, shared with Euronews, almost 70% of what it calls high-performing democratic European countries have suffered democratic erosion in 2021, while 60% of mid-range democracies are eroding.

Three of these – Poland, Hungary and Slovenia – are described by IDEA as “backsliding”, meaning there has been a “sustained and deliberate” attack on their democratic systems by political actors and governments.

Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a panel discussion organised by publisher houses about 'Storm over Europe, Oct 11, 2022.Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Hard-right political parties have taken power in all three eastern European states, though Slovenia's Janez Janša who was likened to Trump was defeated in elections this year. 

Budapest and Warsaw remain at loggerheads with Brussels over their rollbacks of democratic freedoms at home. 

‘I don't think so’

But others did not think Europe was taking a turn towards right-wing populism.

“It's true that right-wing populists have done well in a few countries,” said Brett Meyer, a research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “But not in most others".

“Look at Germany, they elected the most boring guy in the world”, he added, citing other electoral victories of centrists in France and Austria. “There is a big question mark over the resurgence of populism”.

Meyer was also sceptical about drawing Europe-wide comparisons, pointing out how recent elections in Italy and Sweden were “completely different from one another”.

In Sweden, the vote was dominated by fears over crime and migration, while Meyer says in Italy the "story was more about the weakness and fragmentation of the left”.

Sweden’s left-leaning Social Democrats won the popular vote, yet could not form a governing coalition, while in Italy the left-wing parties failed to form a pre-election agreement in contrast to the right. 

Yet there was one thing that united Europe’s right-wing populists, according to Meyer.

“If I had to summarise them all up, I would say they are anti-immigrant parties”, he said. “They have all done well in countries where immigration is a salient issue”.