European Populism

The March of the Globalization Pessimists

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe’s populist parties are seeing a surge in support. A study finds that fears of globalization and a vague anxiety about migration are driving voters towards these parties.

  • Facts


    • In August, the Bertelsmann Foundation surveyed 14,936 people in the nine biggest E.U. member states — Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Spain and Hungary.
    • The majority of supporters of populist parties fear globalization: Alternative for Germany (78 percent), France’s Front National (76 percent) and Austrian Freedom Party (69 percent).
    • Pessimism about globalization is highest in Austria and France (55 and 54 percent).
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Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) attends a pre-election meeting in Berlin
Frauke Petry, AfD leader, riding the wave of globalization anxiety in Germany. Source: Reuters

Protest voters and populist leaders are disrupting what had been solid political majorities in the United States and Europe. But what drives people to these parties that claim to be the sole representative of popular will and oppose the so-called Establishment?

A study of European Union countries by the Bertelsmann Foundation has concluded that fears of globalization are playing a major role in this development.

In Germany in particular, these fears, which are primarily based on a vague anxiety about migration, are influencing voter behavior.

The survey of 14,936 people was conducted in August in the nine biggest E.U. member states — Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Spain and Hungary. It found that supporters of right-wing, nationalist and populist parties are particularly fearful about the consequences of rising international integration.

According to the poll, more than two thirds of the supporters of the Alternative for Germany (78 percent), France’s Front National (76 percent) and the Austrian Freedom Party (69 percent) see globalization as a threat.

At least half of the members of the far-right parties studied, from Forza Italia in Italy to the UK Independence Party in Great Britain, can be classed as globalization pessimists.

“We cannot surrender to the populists in the bid to win over concerned citizens.”

Aart De Geus, chairman of the Bertelsmann Foundation

The study’s authors conclude that fear of globalization is fueling the success of right-wing populist parties in Europe. Similar anxieties also play a role with leftist parties, but the study shows that this factor is far more decisive when it comes to supporting right-wing parties.

For left-wing populist parties, it seldom exceeds 50 percent, with fears of globalization highest among supporters of France’s Front de gauche (58 percent) and Germany’s Left Party (54 percent). Those anxieties don’t play an overwhelming role for Germany’s other parties: The survey found that around a third of supporters of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Green Party said they feared globalization.

Aart De Geus, chairman of the Bertelsmann Foundation, believes the established parties have a responsibility to react to the rightward drift in Europe and to address the fear of globalization: “We cannot surrender to the populists in the bid to win over concerned citizens.”

The need for action is demonstrated in another survey carried out by TNS Infratest for the Körber Foundation. Many of the 1,001 German citizens polled believe the European Union isn’t on the right path and are dissatisfied with the state of the bloc.

The findings of the Bertelsmann study should induce the parties to focus more attentively on the migration issue, since persons perceiving globalization as a threat see migration as “one of the most important challenges in the future.” The study showed they have less contact with foreigners in their daily life and express xenophobic feelings more frequently. Moreover, they are skeptical regarding the European Union and politics in general.

The authors of the Bertelsmann study have issued an appeal to the political establishment: “Responding to these fears will number among the fundamental political challenges of the coming years. Only those who know how to do so will be able to win voters back from the populist parties.” They acknowledge that the established European parties have begun to recognize this but are skeptical whether Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach is the correct one.

In any case, the authors of the Bertelsmann study aren’t entirely convinced that the “Merkel method,” which gives precedence to political changes over changes in rhetoric, will ultimately be able to persuade voters to change their party preference. “This method runs the risk of not having the politically calming effect it intends,” they argue. Because: “Especially in times of widespread noise, there is need for a striking communicative gesture in order to penetrate the uproar and calm anxious souls.”

They offer a reminder that Ms. Merkel once succeeded in reducing anxiety by addressing the people. When in an early phase of the financial crisis, the chancellor together with then finance minister Peer Steinbrück assured citizens that their savings were safe, she conveyed the message: “We’re taking steps. Everything is under control.”

Marine Le Pen, France’s National Front political party leader, kisses Netherland’s Geert Wilders, president of PVV during the far-right French party’s congress in Lyon
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front with Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom. Source: Reuters

But in the current debate over migration, such a gesture has not yet been made. “And so the vague impression that nothing is being done stubbornly persists – in strange contradiction to what are in some cases drastic measures. Politicians are viewed as being in over their heads.”

The authors of the study consider this impression to have been strengthened by the vociferous dispute between the two Christian Democratic parties — the CDU and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union — in recent months. But the researchers see a way out of the dilemma: “Ending the controversy with a concentrated act of communication that ‘We have a firm grip on the situation’ would most likely harm the development of the AfD.” And possibly strengthen Ms. Merkel’s position within her party.

“Angela Merkel’s political success is also linked to the number of refugees,” Rainer Haselhof, the CDU premier of Saxony-Anhalt, told the website of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For this reason, he said he was concerned about the threat by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to cancel the refugee agreement with the E.U.

Especially since Ms. Merkel’s policies have changed fundamentally since the height of the refugee crisis last autumn. Mr. Haselhof said a change of course has occurred even if it has not been announced. With respect to integrating immigrants into the labor market, he considers the challenge to be great but not insurmountable.

The Bertelsmann study also states that German refugee policy has “changed drastically” since the beginning of 2016. Political observers point to the agreement between the European Union and Turkey that has significantly reduced the number of refugees landing on the coast of Greece. At the same time, the subsequent reunion with family members has been almost entirely canceled; fathers who fled in the hope of their families soon joining them now face “high hurdles.”

The authors of the study say the legal standards for asylum seekers have not been lowered, but “living conditions have become tougher both before and after asylum has been granted.” At the same time, the German government has significantly increased the number of countries that count as safer third countries. People entering Germany from these countries with the intention of seeking asylum “scarcely have the opportunity to even submit an application.” Citizens from these countries can be sent back without further investigation if they can’t offer proof that their lives are in danger.

The Bertelsmann authors are convinced that “this political shift can only be understood against the background of a changing political framework.” They see the year 2016 as characterized by a “rapid” decline in the chancellor’s popularity, by “great” resistance to her policies from her own ranks and by the rise of the far-right, populist AfD.

But the Bertelsmann survey also finds that the current situation is a challenge not only for German policy. Fear of globalization is registered to differing degrees among Europeans. While a majority of E.U. citizens (55 percent) see globalization as an opportunity, almost one in two (45 percent) view it as a threat. The lower the educational level and the higher the age of the person surveyed, the greater is the probability that they consider globalization to be dangerous.

It is interesting to see how pessimists and optimists regarding globalization are distributed across the map of Europe. Whereas pessimism about globalization is highest in Austria and France (55 and 54 percent), the most optimists live in Great Britain (64 percent), Italy and Spain (each 61 percent). With a preponderance of optimists over pessimists (55 to 45 percent), Germany is in line with the E.U.-wide trend.

The study shows that in all countries, an individual’s income, educational level and age have a crucial effect on their attitudes. Among those categorized themselves as middle class, globalization optimists are clearly in the majority throughout the E.U. (63 percent), while among the working class pessimists and optimists are almost equally represented (47 and 53 percent respectively).

The highly skilled are more well-disposed toward globalization (63 percent) than the low-skilled (53 percent). Young Europeans between 18 and 25 have the most upbeat attitude about globalization (61 percent). Mr. De Geus cautions that even though Germany and Europe have benefited “particularly” from globalization, nonetheless many people feel left behind: “We need to organize international integration in such a way that as many people as possible can benefit from it and not be harmed by it.”

The importance of rethinking the issue is also shown by the fact that fears of globalization go hand in hand with a rejection of politics and society. Almost half of globalization pessimists (47 percent) would vote for an exit from the E.U. Less than one in 10 of them (9 percent) trusts politicians in general; less than half (38 percent) are satisfied with democracy in their own country.

The vast majority of globalization optimists, on the other hand, support the E.U. (83 percent), and a majority (53 percent) is satisfied with democracy. But even among optimists, there is limited trust of politicians: Only one in five trusts his governmental representatives.

The responses to questions about the concrete threats posed by globalization gives a picture of marginalization and a degree of ignorance. A majority of pessimists see themselves as marginalized in their own societies (54 percent) and consider migration to be a fundamental challenge of the coming years (53 percent). Interestingly enough, however, only a little more than half of them say they have had any contact with foreigners (55 percent).

In the survey by the Körber Foundation, the migration issue – along with Brexit and trans-Atlantic alienation – is shown to be a reason why the German population doubts whether the E.U. member states are making the correct decisions.

Of those surveyed, 62 percent believe the E.U. isn’t on the right path. At the same time, those polled have significant trust in Germany’s role in the European Union and a majority wishes for this leadership role to be expanded (59 percent). A similarly large majority (60 percent) says the German government should impose its own interests on other member countries in crisis situations.


Dietmar Neuerer covers politics in Berlin. To contact him:

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