Emmanuel Macron’s strong showing in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday and the failure of anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders to win the Dutch election in March has fueled hope among Europe’s centrists that the march of right-wing populism, which brought the shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, has been halted.
There’s a plethora of good news, for a change. The new movement “Pulse of Europe” has brought thousands onto the streets in defense of the EU in recent months and Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is beset by infighting. It all suggests that the threat posed by hordes of ultra-conservative nationalists has been banished.
But that’s wishful thinking and succumbing to it would be dangerous because the populists in power are busy taking concrete steps to cement their ideology. In Hungary, an ally of right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has shut down the country’s biggest opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag, stoking concerns about media freedom. Mr. Orban has also pushed through a law that could close the Central European University, which promotes the ideal of an open society. In the US, Mr. Trump is pressing ahead with his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico. British Prime Minister Theresa May is getting ready to whip through a hard Brexit and in France, Marine Le Pen has just led the National Front to its best ever election result.
German political scientist Florian Hartleb, author of a new book about populists, argues that Europe has already fallen prey to them. He cited the example of last year’s Austrian presidential election and the fears preceding it, that Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party would win it. In the end, his left-leaning rival, Alexander Van der Bellen, won it with 53.8 percent. “Everyone was totally euphoric,” said Mr. Hartleb. “But almost one in two Austrians had just voted for a right-wing populist.”
He registered similar reactions following the elections in the Netherlands and France. There too, anti-immigrant nationalists scored their best results in years — yet liberal Europeans breathed a sigh of relief.
“The right-wing populists are shaping the political debate.”
Staggering developments such as the collapse of France’s mainstream parties were ignored amid all the cheering at Mr. Macron’s first-round victory. Everyone was talking about the results achieved by Ms. Le Pen. “The right-wing populists are shaping the political debate,” said Mr. Hartleb.
The tone and focus of public debate has hardened noticeably. In Germany, there was a time not so long ago when it was nigh-on taboo to call for the forced repatriation of refugees. Now even prominent left-wingers support the idea. Frontex, the European Union border agency, was long seen as a symbol of a cold-hearted Europe. Now it’s seen as an essential component of the continent’s policy on refugees.
But it’s arguable whether this rightward shift of the debate is really down to populist movements. Timo Lochocki, a political scientist at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, thinks that populists merely accelerate the acceptance of views that are already entrenched in many minds. Right-wing thinking, he said, was widespread in rural areas. “But hardly anyone notices that in our liberal bubbles.”
If one follows Mr. Lochocki’s analysis, this unawareness of what people think is fueling the success of right-wing populism. Canny politicians take up these views, sharpen them into slogans and use them to put the mainstream parties under pressure. The only way to counter that, argues Mr. Lochocki, is to deprive the populists of their issues. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble did that when he adopted a tough line on Greece in the debt crisis and thereby stole the AfD’s thunder. It’s also evident in Britain where the tough approach being taken by Ms. May is causing serious problems for the UK Independence Party.
Other analysts doubt whether that’s the right approach to tackle the populists. “Why vote for a copy if you can have the original?” said Mr. Hartleb. He has lost faith in the established parties. The only hope, he said, lies in new popular movements such as Mr. Macron’s newly founded En Marche party.
“If no new movements rise up, or the old parties don’t come up with new faces and new policies, the right-wing populists will continue to flourish,” warned Mr. Hartleb.
Thomas Schmelzer is a correspondent at Wirtschaftswoche, sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com