Anthony J. Constantini is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna, with a dissertation focus on populism.
A right-populist wave washed over the European Union from 2015 to 2020.
Poland elected a hard-right government, then the following year saw the United Kingdom leave the bloc in 2016. This was followed by the election of populist-right governments in Austria and Italy, and Hungary reelecting Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in 2018. Capping it all off, Poland then reelected their same government in 2019.
Though that wave did, indeed, come to an end, it is clear a second one has now begun, and is possibly threatening the foundations of the EU. But if European integrationists are to understand how to deal with this second wave and prevent its escalation, they must first closely study their reactions — or lack thereof — to the first populist surge.
Brussels, and much of European media, had responded to this initial wave of populist success with dismissal. It also threw away an early opportunity to demonstrate that EU institutions were democratic during the bloc’s parliamentary elections in 2019.
While it was expected that the leader of the largest elected party would become president of the European Commission, as per the popular Spitzenkandidaten system, leaders instead picked then German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen — who had not run and was little-known — leaving a large number of voters feeling unrepresented.
Meanwhile, voter anger over migration — a clear driver in several of the electoral contests — was oftentimes ignored or lambasted as nothing but racism, with most of the right-wing victories being chalked up to disinformation.
And after doing nothing to affect change, the moment there was the briefest of pauses in populist wins from early 2020 to early 2022 — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — analysts fell over themselves to explain how the populist wave was over.
Following this brief intermission, however, populism is now sweeping the Continent once again.
Earlier this year, Orbán followed up his 2018 victory with an even larger win against an opposition candidate who identified himself closely with Brussels, and had brought in former European Council President Donald Tusk to campaign on Hungary’s National Day.
Sweden followed this trend in its recent election, with the country’s right wing winning power on the strength of the far-right Sweden Democrats, as the party doubled its support among young voters since the last election
And further south, Italy has just elected the nationalist conservative Georgia Meloni.
Other dominoes may soon fall too.
Spain and Finland are set to head to the polls in 2023, and both elections could result in right-wing coalitions that would include far-right parties. Meanwhile, Belgium’s top two parties in current polling averages are far-right populists, and Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) still leads parliamentary polling and could feasibly govern with the nationalist Confederation.
EU leadership is either ignoring these facts, or it’s willfully misunderstanding them.
When former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unelected technocratic government fell this summer, Brussels held a metaphorical funeral procession, but there was no reckoning as to why the EU had felt forced to place its hopes on an unelected former central banker in the first place. And it’s almost as if the bloc was trying to reinforce its lack of appraisal, when just days before this year’s Italian election, von der Leyen threatened to use “tools” to make Italy comply with Brussels’ diktats, should Meloni’s conservatives take power. Surprisingly, her threat didn’t alter the results.
Similarly, when Hungary overwhelmingly reelected Orbán, the European Parliament responded by branding the country an electoral autocracy, rather than trying to understand his popularity. And to combat the far right in Poland, Brussels simply cheered when former President of the European Council Donald Tusk became leader of the Civic Platform opposition party once again in order to take down the ruling PiS.
In each of these cases, there remains a persistent unwillingness to understand exactly why populists and the far right are succeeding.
This isn’t to say the EU should ignore rule-of-law violations, should such violations exist. After all, corruption and the erosion of law can do serious damage to institutional trust. But EU leadership should still attempt to figure out why these waves are happening — and the answers seem relatively obvious.
For one, Brussels has to figure out and clarify the vagueness of EU powers.
For example, is it illegal to ban things like teaching LGBTQ+ rights? And how much power should the Commission have over the purse, like with its plan to restrict Hungary’s EU funds? Here, the Commission claims it’s responding to Hungarian corruption, but if so, then why aren’t practically openly corrupt member countries like Bulgaria getting an equally close look? And if it is ultimately because of Hungary’s treatment of LGBTQ+ rights, then where do those powers come from?
On a broader scope, what should the EU even be? A primarily economic union that also exists to ensure some basic political rights, or an activist political and economic union that will seek to enforce modern interpretations of morality through the courts? These are enormous questions that need answering.
Secondly, Sweden and Italy’s elections both point to the continued importance of the issue of migration, and the Commission is clearly uncomfortable with this
While von der Leyen did mention migration in her State of the Union address, it only received a cursory sentence near the end, and much more attention was, once again, given to fighting disinformation. But if all right-wing victories are tarred as being the result of disinformation and nothing more, then nothing else will get fixed.
It’s important to acknowledge that not every right-wing or populist election win is due to disinformation — such victories often occur because of real voter frustration. And if Brussels doesn’t try to listen to voters and figure out why a second populist wave is happening, there’s no telling what an almost inevitable third wave might bring.