Resisting Populism in Europe: Why Political Opportunism Has Emerged and How It Can Be Confronted

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Populism is arguably one of the main problems in modern society. Even though many have associated populism with the far-right, the phenomenon is found on both ends of the political spectrum. Recent incidents have shown that political opportunism has been running wild in Europe for quite some time. Populism is a wind of change blowing through European society, threatening to reverse the federalist advancements of the past 60 years.

In order to combat this, European society needs to implement reforms to bring about political stability. This can only occur after Europeans have realized the severity of the situation. The response must be targeted and inclusive to all Europeans with regard to civil society, political parties and transnational institutions.

The dream of federalism in the European Union has faced a variety of setbacks since the early 1990s. In 2017, it is facing one of its toughest adversaries to date: the party system in Europe that long fought for federalism and is now one of the biggest opponents of European integration.

From the outbreak of the economic crisis in the United States, to the Greek fiscal troubles in 2011 and finally the refugee crisis, the EU has suffered in the aftermath of major political and economic upheaval. These events have given birth to a new form of political representation and participation; the emergence of political parties that base their political agenda on populist rhetoric. The list includes parties such as the AfD in Germany (Alternative für Deutschland), the National Front in France and the Fidesz Party in Hungary.

Years of centrist political and economic policies have resulted in political congestion, where modern-day catch-all parties have promoted the interests of the state and conformed to the needs of the electorate’s lowest common denominator, the median voter. This has created a political vacuum, which new left- and right-wing parties have emerged to fill. These parties have managed to spread their populist platform and gain electoral approval by exploiting the profound fears of the electorate.

We must ask ourselves what we can do to ensure the continuation of the European construct. The first step would be a return to partisan normality. Political parties need to find their own footing and space on the political spectrum. Each party needs its own distinct agenda to be able to voice the concerns of marginalized populations. These are the people who have resorted to electing extreme populist parties due to radicalization from external crises and a lack of political alternatives.

Furthermore, the role of civil society is important in refuting populism. Although populist parties have strengthened in the last five years, recent polls and electoral results depict a changing picture. Populist parties have been unsuccessful in capitalising on early electoral victories, as seen in the recent Austrian presidential elections, as well as in the primaries of Germany and France. In the case of the Netherlands, the democratic powers were able to prevail in the recent elections, thus avoiding the off-chance of a populist win. Electoral systems using two-round decision processes or governments based on coalition-building provide a safety net against populists ascending to power.

Lastly, transitional institutions can also aid in combating political opportunism. Populism threatens the fabric of Europe due to its inherent opposition to federalism. In this context, the EU should promote discourse encouraging an attitude of togetherness among the European countries. The advancement of mutual understanding will ensure that the idea of European federalism will live to see another day.

In addition, a common institutional response to widespread economic deterioration and a collective European strategy regarding the migration challenges in Europe would ensure that populist parties cannot exploit these unfortunate social and economic situations.

It is clear that Europe is in the midst of one its greatest challenges ever. The temptation of adopting policies that promise fast and effective results is great. However, Europe is not doomed to fail. Constant vigilance against populist rhetoric and acts of electoral manipulation will ensure that Europe will not fall victim to the agendas of opportunist politicians.

Europe must face the beast of populism and emerge victorious on the other side.

Ilias Kalotychos is a Staff Writer for the SAIS Observer. He is an MA student concentrating in Conflict Management at SAIS Bologna. You can find him on Twitter at @IliasKalotychos.


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