The Future of Populist Movements in Europe

Populism and the "Other"

Right-wing populism is currently witnessing a historic moment in its political course; if this movement succeeds –in the medium term– in employing suitable conditions to enhance its presence in influential European capitals, a new European reality will exist, posing an existential challenge to the European Union as a unified political entity. Thus, what are the circumstances accompanying the growing populism in Europe? And what are the foundations of a voter-oriented populist discourse?

by Bilal Al Adaileh
  • Publisher – STRATEGEICS
  • Release Date – Feb 18, 2019

There is an implicit agreement of some sort that the populist movements, which are backed by the notion of supporting nationalism, are gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe. It is because social and cultural changes in any society cannot be rendered into a political reality unless they are backed by popular and political support that is capable of ensuring their maturity. Therefore, populism in Europe is an important phenomenon for study and research, and the power of these movements stems from the belief that traditional elites are incapable of providing proper solutions concerning the actual living conditions. Academically, these movements are defined as a social group with various political orientations (i.e. liberal, conservative, right or left-right) who feel marginalized and excluded by the traditional political elites.

The right-wing populist movements in Europe seek to create an almost unified social position towards issues that are publicly sensitive such as immigration, Islamophobia, and the global economic system's responsibility for the deteriorating living conditions of certain groups. These movements take advantage of such issues to expand their electoral bases and gain more influence in the legislative and executive authorities.

At the moment, the European Parliament has 156 representatives out of 751 who are members of the most prominent far-right-wing blocs, which are divided into four major alliances. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Hungary are among the major countries where these right-wing movements are prevalent. Italy is also among the list, where Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord party, achieved a recent victory for the right-wing populism during the 2018 legislative elections. He earned 17.4% of the votes, assuming the post of Italy's deputy prime minister.

The prevalence of populist movements in many European countries, not only in some countries, is a factor that should be taken into account. It indicates that we are facing a pattern of change in the prevalent liberal political culture in Europe. Thus, it is vital to ask how the future of a prevalent populism would be? Especially in light of the fluctuating path of various political trends in Europe?

Some analysts believe that this political group has begun among individuals who were not interested in engaging in politics, and its rise coincided with declining confidence in the various competing traditional parties.

To support this vision with events, we can analyze the second round of the final French presidential election, which took place on May 7, 2017. The final two candidates were Emmanuel Macron, the liberal center nominee, and Marine Le Pen, the National Front nominee, whose trends are far-right populist.

For the first time since the declaration of the Fifth Republic in 1958, it was noted that the traditional left-wing Socialist Party and the right-wing Republicans were absent from the scene during the final round of the French presidential elections.

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party made a historic victory in the 2017 legislative elections, after which it has joined the Bundestag for the first time since World War II; the party took advantage of the relative declining popularity of the ruling Christian Democratic Union, which was a proponent of asylum policies that were more open during the last few years.

In the Czech Republic, the far-right ANO party won the 2017 elections following a campaign with anti-corruption slogans and calls for strict immigration policies. In contrast, the participation of the ruling Social Democrats Party has dropped sharply to sixth place with 7.3% of the votes even though it has been one of the major traditional parties.

With such transformations in more than one European country, although to a lesser extent, this means we are facing a situation that is slowly deepening its roots in the European political scene. It will also make a qualitative change in the political infrastructure of the European Union. The right-wing has been stimulated by Brexit, which sparked moral support for what they perceive as a “liberation from the European Union”.

Populism and the "Other"

Islamophobia is one of the major social issues that right-wing populism seeks to employ and utilize to foster their presence in the political scene, especially with the increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants amid the Middle East conflicts.

According to the latest statistics published by Pew Research Center in 2017, the number of Muslims is around 25.8 million, accounting for 4.9% of the European Union's population. They are mainly concentrated in Germany and France, with 5.7 million and five million Muslims, respectively. According to the same study, 2.5 million Muslims have also arrived in Europe for reasons other than asylum such as study and work during the period 2010-2016.

The right-wing has taken advantage of such a steady increase in the number of Muslims in Europe to employ it for electoral purposes. In fact, between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of Muslim immigrants in Germany rose from 4.1% to 6.1% of the total population during that period, which was around 80 million people.

Later in the 2017 legislative elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany Party joined the Bundestag for the first time since the end of World War II. It mobilized its electoral supporters by creating a state of "fear" of the open-door refugee policies that were adopted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This also coincided with the emergence and rise of Islamic extremism in some Muslim-majority neighborhoods.

According to the Deutsche Welle (DW), the German public prosecutor has investigated around 240 terrorist cases in 2016, 85% of which were motivated by Islamic backgrounds, while there were only 70 similar cases in 2013. In general, this state of extremism and counter-extremism in Europe constitutes a security concern that may push towards restricting public freedoms in Europe.

In the same vein, the official warnings against the rise of Islamic concentrations in Germany included a surprising report by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), which warned against the spread of communities affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The report noted that the group's thinking approach and its ability to attract new members surpass Salafist organizations.

Moreover, the high organizational capabilities and financial funding, some of which are received from Gulf countries, are among the factors that enable the Muslim Brotherhood to take advantage of the increasing number of refugees to reinforce their social base, and thereby, influence Germany's political theme.

In the foreseeable future, "the world's largest Islamic organization poses a real threat to democracy that is even more dangerous than terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS". Therefore, according to the Fox News report, the BND in North Rhine-Westphalia suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood poses a greater threat than Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Fidel Center for Studies argues that Salafists in Germany exceed 40,000 people, while earlier estimates by the German intelligence indicated that they were only a few hundreds which were later raised to a few thousand. A report by Fox News has also estimated that the Muslim Brotherhood members are no more than 1,000 although the report cited the spread of the group's activity in dozens of German cities; where the number of Islamic centers has reached 50 in North Rhine-Westphalia alone.  The Brotherhood’s major activity is opening mosques and religious educational institutions that teach children from an early age.

As stated by the report, the Muslim Brotherhood has associations with foreign official bodies; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, has waved the “Rabia sign” during the inauguration of a mosque in Cologne city.

Hence, it is necessary to separate the political and social aspects of the Islamic presence in Germany. This is to avoid the exploitation of such presence in achieving foreign political or even domestic goals similar to populist parties' attempt to link between terrorism and the growing numbers of Muslims in order to gain a grassroots electoral base.

However, the assumption and generalization of such an association between populism and terrorism seem inaccurate. For instance, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands that is led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his radical public statements on immigrants and Islam, made significant political gains in the 2017 elections. He ranked second in the legislative elections even though there were no major terrorist operations in the Netherlands, and the number of Muslim refugees was relatively low during the past period.

It is noteworthy that the right-wing populism adopts a hardline attitude towards the Jews as well, rejecting the "other" whose ethnic identity is different regardless of who is that "other". Several Jewish organizations in Europe have warned against what they consider as "anti-Semitism" ideas, citing the increasing hate crimes that are carried out by far-right populists against the Jews.

In an interview with Euronews in June 2018, Director of the European Jewish Community Centre Avi Tawil addressed this issue, citing the spread of false news about Jews or even Muslims as the main reason behind this phenomenon.

As several elections in Europe are approaching, it seems that the populist parties will spark the mobilization of public opinion by exploiting the protest movements –especially the yellow vests movement that started in Paris– as the trends of populist parties are greatly in line with the demands of these protests.

Such protesting movements reflect the total rejection of the prevalent economic conditions, with deep feelings that the global economic system is unfair in the distribution of wealth.

As capitalism fails to provide a convincing justification to the global economic challenges for such a wide range of protesters, the future of the global liberal economy will be endangered if the right-wing populism was able to strengthen its position in the European political scene. This is especially the case in light of the world's current shift towards domestication rather than multilateral conventions, an orientation that is presented by U.S. President Donald Trump in his "America First" policy.

Hence, it seems that multinational corporates will face a difficult future as the proponents of this trend are increasingly dominating the influential capitals of decision-making around the world.

In summary, the right-wing populism is currently witnessing a historic moment in its political course. If the movement succeeds –in the medium term– in employing suitable conditions to enhance its presence in influential European capitals, a new European reality will exist, posing an existential challenge to the European Union as a unified political entity.



Bilal Al Adaileh

Research Assistant, specialized in International Peace and Conflict Resolution