Western politics is increasingly looking inwards. This is an alarming development.
The continent’s populists are triumphant: Ukip has Brexit, Le Pen’s National Front wants “Frexit”, and Geert Wilder’s Dutch Freedom party are not far from “Nexit”. Meanwhile Austria’s far-right, led by Norbert Hofer, has a second shot at the presidency as the High Court orders an election re-run; an “Auxit” is now a distinct possibility. Their successes need to be sourced, dangers determined, and then action can be taken.
Populism has arisen within the context it always does: failure. The first failure was exemplified by the 2007/08 financial crash. This proved that contrary to politicians’ claims during the Blair years, a bust always follows a boom. Overloaded western governments were and still are locked into a dangerous cycle of disappointment with the voter.
Governments feel compelled to borrow in order to satisfy the electorate’s short-term demands for more government. They are then faced with cynicism and anger from disillusioned voters who, post-crash, blame the state for their predicament, whilst failing to realise their wants are the cause. The result is an unsustainable contradiction. Voters loathe government yet demand evermore from them. This contributes to a second area of failure – income inequality.
Income inequality is on the rise. An Oxfam report published last September showed the number of Europeans living on incomes so low that they can’t afford to heat their homes rose by 7.5 million to 50 million people between 2009 and 2013. This is on a continent with 342 billionaires. So when a Le Pen, Farage, Wilder or Hofer pops up blaming unelected bureaucrats in Brussels or their own political establishments, they strike a nerve.
It’s easy to condemn populism’s supporters as simple idiots. It’s satisfying to call them ignorant racists. It’s comforting to cast them as bad people, pure and simple. But it’s wrong.
It is true that many idiots, racists and fundamentally bad people do support the likes of Le Pen and her National Front. However, these people are not key to their successes. Rather, it is the 50 million who have little to lose. Living on the breadline they aren’t willing to listen to arguments the elite throw at them: immigration is a gain, not a burden; inequality is inevitable and provides incentive; and globalisation is a good thing. They are not interested in the long run arguments offered by the establishment. Rather it is the navigation of the day-to-day monotony that concerns them.
Therefore, many at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum listen to the populist when he or she says: “Let’s overthrow the political establishment, counter globalisation and leave the EU.” In short, populism is fuelled by the politics of poverty. This is dangerous for two reasons.
Firstly, their solutions are anything but. Once in power they become the elite. It is then that it is realised that euroscepticism and protectionism may be popular but are clumsy ways of tackling complex problems. Leaving the EU and scrapping free trade agreements may turn rhetoric into a reality – Vote Leave’s slogan: ‘Take back control” springs to mind, but such acts stunt growth whilst exposing foreign currency dependency. Far from softening inequality and popular disillusionment, it is intensified.
More acute is the direction in which governments then focus. Populism’s rise has caused them to gaze inwards at a time when their focus should be projected outwards. Caught between national and supranational pressures, governments are forced to concede. Often the outcome is to bend to national demands rather than compel sacrifice in the name of the “European Project”. The result is a Europe, which to the cost of its global role, is consumed by internal struggles.
Europe no longer upholds the global structure. Consequently, it no longer holds a monopoly over the concept of global order. It is increasingly passive, claiming to defend “international norms” through soft power. Yet it fails to define its ultimate geopolitical basis. All the while Russia plays with proxies to the East and joins Iran in Syria with the deployment of hard power.
Leaders need to recognise that populism’s recent successes stem from a legitimate rage with leaders who lack the political will to deal with poverty. The current UK Gini-coefficient, remains at a similar height to what it was at the end of Thatcher’s premiership in 1991. Income inequality needs to be addressed not through debt-financed democracy but downward redistribution of wealth.
The time for action is now. Europe’s leaders can ill-afford to be distracted by internal struggles. They need only look at the outcome of Greece’s populist experiment. Since winning power in 2014 on an anti-austerity ticket, Syriza has been forced to accept the economic reality. Rather than ending austerity, it has been forced to embrace it; far from rejecting EU bailouts, Syriza has defied popular opinion and enforced them.
Showing that it is they, not the populists that have the answers will allow European leaders to turn their attention to a bigger problem – Europe’s geopolitical identity crisis. Beating populism will be crucial for Europe’s regional stability. Yet, the outcome of this struggle will influence something of greater magnitude – Europe’s global future.