From whichever angle you look at it, the year 2016 marked a turning point. The British people voted to leave the European Union, giving way to what has been termed Brexit, and Americans elected Donald Trump to the White House. The two events are undoubtedly the sign of a rift and confirm that the conflict between the people and the elites – an expression dear to Steve Bannon, the strategist who strongly contributed to the success of The Donald – had become a serious issue.
It is for this very reason that in 2016 two university professors – Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin – decided to analyse the phenomenon in a book by the title “National Populism. The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.” Nationalism 2.0 could no longer be underestimated. The true roots of this change had to be, and still need to, understood. Indeed, such a change could, with the upcoming European elections on 26 May, transform the face of the Old Continent.
Rebel Europe Populism did not appear overnight. It is not just the result of the 2008 crisis or of the arrival of refugees following the Arab Springs. Its roots lie much deeper, as Eatwell and Goodwin recount. In the 80s, – when the Berlin wall still scarred the German capital and marked the division between the West and the Soviet Union – Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, and Jörg Haider, head of Austria’s Freedom Party (Fpo), began garnering significant success. In 1988 the French nationalists obtained 14% in the national elections and in 2002 they scored even better, just one step away from winning the presidency.
Between 1990 and 2000 populist movements sprung up throughout the Old Continent, while in 2004 Nigel Farage’s Ukip obtained an important result. All this, the authors specify, while the British economy was soaring. This particular detail disproves one of the major inaccuracies about the movement: it is not true that the rise of the populists was caused by the Old continent’s economic problems during the past years.
According to Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin it is also not true that all populists are “Angry white men”. One just need think that 28% of Trump’s consensus was made up of Latin American votes. While it is true that these movement sometimes catalyse the vote of extremist fringes, it would be reductive to label them all under “Fascism”.
What we are facing is without doubt a revolt against the Western and European systems. There is increasing feeling among EU citizens that Brussels and Strasbourg are too detached from their needs; European institutions are seen as unable to solve the problems people face. And is it exactly exploiting this malaise that populist groups gather support which, the two authors write, will change the politics of many Western nations for a long time to come.
The challenge has already begun. May 26 will be a defining point. If, as surveys seem to predict, populist parties will be successful in increasing their consensus, then traditional parties will have to start reconsidering themselves. The future of the European Union itself is at stake.