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The State of European Populism


Viktor Orbán & Matteo Salvini

3,863 words

Since the American Alt Right fell apart, many commentators and outlets which formerly identified as “Alt Right” have started pointing towards European populism as an example to follow, and are often heard to say that the nationalist cause is much further ahead in Europe. As a European, I would like to comment on this, based on the Dutch populist movement, which is relatively strong for a Western European country. I would like to analyze some of the ideological issues related to populism, and illustrate it with examples from my native country, The Netherlands. First, let me list those parties which are considered populist:

Front National, France. They recently changed their name to National Rally (Rassemblement National). They currently have seven seats in parliament (out of 577), but are generally able to mount a presidential challenge as the main opposition. They got thirty percent of the votes in the last presidential election. The party began in the 1970s as part of the hardline nationalist wave in Western Europe that also gave rise to the National Front in the UK.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Great Britain. It is half-populist, having begun mainly as a euroskeptical libertarian party. It currently has no parliamentary seats, but polls consistently show that it has around five percent of the vote. While currently weak, it was the threat of UKIP’s rise prior to Brexit which fueled the Conservative government’s decision to put the issue of leaving the EU to a vote, and depending on how Brexit goes, it could experience a revival.

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany. Like UKIP, it started as a libertarian anti-EU party but has shifted towards populist anti-immigration and anti-elite positions. It holds 91 parliamentary seats (out of 709) and is showing growth on all fronts. It currently polls at around twenty percent of the vote.

Vlaams Belang, Belgium. Formerly the Vlaams Blok, it has since rebranded and maintained its popularity. It holds three parliamentary seats (out of 87), currently polling at seventeen percent of the vote. It is unlikely to get into power unless the N-VA, the biggest conservative party, chooses to break the cordon sanitaire that has been in place since the party’s creation and invites them into a coalition.

Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), Sweden. Originally more radical nationalist in orientation, they successfully rebranded in the 2000s but are still haunted by their history and have been kept out of power by the other parties. It holds 62 parliamentary seats (out of 349) and polls at eighteen percent.

Freiheitliche Partei Östereichs (FPÖ, Austrian Freedom Party), Austria. It has gone through several phases of rebranding, and is currently presenting itself as a populist anti-Islam, anti-immigration party. It is currently in government with its coalition partner, the ÖVP, the traditional Christian Democrat party, but the latter has shifted slightly more towards populism under its new leader, Sebastian Kurz. It is not, however, outright populist. The FPÖ has 51 parliamentary seats (out of 183).

Lega, formerly Lega Nord, Italy.
Lega is one of the two faces of Italian populism, the other being the more Leftist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). They are in a joint ruling coalition. Lega was originally a reactionary separatist party aiming to split northern Italy from the poorer south, created in 1991. Lega holds 125 parliamentary seats (out of 630), but has doubled its popularity in the polls since coming to power. M5S is economically very socialist, but is also anti-immigration, and holds 250 parliamentary seats.

Fidesz, Hungary. It is the country’s current ruling party, with a single-party majority. They hold 117 parliamentary seats (out of 199). Historically, they were more of a Christian Democratic party, but took a populist turn following the 2015 refugee crisis due to pressure from the rise of even more radical Right-wing Jobbik. Jobbik is the biggest opposition party, but in recent years has moved from the Right to the center, and has lost most of its original Right-wing supporters, who have either gone back to Fidesz or have joined the new Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland) party.

Sprawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS, Law and Order Party), Poland. This was another ordinary Christian Democrat party which was forced into a populist role due to EU meddling and attempts to force immigration on them. PiS is by no means a typical populist party, although it is hard to define what typical means. It opposes immigration, but does not have the usual euroskeptical and anti-elite positions that most populist parties have.

A few European countries have parties that are not really populist, but are more explicitly far Right, as their main nationalist representatives. These would include Chrysí Avgí (Golden Dawn) in Greece (16 out of 300 seats), Perussuomalaiset (True Finns Party) in Finland (17 out of 200 seats), and EKRE in Estonia (7 out of 101 seats). Other countries, such as Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Portugal, do not have an established political opposition of either a populist or far Right variant. Usually this is because they do not have immigration issues, and because they see the EU as beneficial to them. There are, however, embryonic Rightist parties and movements in almost all of these countries. The most recent of these to move from the fringes to the limelight and electoral success is the Spanish party Vox, which has gained ten percent in the polls and won several state-level parliamentary seats in Andalusia.

Several other parties which might have been called populist have become defunct or irrelevant over time. In the UK, for example, the British National Party (BNP) and the National Front have mostly disappeared. The UK in particular hasn’t been able to establish a populist movement with staying power. UKIP is moribund, and the BNP died in 2012, after having been the most successful post-war far Right party in the UK up to that time. The National Front has been reduced to a few hundred elderly members. Still, UKIP, with their steady five percent share of the vote, has more support than Portugal’s PNR, for example, which gets 20,000 votes at most in any given election, and is the only Right-wing party of any sort in the country.

On the whole, I would categorize populist parties into three groups. There are the “New Parties” like UKIP, AfD, Lega, and PVV, which do not have their origins in an established political tradition like socialism, liberalism, or conservatism, but are rogues with a very contemporary agenda based on current issues, and they have been shaped by these issues. Then there are the reformed radical nationalist parties who have abandoned their earlier positions in favor of more moderate, but vote-gaining, issues. These would be parties like the FPÖ, the Sweden Democrats, and Vlaams Belang. And thirdly, there are the Christian Democratic and liberal centrist parties who have been forced to turn toward populist policies due to circumstances or pressure from their base: Fidesz and PiS. Of the three, the most anti-establishment and most authentically populist are the New Parties. We can see that there is no fixed template for a populist party. They are all from diverse backgrounds, hold very different economic and social views, and in many cases have only turned populist because they see it as a winning electoral strategy, or due to more pressing concerns arising than their former agenda.

On the fringes of these three types of populist parties, there are two new developments that could possibly shift or influence electoral populism in the future, and these include the identitarian movement, that mainly holds sway in France, Austria, and Germany, and a few groups inspired by the American Alt Right, like Erkenbrand in the Netherlands, Allianssen in Norway, and Schild & Vrienden in Belgium. These formerly Alt Right groups have since distanced themselves from the American Alt Right and adopted more native nationalist aesthetics and rhetoric, however.

For a more in-depth analysis of populism in one country, I turn toward my own country. The origins of Dutch populism are to be found either in Geert Wilders splitting off from the Dutch Liberal Party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) in 2006 to form the PVV (Party for Freedom), or with Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered on the eve of the national elections in 2002 by a Marxist Green Party supporter. Fortuyn’s party won a major share of the vote despite his death, but the party rapidly fell apart without his leadership. In any case, we have had populist parties as part of our national political landscape for some twenty years now, giving us one of the oldest uniquely populist movements in Europe. We also had a National Socialist revival in the 1990s in the form of the party CP’86, which won 87 local seats but no parliamentary seats. Populist rhetoric has become an established fixture of political discourse in The Netherlands since then, forcing more centrist parties like the VVD and the Christian Democrats (CDA) to the right on immigration. That has been the strength of the populists, even when they can’t get into power: they move the window of acceptable discourse rightward. Since 2006, the PVV has consistently held between fifteen and twenty parliamentary seats (out of 150) and an electoral share of about ten percent on average, representing roughly 1.5 million voters. The majority of these are working class and former Labor voters. This is out of a population of 17 million people, 13 million of which are native Dutch, 2 million are white immigrants, and 2 million are non-whites, of which 1 million are Muslim. 12.5 million people are eligible to vote.

Geert Wilders’ PVV has no members, no youth organization, no scientific bureau, and no think thanks. It is just Wilders and his parliamentarians, who are given their seats based more on loyalty to Wilders himself than any actual capabilities they might have. Having no party formations of any kind, PVV supporters must resort to taking individual actions in terms of activism and organization. This has been mainly limited to online activism. There is quite a substantial number of literate, PVV-aligned blogs, and a very active pro-PVV Facebook and Twitter sphere. Blogs like Opiniez, EJBron, and DeNieuweRealist are quite literate and widely shared. Activism in the real world, however, has been limited to more explicitly far-Right groups like the identitarians. The PVV relies on provocative rhetoric to gain voters. Accordingly, Wilders has been sued twice over alleged xenophobic statements.

In late 2017, a new populist party emerged, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), which rapidly climbed up to fifteen seats in the polls and doubled the populist share of the vote to roughly twenty percent. They achieved this by taking a more nuanced tone, mostly through having the same anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric as the PVV. This allowed them to attract voters from the Christian Democrats and Liberals. FvD is a more economically libertarian party, whereas the PVV is ambiguously socialist on most economic issues. FvD is also more explicitly socially conservative and reactionary than the PVV, which mostly limits itself to opposing Islam and immigration, but which is on the whole liberal on social issues. The leader of the FvD has spoken to Jared Taylor in the past, attended Greater Netherlands (the movement to unify The Netherlands and Belgium) rallies like the IJzerwake, and the party itself has been caught in several scandals involving race and IQ. None of these events hurt them electorally, however. The FvD appeals more strongly to nationalism, to the armed forces, and to populist democratic issues like referenda in order to appeal to voters.

The FvD is a normal political party, with membership rolls and a youth organization. It has accrued 31,000 members within the year and a half of its existence, making it the fourth-largest party by membership (out of twelve parties currently represented in Parliament). The FvD’s presence on the ground is therefore much stronger than that of the PVV, but it does not yet have a strong online presence like the PVV has. It has, however, attracted far more capable and highly educated representatives, meaning it has been much better at contesting legislation than the frankly rather working-class PVV, who outdo them in the harshness of their rhetoric. The PVV will call for the removal of “scum” from the country, the banning of the Qur’an, argue for the complete closing of the borders, and use the slogan Eigen Volk Eerst (our own people first). Meanwhile, the FvD focuses mainly on attacking the establishment’s inaction and corruption and attacks the EU on economic and sovereignty issues, and is much more willing to embrace racial talking points. Together, the PVV and FvD have a fairly effective one-two-punch strategy. Lega and the Five Star Movement have a similar dynamic in Italy. One is socialist-liberal populism, the other is conservative libertarian populism.

Outside of these two political parties, there are a number of periodicals and journalists who will take generally Rightist populist positions without endorsing either party, especially in terms of anti-immigrationism and anti-Islam. This includes the largest newspaper in the country, De Telegraaf, and the country’s largest magazine, Elsevier. This general popularity has caused the right flank of the VVD and CDA to adopt populist rhetoric opportunistically, to avoid losing the more hardline elements of their base to the populist parties. There is also a vaguely populist Boomer-aged party, called 50+, which holds four seats. They vote along with the populist issues proposed by FvD and PVV, except on any economic issues that could negatively impact their Boomer base. They have five seats and fewer than 400,000 votes.

My purpose in outlining the Dutch populist movement is to show the international audience how populism works here, and to give them an opportunity to perhaps take some lessons from how things work in The Netherlands. This is mainly relevant for other continental Europeans, given that countries with a two-party system like the United States and the United Kingdom can’t really profit much from the experiences of parties in a multiparty proportional representation system. The main lesson, however, is that no single party can currently appeal to a large enough base to gain power on its own. A coalition of several parties, each with a slightly different tone and focusing on different issues, is necessary. There needs to be a socialist, nativist group; a libertarian, elitist group; and a religious, traditionalist group – all anti-immigrant. These are the concerns of our time. One party attempting to address all these issues at the same time will come across as untrustworthy and schizophrenic. Three or four parties, each with their own area of focus, works much better.

To address populism as an ideology – firstly, populism isn’t monolithic. It can take many different forms between countries, and even between parties. Populism itself can hardly even be defined beyond anti-elitism (populares versus optimates; I wrote a Dutch-language essay [2] on this). There are some generally-shared characteristics that mark a party as populist. It must be anti-immigration – in favor of reduction at the minimum, but more frequently it must call for the borders to be closed entirely. But beyond anti-elitism and anti-immigration, there are no real fixed characteristics to being considered as populist. And even the reasons why one party opposes immigration, and what sort of elite they oppose, can vary widely. A ruling populist party can oppose the EU as the elite, while a populist party that is not in power might only oppose the establishment parties in his own country. Just look at the variety of parties I listed earlier. Therefore, we can hardly speak of a “populist ideology.” Take the Dutch case.

The PVV is euroskeptical because it facilitates open borders and immigration. It is against the established political elite because they facilitate immigration and because their globalist policies come at the expense of the common man. The PVV has a strongly nationalist-inspired socialist viewpoint, believing that economic policies must serve the people. The PVV rabidly hates Islam; that is their main party platform. They do not believe reform in Islam is possible, and in their eyes, basically every Muslim is a jihadist. Their proposed solution is to close all the mosques, close the borders, ban the Qur’an, and kick out every Muslim already present who does not convert to Christianity. I exaggerate slightly, but not by much. Wilders has frequently made these sorts of statements. But why are they so rabidly anti-Islam? Out of secular liberal concerns, of course. They often cite things like the hatred of homosexuals and Jews in the Islamic world as a reason to oppose Islam. If the Muslims would just convert and embrace tolerant Enlightenment values, then it’s okay for them to come and stay. The PVV are also fervently Zionist, which is something you will often see among European populist parties.

Meanwhile, the FvD is euroskeptical on economic grounds and because of sovereignty. Their main focus is on the corruption of the establishment parties, and not only the EU. They do oppose the Monetary and Transfer Union, they feel the EU overregulates the economy, and they argue that the EU is slowly building towards a federal state, but their major focus is on attacking the establishment center-Right within The Netherlands as weak and ineffective. The FvD is also anti-Islam on liberal Enlightenment grounds, but argues that it is possible to reform Islam and does not want to ban the religion outright. They do argue for closing the borders, however, and they do this on a more racial basis. The FvD argues that our social homogeneity is being thinned out, and that in a century there will be no authentic Dutchmen left if things continue as they are. Both the PVV and FvD argue that we are losing our country to foreigners, but the FvD presents more stark demographic figures and actually talks about demographics as destiny. FvD, like the PVV, is strongly Zionist.

Regarding the Zionist issue in populism, this is an issue across Europe. The new Vox party in Spain is Zionist, Dutch populists in The Netherlands more often carry Israeli flags than Dutch ones, and Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán both endorse and receive support from Benjamin Netanyahu. One thing is certain: if populists come to dominate Europe (and that is a big if), they will write Israel a blank check for foreign policy in the Middle East. Whenever Israel bombs Syria, or Hamas launches rockets at Israel, the PVV crowd are out in force on social media, howling for blood and sometimes practically calling for genocide. Whether or not that matters to us in Europe is very dependent on whether these populists stick to their closed-borders policies, and whether they decide to intervene if Israel starts another war. To illustrate the role of Zionist groups in populism: the Dutch variant of the ADL, the Centrum Informatie en Documentatie Israel (CIDI), has been heavily involved with the FvD. Part of its leadership has even joined the party, and there are several Jewish Orthodox and Zionist groups registered at the FvD’s party headquarters: the Foundation ALEH Israel, Foundation Torah and Tradition, and Foundation Raphael Shlita. It has been said that Wilders, the PVV’s leader, visited the Israeli embassy frequently during 2011; it is believed this was a monthly occurrence until he was forced to stop due to media pressure.

Another problem with the populists is that they are also generally quite socially liberal, although this varies by country and party. Depending on the origins of a given populist party, they may be only slightly socially conservative  which is the case with some of the reformed Christian Democrats. But populism is by no means traditionalist or reactionary. Especially in the case of the New Parties, they are very liberal, and their main objection to mass immigration usually boils down to economics or their objection to the intolerance displayed by immigrants towards Enlightenment values. They may echo some of the rhetoric about demographics, but it is rare. They are more concerned about Islamization than demographic replacement.

How likely is a populist-dominated Europe? For the foreseeable future, not very likely. Though parts of Southern and Eastern Europe are rapidly turning populist, these countries are quite poor and militarily weak. Most power still lies in Northern Europe – Germany, because it is the manufacturing hub of Europe; France, because it is the biggest agricultural producer; and The Netherlands, because it is the logistical and petrochemical center of Europe. Roughly half of the petrochemical goods coming into and leaving Europe go through Rotterdam. But The Netherlands, France, and Germany have a maximum populist support rate of twenty percent at the moment; these countries will have to flip massively in order for their populists to gain real power. The only way the North goes populist is if the liberal and Christian parties start turning towards populism due to pressure from their base. This is not impossible. The populists’ electoral successes have these parties running scared. Merkel’s ally, the Bavarian CSU, has turned more populist out of fear of the AfD; the Dutch liberal VVD party talks tough against immigration and for integration during every election now, given that their share of the vote has been halved by defections to the PVV and FvD; and in Austria, the Christian ÖVP reluctantly accepted a coalition with the FPÖ. But nothing radical will really be implemented unless the populists gain a majority, as in Italy or Hungary.

For the time being, populism is the predominant manifestation of nationalism in Europe, like Trumpism is in America. Trumpism will most likely die with Trump. Populism, however, is likely to live longer, as many of its constituent parties are liable to metamorphose according to political needs at any given time and are not tied to a single personality. This also makes them unreliable and untrustworthy from our perspective. Traditionalist nationalists who think populists are a source of hope are deluded. The populist movement, as it stands today, is profoundly liberal and Zionist. However, certain types of populists could switch to a more hardline nationalist agenda at any time if they think it might be profitable for them to do so. This is not true in the case of the New Party populists, however; these are liberal parties to their core. They will never endorse unambiguous, hardline nationalism. Reformed radical nationalists are a very different story, however, as are Christian parties, who are liable to take a biblical stance on social issues if given the room to do so. That is not to say that populists are useless. They want to lower immigration, and some want to close the borders entirely. This would gives us a breather, at least. And they are also a gateway. I have met many people who found their way to reactionary traditionalism through the PVV and FvD.

But for outside observers, especially Americans, don’t forget that there are authentic nationalist groups in Europe that are not populists. Nearly every European country has a few such groups, be it in the form of the identitarians or nativist nationalist groups. For true nationalists, it would be better to cultivate contacts among these groups and germinate ideas among them rather than appeal to the populist groups, thinking that they hold the solution. Populism may be part of the solution, in terms of the raw numbers needed to shift the world away from globalism, but they do not have a coherent worldview that they oppose to modernity. I would rather consider them an intermediate step towards a truly Traditionalist Rightist politics.