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Jean-Claude Juncker and the populist Zeitgeist in European politics

- December 30, 2014

British politician Nigel Farage, left, shares a laugh with new E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in July 2014. (Patrick Seeger/European Pressphoto Agency)
The rise of populist parties is a hotly debated topic in European politics. It has become a rite of passage for national and European leaders to warn about their ascendance, and the new president of the European Commission , the former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, has not disappointed. Before the European elections of May 2014, eagerly anticipating his new position, he called upon Europeans to “reject populism.” And last week, in an interview with the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, he went a step further, accusing mainstream parties of “imitating” populist parties. He said, “If the established parties continue to follow the populist parties, European countries will become ungovernable.”
Obviously, these remarks have to be taken with a grain of salt, as they come from an embattled politician. Juncker has had a rocky start to his first term as president of the European Commission, often seen as the ‘government’ of the European Union (E.U.). Within months he came under huge pressure, mostly from populist parties in the European Parliament, because of the ‘Luxembourg Leaks’, which uncovered secret tax deals between the Luxembourg government (under his leadership) and 35o major companies around the world. All this notwithstanding, the claim that mainstream parties are “imitating” populist parties, particularly those of the populist radical right, has been around for a long time.
Some researchers have looked into this claim and have found little corroborating evidence. Matthijs Rooduijn, from the University of Amsterdam, recently summarized the findings of his research on the political science blog Stuk Rood Vlees, a Dutch version of The Monkey Cage. Based on his PhD dissertation, A Populist Zeitgeist? The Impact of Populism on Parties, Media and the Public in Western Europe (University of Amsterdam, 2013), as well as an article with colleagues Sarah de Lange and Wouter van der Brug, he concludes that mainstream parties in Western Europe have not imitated (right-wing) populist parties in terms of their populism. Similar conclusions were reached by scholars in the Baltic countries with regard to parties in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They find no strong presence of populism in terms of “identity formation” or “policy” among mainstream parties.
This research is almost exclusively based on analyses of policy positions in party platforms. Rooduijn and colleagues looked for support for plebiscitarian politics, such as people’s initiatives and referendums, which are often supported by populists, who want to ‘give power back to the people’ by circumventing ‘the elite’ of the mainstream parties. In addition, as they focused specifically on populist radical right parties, they examined the effects on immigration and integration policies. They did find clear ‘imitation’ effects here.
Whether we like it or not, there is a lot of popular support for the policy positions of populist (radical right) parties in (Western) Europe. As I have shown in previous research, populist radical-right parties are not a ‘normal pathology’ of Western democracies, whose ideas are unconnected to those of the political mainstream, as is generally assumed. Rather, they are a ‘pathological normalcy’, whose ideas constitute a radicalization of mainstream ideas. Consequently, large pluralities, sometimes even majorities, of the European populations support more moderate versions of their policy positions on immigration, European integration, crime and corruption. In other words, populist radical right light policies, i.e., the watered-down ‘imitations’ proposed by mainstream parties, would be met with broad support among the population.
What is much more problematic for European democracies, particularly in the long run, is the imitation of populist discourse, particularly when not combined with an implementation of populist policies. And this is exactly what we are experiencing in Europe today. While mainstream political parties may not imitate populist parties in their policies, mainstream politicians do imitate populist politicians in their rhetoric, and not only during election campaigns. For example, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have declared that “multiculturalism has failed.” Similarly, virtually all mainstream politicians now proclaim to follow ‘the wisdom of the people’ and do their utmost to distance themselves from ‘the elite’. The Dutch Balkenende IV government (2007-2010) even started its term with a 100-day bus tour through the country to ask ‘the people’ what they wanted.
But while the mainstream parties’ rhetoric has become much more populist, which is what I have called a “populist Zeitgeist,” the policies and politics have remained much the same. Neither Cameron nor Merkel has fundamentally changed their national integration policy, while Balkenende IV, and all other governments that claimed to ‘listen to the people’ and implement ‘common sense,’ largely continued the age-old policies of previous unpopular governments. Similarly, while the European elite claimed to have gotten ‘the message’ of the “earthquake” 2014 European elections, politics within the European Union has been business as usual.
In fact, populists and other Euroskeptics are even more marginalized within the E.U. today than they were before the May elections. As they are not part of national governments, they are excluded from both the European Council (constituted by members of national governments) and the European Commission (nominated by national governments). All committees in the European Parliament remain solidly in the hands of the established political groups, which even exclude the mildly Euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists. Europe for Freedom and Democracy, the populist political group around the United Kingdom Independence Party, the surprise winner of the European elections in Britain, was barely able to survive in a watered-down version, known as Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy. The much-hyped populist radical right European Alliance for Freedom, despite spectacular gains by the French National Front, was unable to get enough members together to constitute a political group.
While this might be good news for Juncker and other European elites, the exclusion of populists does not mean that Europe will remain “governable.” In the short term, we already see more and more countries forced to change their politics-as-usual. For example, in both Greece and Sweden, the rise of populist parties has forced old enemies of the center-left and center-right to collaborate in Grand Coalitions. To be sure, Grand Coalitions are perfectly democratic, and have been common in many European democracies, such as Austria and the Netherlands, but they can further strengthen the appeal of populist parties by leaving them as the only real opposition.
Most problematic, from a long-term democratic perspective, is the growing gap between mainstream political discourse and mainstream political policies. First of all, the populist rhetoric raises the expectations of the people. Second, these expectations are met neither by the mainstream parties, which do not fundamentally change their policies, nor by the populist parties, which are either excluded or barely successful in implementing their policies. The consequence is a more and more dissatisfied electorate, particularly among younger groups. As the almost Europe-wide drop in election turnout shows, these dissatisfied citizens increasingly disconnect from participating in the democratic system – since 1999, the biggest ‘party’ in the European elections has been that of the nonvoters. Although Juncker might not agree, the exclusion of a majority of the population is a much bigger threat to the democratic governance of Europe than the inclusion of populist parties.
Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School for Public and International Policy at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” and editor of Youth and the Extreme Right. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter @casmudde