Is Europe becoming a stronghold of the populist right? In any case, the EU has a lot of explaining to do

Is Europe becoming a stronghold of the populist right? In any case, the EU has a lot of explaining to do

More than ever, the stronghold of the European Union is under fire from populist leaders hoping to capitalize on the shortcomings of a technocratic union. Are populists taking over Europe after the EU elections? Tilburg University research shows some surprising results.

Image: Bas van der Schot

Change is in the air for Europe. We already saw this in the farmer protests that took place not only in the Netherlands but also in other European countries. In the Netherlands, the protests were a precursor to a political ‘shift to the right.’ Are the farmer protests in Germany, France, and Brussels a signal of a similar movement in the European Parliament elections on June 6?

We ask Francesco Marolla, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Milan. Marolla received his PhD in November 2023 for the thesis Why Do European Citizens Support Populism? under the supervision of Ruud Luijkx and Peter Achterberg at the social faculty.

What is the focus of your PhD research?

‘I wanted to examine voters’ perceptions rather than their actual socioeconomic background, which research normally focuses on. In doing so, rather than looking at factors such as the fact that respondents earn less, I looked at how they see themselves, regardless of their objective circumstances.

‘We asked respondents if they feel central in society, feel useful to this society, if they trust the people around them, and if they feel integrated in their neighborhood.’

What are your main findings?

‘There is a correlation between people who say they feel less socially integrated and a preference for populist parties. What is also striking: I saw this correlation mainly in countries that are well developed economically, such as the Netherlands. We didn’t expect such voting behavior there because you would think that in such countries the welfare state would be strong enough to keep these people integrated.

‘Objectively, there are probably fewer marginalized voters in these countries, but apparently—and this is my interpretation—larger groups don’t feel they fit well into society. And populist parties receive significant support from these groups.’

You saw farmer protests everywhere in the spring. Can you also see the parties that stand up for farmers as an offshoot in the populist tribe?

‘I haven’t looked into that specifically, but if I look at the recent literature on populism, the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging) would also fit the description of a populist party. I think, for example, of the way BBB leader Caroline van der Plas presents herself, as one of the ‘real Dutch people.’ She is anti-establishment. She is of the ‘people.’

Can your research tell us anything about the upcoming EU elections?

‘Whether the protests and the rise of the populist right in various countries are also a harbinger of an electoral shift, I dare not say. But I can say, based on the literature in this area, that the results of European elections in each country mainly reflect national politics.’

You also write in your thesis that people who tend to vote populist are tired of complexity, vague institutions, and slow decision-making.

Francesco Marolla. Image: own collection

‘Across Europe, populist parties attract voters who distrust politics. We found that this is more the case in liberal democracies with strong structures.

‘I did not discover a causal relationship, but rather a correlation. It is greater the stronger a democracy is. In a strong liberal democracy, you have rules, you have checks on government that are really important.

‘But decision-making is often slow and usually the government fails to properly explain why certain institutions exist or why individual rights are important. And it seems that populist parties can take advantage of those shortcomings.’

Surely the same applies to European institutions? The EU also struggles to explain what institutions are for and why decision-making is often so slow.

‘Yes, European politics is complex. European institutions are very complex, and I think national governments, but especially the European Union, should make more effort to explain what they stand for, what they do. Surely, we can’t just lean on trust. I mean, you also have to be able to deliver. Although certain institutions are important, and the European Union works the way it does.’

Is there a cure for populism?

‘On the one hand, you need campaigns that make us aware of the usefulness of such democratic institutions. And on the other hand, you also need to fix the structures and processes that liberal democracy has. It may be the best system we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

‘It’s more about how you respond to such challenges. It doesn’t mean that if the system has a problem, you have to take it down completely. We have to recognize that there are problems. And we can work on solutions rather than demolishing the whole system, I would say.’

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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