Commentary | Just how Widespread is the European Populist Surge?

Commentary | Just how Widespread is the European Populist Surge?

Pascal Letendre-Hanns.png

Pascal Letendre-Hanns

- EU Affairs Specialist
- UK Affairs & Brexit Specialist

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Populism. It's the big idea on people's lips currently and we're living through a surge in populist politics in Europe. Or are we? To what extent is this a European phenomenon and to what extent is it localised to some states in Europe?

The map below uses recent polling data to show the level of support for populist parties in all the states of the European Union.

Data from @EuropeElects

Data from @EuropeElects

Looking at this map, it's clear that the success of populist parties is not only a national event, there is definitely regional spillover. Nonetheless, the progress made by populist parties does vary significantly.

Lumping all populist parties together is also somewhat misleading. Most media discussing on populism is really focussed on the radical-right anti-EU populism of Lega in Italy, PiS in Poland or the Swedish Democrats. The left-wing, more pro-EU populism of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain has almost dropped off the radar.

If we take out those left-wing populist parties, then South-Western and South-Eastern Europe become areas with very low levels of populist support. The Baltic states also appear to be less affected by the rise of populism.

Western Europe and the Nordic states meanwhile are decidedly mixed, covering nearly the entire spectrum of radical right populist support.

Finally, the obvious concentrations of high levels of radical right populism are found in Central and Eastern Europe.

Beyond this division between different regions of Europe, it's also worth noting that some of the states with high levels of populist support have populist parties that are polling significantly higher than in the rest. While Austria's FPÖ or the Swedish Democrats may be around 23-25%, populist support in Italy (combined for M5S and Lega), Poland, Hungary or the UK (where I'm counting both the Conservatives and Labour as populist parties) is at 40+%.

Therefore within the group of 10 countries that fall into the top bracket of public support for populism, we can pick out four (Italy, the UK, Poland and Hungary) that are populist bastions.

These bastions stand in contrast to the four parched deserts of populist support; Romania, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland.

With both the bastions and the deserts, it's not clear what unites these countries. Why are the UK, Italy and Poland particularly primed for populism while Romania, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland reject it so clearly?

Within a particular region, such as South-West Europe or Central Europe, it's possible to find common elements of political culture, history and economic position that can provide a correlation to populism's success or failure. At the very top and bottom ends of the spectrum, however, this is harder to do.

This is not necessarily unusual as countries at the end of a spectrum on any measure are often outliers which require specific explanations and evade general explanations. The reason it needs to be pointed out, however, is that far from outliers, these countries are instead held up as textbook examples. It has become impossible to move within discussions in the media on populism without Poland and Italy being discussed. Yet these countries are outliers, the support for populism found there is unusual in Europe, even now.

Overall, to answer the question and to wrap up this piece, populism has increased right across Europe but to very different levels. Importantly, if we are to understand what is driving (radical-right, anti-EU) populism, then the media needs to give less attention to Italy and other outliers and more attention to those countries closer to the European average, like Croatia, Slovenia or Czechia. Though given the less politically interesting nature of these countries for the future of Europe, this is unlikely to happen soon.


This article was originally published on European Votes 2019, here.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


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