This short note on populism is published by Carnegie Europe


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Populism has become a lazy shorthand for any politics we do not like. Europe survived twenty or thirty years of left-wing populism in the form of mass Communist parties. In the case of the French Communist Party, such populism was both hostile to European integration and often racist and xenophobic.

Today, the most successful populist party in Europe is the Swiss People’s Party, which is hostile to the EU and to EU immigrant workers as well as Islamophobic—but Switzerland survives. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is populist even though it belongs to the center-right European People’s Party, while Greece’s ruling left-wing Syriza has inherited and amplified the populism of the center-left PASOK party.

All successful politics must have a dose of populism. Big leaders like former French president Charles de Gaulle or former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at times appeal directly to the people, bypassing party structures and conventional ways of doing politics. Divisions between insiders and outsiders, or between the establishment and insurgents, are nothing new. If Europe is failing to answer populist questions, it is because there are not enough jobs, not enough new firms, not enough homes, and not enough social justice.

These solutions cannot be dictated by Brussels. Twentieth-century parties have given up on political education, and many politicians think a tweet is an intellectual challenge. Populism isn’t Europe’s problem. The lack of political leadership and vision is.


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