Populism in Europe: A threat to democracy or a welcome change of perspective?

by Louise Bicknese

Populism in Europe is on the rise. In times of hardship, for example when there is an economic or a refugee crisis, calls for a scapegoat and for the strengthening of democracy whip up a lot of support. There is an interesting divide in the populism of nowadays: in Northern Europe, the populists are rather right-wing, while the populism of the South is integrated with a left-wing ideology. Why, and what are the consequences for European democracies?

First, let’s discuss what populism exactly is. Even though the parties are ideologically very different, there are a couple of things they have in common. Most of all, their appeal lies in their return to nationalism. They target the ‘common man’ among the voters, those who feel betrayed or cheated by other groups in society. This is usually paired with a severe suspicion against Europe; everything is decided by ‘Brussels’ and the loss of national sovereignty is mourned, which poses difficulties for European integration in the future. This stance may be rooted in the austerity measures by the EU, which have alienated the (self-perceived) victims of these measures.

The difference, however, lies in the choice of the scapegoat. While the North often points towards immigrants as the main culprits, the Southern populism is much more anti-establishment, as the original populism used to be. In assessing the Northern parties, I am for example talking about the Sweden Democrats, UKIP, Front National, the Dutch PVV etc.. Southern parties would include Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Especially the latter parties enjoy major support in their respective countries, with some even in the government (most notably, of course, Syriza). Even though populist parties sometimes have huge ideological differences, their nationalism can work as a connective factor: think of Syriza forming a government with the right-wing populist party Independent Greeks.

However, populist parties do not just wreck havoc and get a lot of headlines; they also change the political discourse throughout Europe. Theirs is a discourse of anger and fear that reaches even the people who are not among their voters. Populism assumes a divide in society: one between the people and the ‘oligarchy’. They force the governing, stable parties to defend themselves against claims of elitism. Their party programme may not be the most well-grounded, but this is compensated with charisma and an aggressive rhetoric. With these characteristics, populists tend to take over debates, especially during election campaigns. Is that dangerous?

Most prominent politicians tend to think so. Herman van Rompuy called populism ‘the biggest danger to Europe’, with others calling it a ‘virus’. This distinctly negative view of populism may result from a history of totalitarian populist regimes, or from frustration of the establishment. However, there might be some advantages to populism. It reaches layers of society that normally do not participate actively in democracy. By expanding the interest of the public in their own democracy, by expanding their participation, parliament (as the outcome of their votes) can come to represent a larger part of the population, thereby increasing its own legitimacy.

It’s safe to say that populism has good effects as well as bad effects on democracy and political discourse. On the one hand, it may increase the legitimacy of the democracy, but on the other hand, the discourse of paranoia and suspicion it spreads may lead to a divide in society and an increase in tension, especially the Northern, right-wing populism. The marginalization of minorities is an important aspect that cannot be overlooked and the over-generalizing division between two seemingly homogenous groups can be dangerous in a multicultural society. A politician shaking things up a bit might not be the worst thing every now and again, but populists thrive more as opposition parties. Governing parties ought to stand above these kinds of discourse and be a little more serious.


Picture by Bloco, taken from flickr


  • Hi Louise!
    You raise some interesting points. I believe that the most important lesson to learn from the rise of populists across Europe is that the general public becomes more and ore upset with the current structure of society. The few in power and the many feeling powerless, insignificant and alienated. Our democracies need to evolve or else they might indeed be captured by dangerous groups that prey on people’s fears and frustration.

  • […] the article on “Populism in Europe” (published on this website some days ago) discusses in a useful way some features of the rise of […]

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