Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored.
Just over a year ago, I submitted my dissertation on the role of English populism in the Brexit referendum result. Fast-forward to today, I am living in Stockholm, Sweden, where the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats recently emerged as the de facto victor in an election which ousted the centre-left bloc from Sweden’s government. The parallel between the subject of my dissertation and the election result here is obvious: a growing electorate dissatisfied with high levels of immigration at a time when cosmopolitan liberalism and globalisation are viewed as marginalising forces in traditional communities.
But what separates this continuing upward trend in populism across Europe – evidenced further by the recent victory of the far-right Brothers of Italy – from the populist forces that sprung during the 2010s, is that the implementation of Brexit, the defeats of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and the paralysing effect of Covid, all contributed to a sense that the 2016 fever of populism had been contained.
Far from being contained, it has in fact quietly grown in many of the places where right-wing populism was thought to be defeated. While Marine Le Pen was again defeated in the French Presidential election, her populist party gained nearly 10% on the previous presidential election, and her ability to maintain enough support to reach the second ballot is a clear sign that populism in Europe is here to stay. The explanation for this is simple: the issues that began the populist revolt of 2014-16 have not simply gone away as a result of Donald Trump being deposed or Brexit being ‘done.’ They remain largely unsolved, and I predict, will grow to become even more significant issues.
Matthew Goodwin, author of several books on the rise of populism in Europe and the UK – many of which I cited in my own dissertation on populism – recently argued that the scale of the challenges facing European democracies today, will dwarf those that sparked the populist revolt of 2014-16. In an interview with Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, Goodwin predicts that the gap created by the ineffective response of traditional conservatives to the economic and sociocultural crisis of today will spark a right-wing populist backlash greater than in the 2010s.
From my own research, I agree. As I remarked earlier in this article, the issues created by migration and globalisation have not disappeared in the last few years and will grow in salience as the economic conditions of ordinary voters and the migration crisis worsens. In fact, the view in Britain that Brexit ‘solved’ immigration as an issue of salience for voters is deeply complacent given the persistence of migration across The Channel, the liberalisation of immigration rules from outside the EU by the Johnson government, and the probable impending rise in migration as a direct result of the climate crisis. Immigration has not gone away as an issue and will continue to grow, despite Brexit appearing to have ‘taken back control.’
Another significant finding from my research was that Brexit was fuelled by a populism which tapped into an electorate of discontented ‘losers’ – voters disaffected by the marginalising economic and sociocultural impacts of globalisation who are more likely to align with exclusive political identities such as Englishness. This phenomenon is hugely influenced by inequality, economic insecurity and poor social mobility, all of which are likely to become disastrously more extreme in the months and years ahead due to cost-of-living crisis. In Britain particularly, average mortgage rates have ballooned to 6 per cent as a result of the Truss government’s mini budget, which sent the pound falling and interest rates rising. This is likely to result in a cascade of impoverished households and record inequality over the winter.
Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, I estimate that rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. The mainstream of politics has to find radical new solutions to the problems caused by the present crisis, especially on the left which has the most to lose from the growth of populism. Failure to do so will give the populists of Europe a route straight to power.
(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.