In anticipation of the upcoming 2024 European Elections, let’s take a closer look at the political landscape of Europe. The rise of populism has steadily gained momentum since the 2014 elections. The 2019 European Elections demonstrated the sustained growth of populism, which is associated with Euroscepticism. How will this trend influence the 2024 elections? This analysis explores the implications of populism for the 2024 elections within the broader context of Euroscepticism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and migration pressures. It will argue that Euroscepticism is linked to reactionary emotional responses to global challenges and changes. The psychological drivers of populism, such as fear, anger, and mistrust, have influenced the political climate, exacerbated by social media. The article underscores the need for EU member states to address these issues and strive for political consensus to foster trust in democratic institutions and counter the populist wave.
The European elections are approaching, with the date set for June 6-9, 2024. They are one of the most critical procedures for the European Union (EU), producing MEPs of the European Parliament, who participate in revising the regulations proposed by the European Council and are also responsible for electing the Head of the European Commission. European Parliament is the only institution directly elected by the people of the Union’s member-states and, therefore, monitors compliance with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and highlights problems and violations in Member States (European Parliament, 2020).
In light of the upcoming elections in 2024, it is helpful to reflect on what is taking place in Europe today and what could be done. The 2019 European election showed that populism, which seemed to be established in the 2014 elections, has not ceased, but on the contrary, has risen significantly since. Thus, it is of great interest to better understand how this trend will be in the upcoming 2024 European elections, as populism is not only a European tendency but is a phenomenon that progressively spreads around the globe.
Within the European structure, populist parties are closely linked to Euroscepticism. Euroscepticism is a broad sense, it’s as vague as populism. It emerged as a term to describe those who were sceptic about the governing model of the EU – those who opposed the further integration of their countries (ECPS, 2020). However, Majistorovic (2022) argues that Euroscepticism became a broad term used as a reference for hostile sentiments and actions against democracy. Hence, observing Eurosceptic rhetoric expressed by parties and party members will help us measure populism in Europe.
According to Treib (2021), there was a rise in Eurosceptic parties (who previously emerged in the 2014 elections) in the 2019 elections. While in 2019, there were some concerns about the size of the populist parties in the European Parliament, as results showed, there was no significant change. In 2019, more than 28 percent of MEPs belonged to populist/Eurosceptic parties (Treib, 2021: 177). Within the European Parliament, there are two major party groups, which have traditionally been in the lead – the EPP (European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)) and the S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament). Smaller party groups are Renew Europe, ID, Greens, ECR, GUE/NGL and NI (non-attached). The two major groups (European Parliament, 2019), the EPP and the S&D in the previous elections sustained some damage in the last elections, but the populist parties did not benefit from it. Interestingly, though, populist parties seemed to turn further to the right than the left. In total, in the 2019 European elections, after Brexit, 185 populist MEPs were elected, from whom, 112 were in the radical-right sphere – a number significantly bigger than the radical left populists which have 20 seats in the European Parliament (Treib, 2021: 177-179).
In 2023, after the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions, along with refugee pressures and inflation plaguing the world, there seems to be a concerted shift of Europe to the right, with the rise of right-wing coalitions with far-right parties across Europe (Lynch, 2023). Silver (2022) presents an extensive graph showing that since 2000, the populist trend from Greece to Sweden has progressively grown. Bergmann (2020) argues that nationalist populism emerges after a major crisis. The above is verified in Silver (2022), as especially after the economic crisis in 2008, there is a simultaneous upward trend in most European countries, but also the emergence of populist parties, such as Syriza (Greece), and Podemos (Spain). Populist parties, according to both Silver (2022) and Bergmann (2020), appeared after the migration flows in 2015. So now, after a major crisis, it is “natural” for populist parties to gain more strength and spread, especially since many countries have been unable to “recover from the shock” of 2015.
Populism in Member States
The top five radical right populist parties (by MEPs) are Lega (Italy), National Rally (France), Fidesz (Hungary), AfD (Germany) and Brothers of Italy (Treib, 2021: 178). Lega is the now ruling party of Italy, National Rally is the second party in France, and Fidesz is still the government of Hungary. On the national level, according to Silver (2022), AfD in Germany, as well as SYRIZA in Greece, for example, dropped dramatically since the previous national elections. However, in Germany, the most critical country in the European Union (in terms of administration), there seemed to be a twist, as the AfD came third in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, behind the CDU and CSU (Burchard and Angelos, 2023). The trend for AfD is upwards as polls show the party leading in the former East Germany with 28 percent. It is also expected to come first in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Brandenburg Thuringia and Saxony (Angelos, 2023).
In Greece, for example, SYRIZA is the opposition party but lost a fair share of votes. In the 2023 national elections, it’s the first time that three far-right populist parties made their way into the Greek Parliament. The first of them is a party named Spartans – which is a successor to the Nazist party Golden Dawn (which was in the European Parliament as well in 2014). Second came the Greek Solution – a party already in the parliament since the 2019 elections, and third came Victory (NIKI in Greek). The three combined are over 10 percent of the parliamentary seats (34 out of 300) (Ministry of Interior, 2023).
In 2023, in the elections held in the Netherlands, the populist BBB (Farmer – Citizen Movement) party, was the big winner, as it got 19 percent of the votes, securing seats in the parliament (Henley, 2023). Netherlands’ economy is based on the farming industry, as the agricultural sector exports around €65 billions of agricultural produce per year (Ministerie van Economische Zaken, 2023). The rise of BBB is due to Rutte’s government, which wanted to pass a law to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030, as the Dutch soil is severely polluted by nitrous oxide, ammonia or nitrate emission (Vallet, 2022). Farmers felt attacked and started protesting shortly after the announcement of the new policy. In the Netherlands’ case, it is evident that anger and resentment towards the government were the cause of the BBB party’s rise in the elections.
Psychology of Populism
The above cases serve as examples, to show two things. First, it provides evidence that populism is a growing phenomenon within the European Union. Second, the Netherlands example shows that the emergence of BBB is due to negative feelings in a significant portion of the population. Maybe the case of the Netherlands can explain the rise of populism in other EU countries.
Fear and anger are powerful emotions, believed to be the primary emotions fueling support for populist parties (Rico et al., 2017). Fear is a means for populist leaders, according to Müller (2022), but also, to some extent, it seems to be the raison d’être of their social and political existence. Anxiety stems from insecurity or rapid social and economic change. Due to the fear of the unknown, people turn to populist movements, which keeps the vicious cycle of populist tendencies and trends running (Rico et al., 2017). Nowadays, fear and anxiety are systemically being cultivated in societies, mainly via social media.
According to Rico et al. (2017: 446): “The basic principle of evaluation is that people’s reactions to stimuli depend largely on the conscious and preconscious interpretations that each individual makes of a situation. [..] the way in which people appraise the environment in connection with their personal goals ultimately determines which particular emotion is aroused.” After a long period of economic instability within the euro area, which also caused intra-EU migration, the refugee influxes of 2015 brought the situation to a head. In the same period, terrorist attacks in Paris and Spain, for example, did not work in favor of the difficult situation created, as the European Asylum System proved problematic in managing the situation.
Migration is a topical issue within the EU and inevitably a main factor in favor of populism. In the past few days, the EU tried to settle the irregular migration. In the pre-agreed text of the deal that was about to be sealed in Granada, Spain, on the 5th and 6th of October 2023, Poland and Hungary opposed the hosting of migrants from Middle East or Africa, while Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria abstained in the final vote (Baczynska, 2023). In Granada, Hungary and Poland refused to sign the final text, forcing the EU to drop the migration deal (Caulcutt et al., 2023).
Thoughts on the Upcoming Elections
The preceding analysis and examples serve as an indicator which based on comparative analysis. Thus, it shows how the populist parties of the 2019 elections are holding up today. The only way to predict the results of the European elections is to observe the political trends and results of the national elections. The results of the national elections usually indicate the results of the European elections, as there are no significant discrepancies as to which parties will enter the European Parliament.
The aftermath of the pandemic and war fueled fear, anger, and anxiety, promoted even more via social media. Social media can have a positive impact on politics, as a venue to transmit information and exchange opinions. On the other hand, it can undermine democracy by spreading mistrust about democratic institutions and civil society. This was evident, in social media about growing public opinion against the governments and their policies to tackle the pandemic, especially during the Covid-19 restrictions. Mistrust towards democratic institutions is a fuel that keeps populism going.
Mistrust can also be transformed into anger. Anxiety and insecurity first appeared among the left-wing populist parties in the countries most heavily affected by the 2008 economic crisis (Podemos – Spain, SYRIZA – Greece). Populist parties after 2015 were mainly right and far-right parties due to a need for shielding and securing European societies from refugees and migrants. This “second wave” grew in northwestern Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, etc.), but also, in Greece and Italy, for example, more right-wing populist parties began to rise, as both countries suffered the heaviest pressures with the 2015 flows.
All in all, it seems that in these elections, populist parties will not cease. Either the number of populist parties will remain the same, or increase. If the Member States and the EU don’t work towards stabilizing societies, the turmoil will continue to benefit the populist parties. On one hand, it seems almost impossible for the EU to achieve such a goal within the next six months. On the other hand, the sooner states start developing a political consensus to sort out their problems and differences, the sooner the EU will prove that citizens should trust the institutions and their governments – that a proper democratic solution can be found.
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