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Spanner in the works
By Zhang Lichun | chinawatch.cn | Updated: 2019-05-22 10:48
Zhang Chunli

In recent years, populist parties with anti-European Union and anti-immigration as their major political claims have been wielding bigger clout in European politics. The looming European Parliament elections on May 23 to 26 are widely viewed as a tussle between the establishment and the populist, and even have "the potential to change the future of the EU in a decisive way", as suggested by a German think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

How did the populist parties rise to power?

European populism is hardly a new thing. Some member states have been resisting the transfer of their sovereignty, as early as the very beginning of the European integration. Since the 1990s, some politicians in many EU nations have blamed the integration for domestic economic slowdowns as a tactic to win public support. Such finger-pointing has sowed the seeds of populism. Moreover, the European debt crisis and refugee crisis have provided the populists, especially the right-wingers, with ammunition to incite public resentment and to attack immigration and European integration. Some right-wing parties, like the National Rally (previously the National Front) in France, have challenged the pro-establishment mainstream parties. Despite the fact that they lost the 2017 French Presidential Election to Emmanuel Macron, whose presidency has temporarily kept French populism at bay, the tide of populism will hardly be stemmed. Since there is a hotbed, it will gain more momentum. In the coming European Parliament Election, we will see the muscle-flexing of the populist parties.

They are well-prepared on all fronts. The populist parties have campaigned harder at home and reached out to foreign political parties with similar populist agendas. At the beginning of April, Minister Salvini, who is the leader of Italy's Northern League and the vice-premier and interior minister, announced to the world the establishment of a pan-European far-right coalition: European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). This asserting of power by the far right parties could profoundly shape the May election.

What are the odds on the populist parties doing well in the European Parliament elections?

Judging from the current trends, the rise of the far right populist parties in Europe is hard to suppress. They are likely to take more seats in the election. According to the latest European Parliament poll, it is anticipated that the far right league formed by Northern League of Italy and National Front of France will take over 60 seats, making the far-right the biggest winners and top decision-makers in the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, a landslide victory is not a certainty. The weapon of the populists is people's grudges against either the EU establishment, or against European integration. However, public opinion in Europe is also changing. A report released by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) reveals that the level of unity of European countries has surpassed that before the 2007 European debt crisis. This positive change is echoed by a discovery of another think tank, Institut Francais Des Relations Internationals (IFRI). According to IFRI, the euro as the greatest symbol of the EU integration is gaining more public approval; 64 percent of the people polled believe that the euro benefits their country, while 74 percent think that the currency is good for the EU, a record-high for recognition of the euro. Brexit has had a role to play in the shift in public opinion. The shambles in the United Kingdom has sent a wake-up call about the consequences of leaving the EU. The change undoubtedly will reduce the likelihood of a landslide victory for the populist parties, who have made anti-integration their mission statement.

What can we expect then?

The stronger presence of populism in European Parliament will alter the political landscape in the long run. First, the establishment parties will find it harder to set the agenda in a more divided parliament. Should the populist parties take one-third of all seats, they will veto proposals, seek to change the agendas, or even backpedal on EU diplomatic policies and reforms in the eurozone.

Second, the mainstream parties are caving into the tide of populism, as it continues to gain ground in European politics. For instance, some ruling parties have made concessions on immigration policies. Many European countries refused to sign the United Nations' Global Pact on Refugees, a gesture to pamper populists at home and to secure seats in the May election.

A victory for the populists in the parliament election will deal another heavy blow to integration. For many populist parties, more seats in the European Parliament are just a means, not an end; the ultimate goal is to challenge the establishment and to pave the way for the national elections in a few years. If they are on a winning streak, then Europe will face more uncertainties.

The author is a research fellow of National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Global 05/20/2019 page13)

Zhang Chunli

In recent years, populist parties with anti-European Union and anti-immigration as their major political claims have been wielding bigger clout in European politics. The looming European Parliament elections on May 23 to 26 are widely viewed as a tussle between the establishment and the populist, and even have "the potential to change the future of the EU in a decisive way", as suggested by a German think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

How did the populist parties rise to power?

European populism is hardly a new thing. Some member states have been resisting the transfer of their sovereignty, as early as the very beginning of the European integration. Since the 1990s, some politicians in many EU nations have blamed the integration for domestic economic slowdowns as a tactic to win public support. Such finger-pointing has sowed the seeds of populism. Moreover, the European debt crisis and refugee crisis have provided the populists, especially the right-wingers, with ammunition to incite public resentment and to attack immigration and European integration. Some right-wing parties, like the National Rally (previously the National Front) in France, have challenged the pro-establishment mainstream parties. Despite the fact that they lost the 2017 French Presidential Election to Emmanuel Macron, whose presidency has temporarily kept French populism at bay, the tide of populism will hardly be stemmed. Since there is a hotbed, it will gain more momentum. In the coming European Parliament Election, we will see the muscle-flexing of the populist parties.

They are well-prepared on all fronts. The populist parties have campaigned harder at home and reached out to foreign political parties with similar populist agendas. At the beginning of April, Minister Salvini, who is the leader of Italy's Northern League and the vice-premier and interior minister, announced to the world the establishment of a pan-European far-right coalition: European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). This asserting of power by the far right parties could profoundly shape the May election.

What are the odds on the populist parties doing well in the European Parliament elections?

Judging from the current trends, the rise of the far right populist parties in Europe is hard to suppress. They are likely to take more seats in the election. According to the latest European Parliament poll, it is anticipated that the far right league formed by Northern League of Italy and National Front of France will take over 60 seats, making the far-right the biggest winners and top decision-makers in the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, a landslide victory is not a certainty. The weapon of the populists is people's grudges against either the EU establishment, or against European integration. However, public opinion in Europe is also changing. A report released by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) reveals that the level of unity of European countries has surpassed that before the 2007 European debt crisis. This positive change is echoed by a discovery of another think tank, Institut Francais Des Relations Internationals (IFRI). According to IFRI, the euro as the greatest symbol of the EU integration is gaining more public approval; 64 percent of the people polled believe that the euro benefits their country, while 74 percent think that the currency is good for the EU, a record-high for recognition of the euro. Brexit has had a role to play in the shift in public opinion. The shambles in the United Kingdom has sent a wake-up call about the consequences of leaving the EU. The change undoubtedly will reduce the likelihood of a landslide victory for the populist parties, who have made anti-integration their mission statement.

What can we expect then?

The stronger presence of populism in European Parliament will alter the political landscape in the long run. First, the establishment parties will find it harder to set the agenda in a more divided parliament. Should the populist parties take one-third of all seats, they will veto proposals, seek to change the agendas, or even backpedal on EU diplomatic policies and reforms in the eurozone.

Second, the mainstream parties are caving into the tide of populism, as it continues to gain ground in European politics. For instance, some ruling parties have made concessions on immigration policies. Many European countries refused to sign the United Nations' Global Pact on Refugees, a gesture to pamper populists at home and to secure seats in the May election.

A victory for the populists in the parliament election will deal another heavy blow to integration. For many populist parties, more seats in the European Parliament are just a means, not an end; the ultimate goal is to challenge the establishment and to pave the way for the national elections in a few years. If they are on a winning streak, then Europe will face more uncertainties.

The author is a research fellow of National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Global 05/20/2019 page13)