Lauren Olsen is BA in International Relations from Brigham Young University, USA
On May 26, at 10pm, as the EU election polls closed, much of Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief. The populists didn’t do as well as everyone feared. In the days following the election, politicians, voters, and the media celebrated the election results as proof that populism was not the overpowering force that many had feared. They cheered that although populists may have gained a few more seats, they did not gain enough to make them the dominant force in the EU.
These analyses are partially right and partially wrong. It’s true that the populists did not fare as well as many analysts predicted. Their seat share increased from around 20 percent to 25 percent, a modest gain of only about 5 percent, lower than many feared.
Commentators have also reassured the public that it is much easier for the populists to win seats than to execute their agendas once elected. They point out that many far right parties agree about only one thing—immigration. On other issues, such as the EU budget, Russia, and immigrant distribution, their platforms are entirely incongruous, which makes cooperating in any meaningful way difficult and unlikely. This discord, forecasters predict, will prevent populists from directing the parliamentary agenda or EU policies.
Some optimistic observers even claim that the populists’ advances will be good for the EU, because their anti-elitist rhetoric may push mainstream politicians to get back in touch with the people. In order to shed the elitist image, the may be forced to make a more concerted effort and more concrete proposals to respond to common concerns like inequality, unemployment, welfare benefits, or other similar challenges.
These reassurances are well-intentioned, but overly optimistic. Although the populist parties made only marginal gains, they will still be a powerful force in the EU for several reasons. Rather than acting as a dominant force, as many feared, they will likely play a spoiler role from within the institution instead.
This effect has already begun from the moment when the populist parties began to pull votes away from the traditional center parties, weakening their performance in the elections. The moderate politicians of the traditional will feel the effects of that loss as they try to create working coalitions against unfavorable odds.
Over the next few years, parties on both extremes of the spectrum will likely continue to act in this spoiler role by sabotaging efforts of moderate politicians to move the EU in the right direction. MEPs from both extremes may not have enough support to pass their own radical proposals, but they will likely try to block many of the constructive efforts by mainstream parties to address common EU problems. The internal divisions of the populists will prevent them from cooperating on some issues, but it is very likely that they will reach agreements in other areas. Many of the most pressing concerns about immigration will have to confront major opposition from the populist bloc.
As newly elected populist leaders unite to combat many of the EU’s founding values, moderate politicians must likewise unite in defense of those core values. Populists may have gained a degree of power, but if moderate politicians seek to promote positive EU activity, they must pay attention to the tactics of their opponents. Rather than celebrating populism’s containment, MEPs must instead prepare to dampen its influence by responding to the genuine concerns of their citizens, reducing elitist inclinations, and opposing radical rhetoric.