Populism has infected European politics. But it can be beaten. The three things needed for mainstream politicians to win back control of the debate are competence, fairness and leadership. To some extent, the fightback is already succeeding.
Demagogic movements of the left and right have gained traction in most European Union countries since the credit crunch. Parties such as France’s Front National, Britain’s UK Independence Party, Italy’s Five Star Movement, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza have burst into prominence.
Populists are damaging because they propose seemingly attractive policies that would have disastrous results if implemented. This was glaringly the case after Alexis Tsipras – so far the only one of the current crop of demagogues to have taken power – became Greek prime minister in January.
The first step, if mainstream politicians hope to beat back populism, is competence. For Europe at the moment, that means competent management of the economy. This is the main explanation for David Cameron’s re-election as British prime minister in May and Pedros Passos Coelho’s victory in Portugal earlier this month. Mariano Rajoy, who is presiding over a fast-growing Spanish economy, should benefit from the same trend when he faces the voters in December.
Passos Coelho and Rajoy have also benefited from Tsipras’ terrible first term in office, followed by a massive U-turn which has given the Greek premier a chance to redeem himself. This has been a useful antidote to left-wing populism in Portugal and Spain – so much so that Podemos has dropped to fourth place in some recent Spanish opinion polls.
Matteo Renzi is also pushing hard to establish his credentials for competence. The Italian prime minister has embarked on a whirlwind of reforms to the gummed-up jobs market, the banking system and the country’s dysfunctional constitution – in the hope that this will bear fruit by the time he faces the electorate in 2018.
Renzi seems unafraid to bash far-left populists from foreign countries in order to remind colleagues in his centre-left Democratic Party of the importance of sticking to the centre ground. Last month, he lambasted both Yanis Varoufakis, Tsipras’ destructive former finance minister, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour party.
France’s Francois Hollande hasn’t shown the same commitment to change as Renzi – although his prime minister Manuel Valls and economy minister Emmanuel Macron have bought into the need to reform France’s sclerotic economy.
While competence is the most important way to combat populism, it may not be enough. After all, Tsipras was re-elected last month despite a dazzling display of incompetence.
Part of the explanation is that new parties are not yet associated with corruption. That includes non-populist ones such as Spain’s Ciudadanos. By contrast, almost all established parties carry baggage.
The right-wing ones need to stop kowtowing to big business. Left-wing ones have to cease pandering to trade unions and public employees. But all find it hard to break with their clientelist pasts.
Renzi has been the most successful politician in forging a new path. Though a man of the left, he has no truck with the vested interests of the left. He has started to articulate a concept of social justice, a central value for the left, which depends on giving everybody a fair chance rather than doling out goodies to specially favoured groups.
Cameron is tentatively taking a similar approach, albeit coming from the right. In his speech to the Conservative party conference last week, he laid out a liberal, centrist vision of a society where everybody had opportunity. Now he needs to deliver on this.
Even competence combined with a modern vision of fairness may not be enough to combat the demagogues. Leadership is also needed. Populism has found fertile ground in the euro zone partly because Angela Merkel lacked the courage to explain to the German people how their country benefits from the single currency, and how foolish lending by its banks was partly responsible for the Greek crisis.
Equally, if Britain quits the European Union, it will be largely down to Cameron’s lack of leadership. Not only has he done little to explain how the UK benefits from being in the union, his government has even told British business not to campaign in favour of membership until he has finished renegotiating the country’s relationship with it. The field has been left wide open to eurosceptics to peddle the populist line that Britain can enjoy all the benefits of membership without the costs.
Mainstream politicians need to have the guts to take the fight to the demagogues, in the same way that Renzi is. Combine that with competence and justice, and Europe will be able to keep the populist bacterium from escaping its Petri dish.