False Economy – the impact of the Eurozone crisis on European populism

This is a guest post by Jack Benfield of Demos

Europe’s worries are not just economic: cultural strains are also showing. Since the mid-1980s, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, populist parties have built solid, durable bases of support across Europe. In recent years, some of these parties, such as the True Finns, and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, have made spectacular electoral gains. Marine le Pen’s successful detoxification of the Front National with sugar-coated spoonfuls of reasonableness might even put her in a position to challenge Sarkozy for the opportunity of being soundly beaten in the final round of the French presidential election.

Could the economic crisis be a boon for the populist right? They certainly think so. The introductory message on the BNP’s website unashamedly seeks to take advantage of public anger surrounding the crisis, accusing politicians of lavishing “billions on undeserving foreigners and mega-rich bankers” while millions of British people are left unemployed. Nick Griffin’s party, in line with others on the European far right, hopes to boost support by tapping into widespread dissatisfaction with political institutions and increased competition for jobs. In the 1930s, European fascist movements did this to great effect. This time, though, they are unlikely to have such success.

Last week, we released a report which analysed the responses of over 10,000 Facebook fans of right wing populist parties across 11 Western European countries. It provides fresh insight into these parties’ fan-base, revealing a new generation of angry young men. These individuals are often patronizingly viewed as the “losers” of economic liberalism. This is wrong. They are not significantly more likely to be unemployed than the national average. They are also less concerned about the economic situation than the general public and rarely join these parties due to economic concerns. They are worried about high levels of immigration, but this is driven by the threat they believe it poses to national and cultural identity, rather than by economic considerations.

This is not to say that populist parties are now set to plateau or decline. They are resilient to boom and bust, often augmenting their support whatever the economic weather. But populist parties, so good at exploiting anxieties and disillusionment, often have very little to say on the economy. Where they do take a strong stance, their policies tend to be extreme. Marine le Pen wants to withdraw France from the Euro and close its borders to cheap foreign imports – policies that would have a disastrous impact on both the viability of the Eurozone and the welfare of the French people. Times of crisis can focus the mind – even those who support populist policies on issues such as immigration may find the prospect of Wilders or Le Pen hammering out a solution to Europe’s debt crisis a step too far.