LONDON – Populist politics is back with a bang. In Germany, the hard right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has crashed into the Bundestag. On a pan-European scale, the saving grace may well be that this happened just at the moment when its sister party in France, the Front National, flops into the dustbin of history.
In Italy, 80-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, business tycoon and right-wing populist, has slimmed down to 72 kg. There isn’t a line on his face and his teeth are whiter than the top of Mont Blanc.
To Berlusconi, appearances matter greatly, even as he is polishing his populist pitch to take on the even more populist Five-Star movement in elections that are likely to be held early in 2018.
Labour’s hero worship
In Britain, the populism of the left has never been more enthused in contemporary memory as the Labour Party celebrated its annual conference with calls from its 68-year-old leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to re-nationalize all the industries handed over to private management since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s era.
In Corbyn’s vision, there is to be more money for every public service from schools to health care, with all-round wage increases for public servants.
U.K. business will be taxed much more in a future Labor government. Little surprise then that even Corbyn’s finance spokesperson, John McDonnell, told the party conference that his team was doing scenario planning for a massive run on sterling in the event of Labour winning power.
The 13,000 visitors to the Labour conference cheered and stamped their feet in this left-wing version of populist Trumpery.
They sang “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” like a chorus from Aida as their hero promised them socialist heaven on earth. There is an open cult of the Corbyn personality with T-shirts bearing a picture of his face on sale, something never before seen at a Labour Party conference. At times, it had the feel of a Jacob Zuma rally in South Africa.
Even Yanis Varoufakis, who has made a fortune as the number one leftist populist in Europe — a Greek god at every gathering of the European left — might have been embarrassed at the rites of Corbyn adoration on the southern English coast.
Next: The Tory populists
This week, the British Conservatives are holding their annual party conference in Manchester. It is an open contest between EU realists like Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond versus the Brexit fundamentalists, headed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Trade Secretary Liam Fox, keeper of the Thatcherite flame.
Depending on which side wins, the U.K. either winds down to a messy end-game on Brexit in 2019 — leaving the EU’s political structure, but broadly staying in the economic and trade institutions. Or the fundamentalists win — and Britain crashes out of Europe.
Rather than providing an alternative vision for Britain’s future on the Brexit issue, Corbyn prefers to “shadow” May. His political calculation is that leaving her in charge of what can turn into the worst economic disaster to hit Britain in decades should make it easier for him to seize power before long.
The perils of populism
The Tories have been giving into anti-EU populism for 20 years. They ultimately surrendered to nationalist populism via the 2016 referendum on Europe.
The Tories’ hope had been to use that instrument to assure a long period in power for British Conservatives. Instead, the presumed brilliant move has opened up endless cans of worm and vipers that has made the once proud Tories a national laughing stock.
Populism on autopilot?
What is especially painful to observe is that populism is still surging when the economics of Europe finally seems to be on the mend.
The awareness of that improvement obviously still lags in people’s awareness. That is not a big surprise, given how bruising the economic fallout of the 2008-2009 financial crisis has been.
When it comes to falling to the forces of populism, there is a big difference between Germany and the U.K. and Italy. The rise of the AfD is to be deplored, but — so far at least — the other political parties in Germany have for the most part resisted the temptation to run after populist solutions.
That is very different in Italy and the U.K., where erstwhile conservatives are eagerly embracing populist solutions, if they have not turned themselves fully into populist fighting machines.
Consequences for Europe
This has potentially deplorable effects on the governance of Europe. Add in the competing nationalist passions now openly on display between Catalonia and Castilian Spain, the relentless invocation of the nation and its identity by Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, one recognizes that the appeal issued by French President Emmanuel Macron in his Sorbonne speech for a new European identity based on 18th century rationality seems a distant project.
At the same time, Macron’s admirable courage to seek a reinvention of France, of the Franco-German relationship, and of Europe’s relevance and future path are the key element in the battle over Europe that is playing out right now.
Denis MacShane, a contributing editor at The Globalist, was U.K. minister for Europe from 2002-2005 and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.”