Populism can also have a beneficial side to it

It is probably too early to hope that with the general election in the Netherlands the strength of the right-wing populists in Europe is on the wane. As the reasons for their success remain: Many people are frightened of immigration, globalisation and an overly powerful EU.

The 2017 election year has kicked off and the result is gratifying at first sight. Because the general election in the Netherlands ended in a surprisingly clear victory for the liberal-conservative VVD. The party led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte managed to bag a good 20 percent of the votes. More importantly, at the same time the right-wing populist PVV achieved a far worse result than opinion polls had suggested it would in recent weeks.

There are no doubt many different reasons for the clear turn in favour of the political centre ground. Shortly before the election many of the Dutch voters were still undecided for whom they would opt. The debate whether the general election actually constituted an early vote on Europe may well have fuelled the strong turn-out of about 81 percent. Many citizens who may be less interested in everyday political issues may have intended by their vote to take a stand against the threatened renationalisation of the country.

Moreover, the new escalation in the conflict with Turkey, in which the government in The Hague did not shy away from a showdown, may have tilted things in Rutte’s favour and away from Wilders. The conflict Turkey has with some European countries seems to be driven by election tactics and at least in the Netherlands fulfilled its purpose.

For all the joy that pro-Europe parties won the election, the themes promoted by the populist and nationalist parties have taken root in society. This was apparent in the Netherlands, but is also discernible in France and Germany. It is quite astonishing how very similar trends can be identified that cut across national borders. However, economic conditions in the various countries are far from similar. This is reflected above all in the labour market. While in Germany there is almost full employment in many sectors and the number of employees has hit a record high, joblessness in France runs at a good 10 percent and is about twice as high as in Germany. There are also major economic differences between the Netherlands and France. While the most open economy in Euroland is witnessing a clear upturn after the crisis years, there is great frustration in France given high unemployment and modest economic growth.

The reason that the issues championed by the established parties are falling on deaf ears can therefore not be attributed to economic conditions in the respective countries. Rather, the basic mood among the populations must have changed. The swift turnaround in many issues, the fear of a loss of social status and the everyday fear of terrorism may be major factors behind the behavioural change in many societies.

In particular, in recent years the established parties and governments in the countries in question could have done a great deal to allay concerns as regards the first two issues, thus putting the record straight. After all, politics and social challenges can only be mastered together with the people, meaning you first need to get the people on your side and explain a lot of things.

This can be demonstrated very clearly with the issues of Europe and globalisation. Both have become buzzwords for the populist mainstream, as many people project their social fears onto these two terms. However, the fact is that our societies are better off thanks to Europe and globalisation, the closer linkages of trade relations.

Individual sections of the economy have manifestly benefited less than the average. But this could have been absorbed by implementing balanced social policies. The basic problem, however, was that the interaction of economic policy and social trends was not noticed and/or neglected. As a result there was no broad public debate on these issues. Into this political vacuum the populist parties gratefully stepped.

If this hypothesis is correct, then the populist and nationalist parties will not disappear overnight. And it would hardly help if established parties start jumping on the bandwagon or, for fear of advocating the wrong issues, forgo publishing manifestos. The fear of unpleasant truths must be avoided. People in Europe want explanations and visions that will drive the level-headed development of the countries and Europe, whereby the two are inextricably linked.

In the coming elections in France and Germany, the established parties will presumably be returned to government, and thus the concerns of many politicians and investors prove unfounded. However, the basic problem will remain and thus the corresponding parties will continue to have a role in political debates. This is not a problem for stable democracies. Moreover, it has the advantage that the ruling parties swiftly get told of all the things they are doing wrong. This must kindle political debate. If the established parties therefore succeed in seizing control of the discussions on integration, globalisation and the further development of the EU, and in the course of constructive dialogue manage to provide answers, thus themselves advancing the issues in question, then populism could even have been beneficial.

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