The rise of populists is a threat both to the euro and to the EU as a whole
EUROPE HAS A dissonant new voice. Anti-Muslim, anti-elite, anti-globalisation and increasingly anti-Brussels, populists now count for something in the Nordic countries, among the Dutch and Flemish, in France, Italy and Austria, and in parts of eastern Europe. They come in many varieties, but all claim to represent what Pierre Poujade, France’s original post-war populist, called “the ripped-off, lied-to little people”.
These movements are sometimes described as neo-fascist. Some of them indeed are, and all of them embrace odious and intolerant views of one sort or another. But to dismiss them as fascist, and thereby safely rule them out of European political life, offers the liberal mainstream false comfort. Over the past few years populists have found ways to set themselves apart from a neo-Nazi ideology. Many support gay and women’s rights (all the better, they think, to bash the Muslims), and many are fervently pro-Israel. They are here to stay.
Europe’s populists are not likely to form governments; they lack the votes and are completely unequipped for office. However, mainstream politicians do not know how to see them off. So their obsessions and their resentments have seeped into the debate, even among those who would never vote for them.
This matters just now for three reasons. First, because the euro and its independent central bank are elite projects par excellence. The high priests of Europe’s political class handed down the edict that Europe needed its own currency. They forced their economies to converge during the 1990s and masterminded the extravagantly complex job of issuing new notes and coins. Now that the technocrats have been shown up as bunglers, the anti-technocrats stand to gain. Second, populists are nationalists and protectionists and reject both the idea of paying to save Europe’s troubled periphery and the sort of structural reforms that Europe needs for growth. And third, populists feed the widespread mistrust of Brussels and all its works, which will constrain the options available to fix the euro.
To understand how populism has taken root, look at what has happened in the Netherlands, once the very model of a tolerant, pro-integration member of the EU. In his study of the murder of Theo van Gogh, a film director, by a radical Dutch Muslim in 2004, Ian Buruma borrows the term regenten to describe the modern Dutch elite. Like the self-confident 17th-century ruling class of merchants smugly gazing from the portraits of Frans Hals, the 21st-century regenten looked out for themselves and neglected the things that bothered ordinary people.
In the Netherlands the beef was with the immigration that created “dish cities” of Turkish and Moroccan households tuned to satellite television from abroad. The regenten were all in favour of multiculturalism and in no hurry to press immigrants to assimilate. In the early 2000s a flamboyant gay university lecturer called Pim Fortuyn made a political career out of condemning what he saw as Muslim intolerance and regenten neglect. More Here