Right and wrong kinds of populism?

General Politics

We were lucky to have former MEP and Dutch Labour Party President Michiel van Hulten in to GC this week for a briefing on the Dutch election. Michiel provided plenty of food for thought, especially on the coalition-building dynamic over the weeks (months?) ahead. A couple of things stood out from the group’s discussion for me.

One was a sense that the wider European reaction to the Dutch result was off the mark if it interpreted the outcome simply as reassertion of centrist values over Euroscepticism and as a check on ‘populism’. To be sure, D66 and the Green Left did well by running conventionally liberal-left, pro-European campaigns that provided a comfortable home for people abandoning the vote-haemorrhaging, governing PvdA. These campaigns and their voters suggested a robust strain of cosmopolitan, metropolitan liberalism in Dutch politics and an audience for it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the far-right PVV heavily underperformed its pre-election and mid-term polling - as it did in the previous parliamentary cycle. Nevertheless, the PVV gained seats while both governing parties lost them (spectacularly in the case of the PvdA) and is now the second largest party. The Dutch system has boxed in Wilders by refusing to work with him, but he has not gone away. 

Importantly, Mark Rutte and the VVD had to make important choices in the space between these two points. While they ran on economic competence and the effective management of the Dutch welfare state, both they and their likely coalition partners, the CDA, also moved towards Wilders with a vision of a more culturally (if not racially) homogenous country, more sceptical on migration and overt on social integration for migrants. Rutte doubled down on Dutch pragmatism and unsentimentality about the EU and made a public point of rejecting the notion of ever closer union. The VVD almost certainly reduced their potential losses by doing so, and the CDA enhanced their gains. Rutte won not by reasserting centrist values per se, but by recognising that the Dutch centre itself may be a moving target. 

 coalition basics
The Dutch results: coalition basics

Rutte’s post-election comment that the result was a defeat for ‘the wrong kind’ of populism was important in this respect. It is a reminder that for many mainstream European politicians, 2017 will be the year of defining ‘the right kind of populism’. The UK government has already done this in a dramatic way by endorsing the UK’s exit from the EU. But it is also happening on a smaller scale in repositioning on Schengen (François Fillon in France); a tougher line on trade with China (Macron and Hamon in France) intransigence on debt reduction for Greece (all mainstream German political parties) and a tougher line on ex-EU migration and migrant integration almost everywhere.

These mainstream responses will not necessarily simply be watered down versions of populist demands. The case being made for more democratically accountable Eurozone institutions from Fillon and Macron in France are no less attempts to take seriously the ‘populist’ argument about what Europe lacks. All of these policies are ultimately aimed at making something close to the status quo more acceptable to dissatisfied voters.

This is where the term populism shows its limitations. European ‘populisms’ are a very variable bunch that can include a selection of economic nationalism, Euroscepticism, anti-globalism, anti-austerity, racialism and identity politics and a defensive social welfarism that varies very widely from party to party and country to country. You can move onto this political space from left and right, libertarian and socialist. There is a world of difference between Podemos and the Danish People’s Party, even if they share a worldview in which ‘the elite’ need to be reconnected to what ‘the people’ want.

The responses to it are going to be just as various. It is now pretty much impossible to find a mainstream politician in the EU that doesn’t think that the economic, social and cultural concerns behind these prescriptions need to be taken seriously. The question is how they define the ‘right kind of populism’. One tentative lesson from the Dutch campaign might be that if it means above all recalibrating on cultural questions of sovereignty and identity, migration and Europe, this is an easier move for the centre right than the traditional centre left, where trying to accommodate anxieties about migration or sound a note of nationalist concern on European integration can alienate socially liberal voters without necessarily staunching the flow of votes to the populists. In any case, Rutte’s campaign provided one answer to how politicians might approach this problem. The French and German elections this year will certainly provide two more.


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