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Populism During the Economic Crisis: The Failed Threat For the European Union

Figure 1. The right direction indicated by the European Union [Image] - The Irish post
Figure 1. The right direction indicated by the European Union [Image] - The Irish post

It is difficult to establish a single definition of populism today; it is a historical construct that encompasses intellectual attitudes as well as political-social movements. Populism has evolved, becoming a part of modern public discourse and threatening to destabilize old political systems, despite the lack of a defined definition. Populist parties see themselves as the saviors of the natural community, the people, who are bonded by deep historical roots and are restoring lost purity and identity. The populist paradigm finds its natural habitat in democracy, even posing itself as the "real" democracy, founded on the principle of people's sovereignty in populist rhetoric. As a result, populist ideology calls for a kind of ideal mortgage on democracy, defined as a scenario in which the people reclaim the sovereignty that has been taken by political and social elites who have become oligarchies by withdrawing from the people's authority.

Populism arose in Europe in 2009, following the end of the economic and financial crisis. The rise and consolidation of populist movements on the political scene were fueled by a shift in voter preferences, particularly in nations hit the hardest by the crisis. Because the fundamental goal of these movements has always been to better the living conditions of the most disadvantaged social strata through propaganda and proselytism, drawing public attention and support has been simple. Populist parties come from both the left and the right, thus they rely on diverse reasons on a national level; nonetheless, anti-European positions have been practically universal at the international level for some time. The presence of these parties has long been a threat to the European project, primarily because of the policies that the EU sought to force on countries amid a massive economic crisis. However, as the specter of the crisis has faded, the situation appears to have significantly shifted.

Populism is concerned with a wide range of political circumstances. It promotes and fosters the consolidation of democracy for some, while it compresses and nullifies individual rights, political plurality, and economic freedom for others. This second stream is unquestionably the most powerful now, and the public has embraced its conceptual approach. Opposition parties have been accused of populism the most. These, since they are not bound by the logic of government, take advantage of the widespread dissatisfaction with politics and institutions, providing protection and solidarity to the people that are overlooked by the ruling classes. The populist discussion, which promotes its ideals, ideas, and group identity, is centered on the exaltation of people, that is portrayed as a whole and in perpetual conflict with the powerful forces that represent the political establishment. More recently, these powerful forces were joined by banking systems, bureaucracy, state centralism, and transnational institutions.

Figure 2. A satiric representation of the worst years of the economic crisis [Image] - Financial Times
Figure 2. A satiric representation of the worst years of the economic crisis [Image] - Financial Times

Populist parties can be found on both sides of the political spectrum in terms of ideology, and since 2009, both kinds have emerged in numerous European countries. On the left, parties are pushing for more economic and social equality within their own country, but at the Community level, they are resisting Brussels' austerity measures while defending supranational integration. Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, prioritize concerns such as immigration control and the preservation of their people's historical and cultural identities; on the exterior level, however, their platform is based on a total rejection of the European Union.

With the onset of the Eurozone economic crisis, citizens' trust in politics has deteriorated; as a result, populist groups have placed the adversary in state institutions, the ultra-capitalist drift of globalisation, and, more recently, the European Union and its democratic deficit as the enemy. Populists inside communitarian institutions reject the political establishment, accusing it of selling out individual nations' historic values in the service of the "European dream." The economic crisis has mostly impacted the middle class, which is the bedrock of democracy. The demise of the bourgeoisie, which, by safeguarding its interests, indirectly safeguarded the community's patrimony, has resulted in a steady rise in income disparity in Europe. This has resulted in a crisis of representation, leading to a rise in distrust of institutions and people who represent them: not only governments and political parties, but also heads of state, labor unions, and the judiciary have all seen a severe drop in confidence. The electoral expansion of populism movements has provided a relief valve and a logical channel for this growing popular dissatisfaction.

As previously said, the European Union, which is unstable owing to the development of the economic crisis, has been subjected to attacks by populist groups that have emerged on the political scene throughout Europe since 2009. These political forces have been proved to pose a clear threat to Community stability and the realization of a single European project from the beginning. Propaganda campaigns criticising Brussels' activities in the most unstable and afflicted countries have quickly captured public opinion, dividing the political and social landscape into two camps: pro-European and anti-European. However, it is vital to note that something has changed as the events have progressed. When the European Union's crisis broke out, the existing economically weaker countries were hit, and the EU imposed a regime on them. As a natural result of widespread social dissatisfaction with the measures imposed by Brussels institutions, populist movements like SYRZA, the Five Star Movement, and Podemos have steadily asserted themselves on the political landscape. This was made feasible by their fight for concepts like the social economy and economic communitarianism, which have gained traction in public opinion. Furthermore, the EU considers the communitarian establishment to be particularly harmful as destabilizing influences, not only on a social but also on an economic level, as a result of its condemnation. When the economic crisis compounded the immigration dilemma, right-wing populism gained power and expanded its political base in Italy, and to a lesser extent in France. As a result, the EU was trapped on a two-pronged strategy, and the economic recovery plan appeared to be impossible to implement.

Figure 3. The bubble of populism bursting, creating a chain effect [Image] - New Scientist
Figure 3. The bubble of populism bursting, creating a chain effect [Image] - New Scientist

As a result, the ongoing attacks on the development of the Saved States Mechanism and the implementation of rescue measures have made it even more difficult to pull the Eurozone out of its economic crisis in the medium term, with the risk of destroying the entire system at times. However, it is crucial to note that two of the largest populist parties, SYRIZA in Greece and the Five Star Movement in Italy, have revised their attitudes toward Brussels after taking control of the government. Parties that arose from the periphery of the political system and progressively pushed their way into national legislatures, battling against the "Europe of austerity," have scaled back their campaign by changing their opinions. This was owing to the assumption of critical knowledge, namely, working with Europe to strengthen and prepare their own countries to emerge from the crisis. The right-wing parties, on the other hand, haven't changed their battlegrounds in a long time, and despite their popularity among a sizable portion of the public, they don't pose a real threat to the construction of a stronger Europe because the issues they're leveraging on have faded into the background due to the ongoing health crisis that began in February 2020. On this last point, it has become obvious that parties that have previously threatened the EU are now cooperating within EU institutions to draft and approve economic and social recovery programs.

To sum up, populism is a multifaceted phenomenon that has characterized the European political landscape over the previous decade, owing mostly to the escalation of the Eurozone's economic and financial difficulties. Populism has always posed a significant danger to the European Union's stability and the implementation of the communitarian project. The continual contrasts have hampered the adoption of steps to reform and reinforce the European system at times, even raising fears of a collapse due to populist parties' volatility. However, it was only with the arrival of some of these parties at the helm of government that a shift in attitude toward the European system occurred. The realization that the only way for the individual EU countries to grow again is for the entire European Union to be relaunched through cooperation. To date, this conviction appears to be entrenched in populist left-wing parties, while those on the right remain steadfast in their positions but do not appear to constitute a significant threat to the EU's rebirth.



  • Financial crises and right-wing populism: how do politics and finance shape each other? (2020, July 6). LSE Business Review.

  • Funke; Trebesch, M. C. (2020). Financial crisis and the populist right. Info.De.

  • Halikiopoulou, D. (2020). Economic Crisis, Poor Governance and the Rise of Populism: The Case of Greece. Intereconomics.

  • Margalit, Y. (2019). Economic causes of populism: Important, marginally important, or. VoxEU.

  • Munoz, J. (2014). Economic Crises and the Rise of Populism. ECPR.

  • Passari, E. (2020). The Great Recession and the Rise of Populism. Intereconomics.

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Federica Panico

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