Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Where your horizon expands every day.


Dismissive centrists are making it way too easy for populists to win

Jamie Dettmer serves as the opinion editor for POLITICO Europe.

Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast last week that he has talked with former United States President Barack Obama several times. “He’s an acute observer of British politics,” Starmer said.

He stated that it is beneficial to gather feedback from individuals who have been successful in winning elections.

During his presidency, Obama was well-liked in the UK. Even after leaving his position, he continued to maintain a positive image in Britain, as shown by a 2019 YouGov survey where he was ranked as the seventh most popular foreign politician.

Despite being popular and politically savvy, Obama was unable to prevent Brexit during his time as US President. He publicly intervened in the weeks leading up to the referendum, but underestimated the strong anger of the populist movement that ultimately led to Britain leaving the EU. This was similar to many other politicians in the US who failed to recognize the warning signs of the political shift that would occur in 2016.

In Europe, there is growing evidence that a major change may be on the horizon. The rise of populist movements has caught the attention of centrist and established politicians, though it may have been too late for them to react.

Following the events of Brexit and the election of former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, there was widespread confusion and disbelief. Many believed that such outcomes were impossible, as politicians from both sides of the political spectrum trusted that the status quo would remain intact and drastic changes would not occur.

However, the main message conveyed by both events was a cry of disapproval from those who were left behind. These individuals felt neglected and marginalized, lacking in the advantages of globalization. They rightfully expressed frustration towards the indifference of affluent urban politicians who generally upheld a rigid technocratic agreement, despite some political variations.

We can now include individuals who are struggling to keep up or fear that they will soon fall behind, with the group of people who are already feeling left behind. These individuals are constantly facing challenges such as rising household energy expenses, increasing inflation making groceries less affordable, and wages that are not keeping up with the cost of living. On top of all this, there is the added stress and difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to restrictions and lockdowns enforced by a technocratic consensus that, looking back, made some significant mistakes, causing further suffering and economic damage.

In recent months, there has been a steady increase in support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany party in Germany. This rise is not limited to its traditional strongholds in the east, but also in the western regions, making it the second most favored party in the country.

In Flanders, the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang maintains a significant lead over its political opponents. In Slovakia, former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing populist Smer party is leading in the polls ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary election. Despite its controversial history, the far-right Freedom Party is now the dominant political party in Austria, potentially positioning itself to lead the country in the future.

In Poland, the dominant Law and Justice party continues to hold a strong position leading up to the upcoming general election. They may potentially create a new government with the help of the far-right Confederation party, which promotes a libertarian ideology focused on low taxes. However, it should be noted that some members of this party have a troubling past of antisemitism, discrimination, and sexism.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the enduring figure at the forefront of Poland’s Law and Justice party | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last year, a significant victory for conservative nationalists occurred in Italy with the emergence of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni. This win shattered the stronghold of left-leaning regions in central Italy known as the “red belt.”

In Britain, the center-left Labour Party appears to be the only one able to withstand the upcoming storm. However, Britain stands out in comparison to the rest of Europe due to the long-standing Conservative government and the chaotic state of affairs within the Labour Party.

What is the reason for the shift towards the populist and conservative nationalist ideologies?

Moderates have often been swift to blame populists for exploiting topics such as the shift towards renewable energy, immigration, cultural confusion, feelings of insecurity, and financial struggles. They highlight the spread of false information and manipulative rhetoric, almost disregarding the significant disconnect between the immediate struggles and fears experienced by average families, and the policies and agreements of centrist politicians.

While attending the Global Progress Action Summit in Montreal, Starmer spoke to POLITICO about the potential for another “progressive moment.” The event brought together center-left politicians, including over a dozen current and former national leaders, who discussed the influence of Third Way politics developed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton 25 years ago.

However, when considering ways to gain support through addressing climate change, immigration, and implementing an active industrial policy, there was a lack of genuine self-reflection and minimal acknowledgement of the disconnect between their parties and a significant portion of voters, including their own loyal followers. Additionally, there was limited effort towards developing a viable alternative approach.

Tony Blair, the ex-Prime Minister of Britain | Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Blair was in Montreal as well, but he has been expressing concerns about the increasing divide since the events of Brexit and Trump’s presidency. In 2017, he advised politicians to focus on supporting their constituents and acknowledged that some voters perceive threats rather than opportunities. He also highlighted their cultural and economic worries about societal changes.

His organization has recently expressed concern about a troubling divide in regards to achieving net zero, specifically in regards to the timeline, costs, and potential financial strain on struggling households. This rift could potentially be exploited by populist groups, as many polls show a majority of people recognize climate change as a pressing issue and support green initiatives to address it. However, this support tends to decrease once these policies are implemented and individuals begin to feel the added financial burden or can foresee it in the near future.

The institute suggested that in order to involve the public, eco-friendly policies should focus on reducing emissions in areas with the highest levels, be affordable, and show tangible advantages for both individuals and society. The institute also recommended that governments offer incentives for choosing green options, such as feed-in tariffs or scrappage schemes for vehicles and gas boilers. They believe that a transition driven by consumer demand rather than restrictions and penalties would be more likely to be embraced by the public.

But centrist governments have been reacting too slowly, and though they aren’t abandoning net zero, they are now starting to rethink their plans of how to get there. (Why they didn’t take a hint from French President Emmanuel Macron’s ill-fated 2018 bid to increase taxes on fuel and the resultant Yellow Jacket uproar remains a mystery.)

This chaotic and incremental reversal of policies, such as postponing the elimination of fossil fuel boilers and implementing a five-year extension on the prohibition of new petrol and diesel cars in Britain, appears hasty and poorly planned, much like the initial plans were excessive and poorly considered in their severity.

This does not inspire confidence or convey stability, but instead suggests opportunism, which the center accuses populists of exhibiting.