Tuesday 19. October 2021
#134 - january 2011


The rise of populist movements in Europe: A general trend with different root causes


The COMECE bishops, worried by this phenomenon that they have been observing in their own countries, devoted some time at this autumn’s Plenary Session to examining it with the help of experts, whose opinions we summarise here.



Since the 1980s we have witnessed right across Europe the rise of political parties with populist tendencies, particularly those to the right of the political spectrum. With only a few exceptions, this phenomenon affects all democracies in Europe. These parties sometimes manage to obtain double-figure shares of electoral votes and in some countries they even form part of the government. A large number of comparative studies have provided confirmation of this phenomenon, which researchers in political science have been studying since the 1990s. On one point they are all in agreement: this phenomenon does not emerge from one root cause but has happened for a variety of reasons.


In Sweden’s recent elections, the Sweden Democrats party obtained 5% share of the votes and got into Parliament. Founded in 1988, it has its roots in neo-Nazi circles and is anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-EU. In Austria, populism has found its voice mostly in the Freiheitlichen Partei Österreichs (FPÖ - Austrian Freedom Party), concentrating mostly on questions of asylum and immigration, subjects that were shunned for years in public debate. In the end, whether emerging from the right or the left, populist discourse seems to have several elements in common: a simplified presentation of problems and solutions, the search for scapegoats, and exploitation of the distinction between “them” and “us”.


How should we evaluate populism in terms of democratic ‘health’? Here, the experts’ opinions differed. Some of them view it as a healthy criticism of divergences from the democratic system, and rooted in a movement at grass roots level, in ordinary people - the Latin populus. However, Professor Frank Decker (Bonn University) mentioned that the –ism suffix implies an ideological possibility which goes against the moderate nature of democracies.  Faced with optimistic interpretations of this phenomenon, Professor Decker raised two objections.

If the objective of populist movements were indeed limited to a healthy criticism of any divergence from democracy, then they should disappear once their goal has been reached. But we can see that it is especially the populist parties that lean to the right that have become embedded in the political landscape of many countries, even with positions strong enough to expand their electorate. They have therefore become unavoidable coalition partners for any centre-right parties wishing to form a government, as has happened in Austria, Portugal and more recently in the Netherlands.


On another note, these political movements contribute far more to undermining the constitutional foundations of democracy than to strengthening them: in fact, they are following a “popular majority” trend, or “direct” democracy which bypasses the official bodies of political representation (parliaments, political parties) in order to address the voters directly. Even if populist movements are not at the roots of the decline of democratic representation, they still help to weaken it. According to Professor Decker, “The populist- popular majority approach to democracy encourages decision-making to the detriment of patient negotiation. The opinion of the majority receives preference over the diversity of existing interests; this preference is based on exclusion and exerts a polarising effect.”


Professor Chantal Delsol (University of Marne-la-vallée) puts forward some rather more historical and philosophical explanations for populism, citing the Athenian notion of the ιδιώτής as a person who is incapable of participating in the debate on the quest for the public good. The city can only be properly governed by men who rise above their individual selves and the circumstances of their birth. The inferiority of the common people resides in their individual opinions on matters, whereas the elite take a rational (λογος) view of the world.  The ιδιώτής of modern times spreads throughout the world a viewpoint based on being individual, on the identity and blossoming of human groupings from the family to the fatherland. Thus Mme Delsol explained the current rise of populist movements as the rebellion of individuals against ideologies that are becoming more and more global, and therefore increasingly universal and remote.  The philosopher ended by stating that our democracies should, while educating ordinary people for emancipation, also educate the elite in getting down to the roots.


As well as the EU Member States, the European institutions should also study this phenomenon since a number of these political parties have gained seats in the European Parliament. The rise of populism in Europe constitutes not only an attack on community spirit, guarantor of the Common Good, but also a brake on the emergence of a European civil society.


Johanna Touzel

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.