The coming European Parliament elections are likely to result in a strong performance by populist parties throughout the EU. Populism has been defined as a “political philosophy which focuses on standing up for the rights and positions of the common people as opposed to the elite and the government”.

But when used to describe political rhetoric, the term often carries pejorative connotations, and populism has become a loaded word to many people. One of the most important driving forces in European politics today is populism in its more negative sense.

According to Geoff Gallops, former premier of Western Australia, the rise of populism in its more negative sense can be attributed to a segment of the media “for whom no politicians can be trusted, particularly those of a left-liberal persuasion”. It must be said that when politicians fail to deliver what they promise after having sworn to put people first on their political agenda, the public will mercilessly punish them by supporting politicians who offer solutions that are all form but contain little substance.

In the UK, the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, is promoting the exit of the UK from the EU as a way of avoiding the pain of millions of Britons who feel they are being discriminated against in their own country. They blame immigrants from other EU countries who take on low paying jobs because they are prepared to work harder for less money.

In France, the failure of President Hollande to deliver on his promises to create more jobs while at the same time reform the French economy has resulted in a humiliation of the Socialist Party in regional elections. The resurgence of the far right party of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front that sees immigration as the worst malady afflicting France, is not good news for a country that needs to reform its public finances drastically.

In Italy, the comedian-turned-populist Beppe Grillo exploits the anger of millions of unemployed people by using his undoubtedly effective rhetoric to oppose everything that the government proposes. He likes to talk about debt default and exit from the euro as a simple solution to Italy’s woes. A significant part of the Italian electorate seems to like this simplistic recipe as the Movimento Cinque Stelle rides high in opinion polls.

“Yet populism in Italy has revealed itself to be no less vacuous than elsewhere in Europe,” as rightly pointed out by Pierpaolo Barbieri, a political commentator.

When politicians fail to deliver what they promise after having sworn toput people first on their political agenda, the public will mercilessly punish them

The reality that is affecting most EU countries is that following the financial crisis that afflicted Europe since 2008, few political leaders have spoken clearly about what needs to be done to save European economies from a slow but certain decline in competitiveness. Fighting the battle for economic efficiency, proper use of taxpayers’ money and the curbing of culture of dependence on state benefits for those who do not really need them, has been seriously compromised by the global financial crisis.

As Geoff Gallops rightly remarks, many ordinary people understandably argue: “Why should we continue to reform the economy and public finances in the interest of greedy business people? Why should we change our habits when others desire to replicate them? Surely it is better to stick together in a world characterised by change, fear and uncertainty.”

The threat of increasing populism can only be combated by placing fairness at the heart of the public policy agenda. Put simply “if social democracy is dead, as some claim it to be, the world is bound to become a nastier and less pleasant place within which to live”.

Most EU countries have over the past six decades built a welfare state that they can no longer afford. EU citizens are rightly proud of their free health, public education system, and generous pension schemes, but fail to ask the disturbing question of whether these benefits are viable without the need for radical reform in how they are financed and distributed.

In a few months’ time a new European Commission will be taking office to lead the EU in the coming five years. The outgoing Commission lacked vision and was often characterised by embarrassing indecisiveness when faced with difficult choices as was evident during the economic crisis of the last several years.

Europe now needs politicians that excel in communicating while also delivering reforms that resonate with an electorate eager for change, even if it means some pain.


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