Groundhog Day for European populism?

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IMAGE: Remi Noyon

SINCE THE global financial crisis, politics in the western world has been turning to radical alternatives as the answer to people’s woes. Brexit, the rise of Trump, the Front National in France, Alternative for Germany and many other rising far-right groups are all demonstrative of widespread dissatisfaction. We are seeing a complete rejection of mainstream politics.

The austerity agenda which the UK has adopted since 2010 had a limited impact on delivering economic growth but has hit the poorest members of society hardest. According to a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2010 saw the biggest cuts to state spending since World War II.

In other words, since 2008, many have felt that there has been a lack of accountability for the powerful while millions have become more vulnerable. The rising cost of living, the housing crisis, cuts to public services, the rise of zero hour contracts, and over a million people resorting to food banks last year all reflect economic stress in Britain.

With this in mind, last June’s Brexit result isn’t such a big shock after all. Juxtapose these economic pressures with the refugee crisis that faces Europe. This creates the conditions for demagogues to emerge and whip up xenophobic, nationalist and anti-establishment sentiment.

The economic recovery we are often told about is not being felt by many in France either. President Hollande has been criticised for his handling of the economy, becoming France’s least popular President on record. This may partly be due to the fact that France boasts one of the highest levels of unemployment in the EU, at over 10 per cent. The increase in terrorist attacks, along with its secular tradition has created an atmosphere of hostility to Islam. Le Pen has been able to take advantage of this with her divisive rhetoric, fuelling Islamophobia and conjuring nationalism to gain support. In the current political context, a victory for her in next spring’s elections does not seem nearly as unlikely as they did pre-Trump.

Finally, the news of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential Election sent shock waves around the world. The establishment politician was defeated by an outsider businessman in the most liberal democracy in the world. Trump’s victory will be something that academics will ponder over for years to come, however we should ask the question: was it really that much of a surprise?

There is obvious discontent among those who feel that globalisation isn’t benefiting them. Many people have suffered from unemployment, lower wages and a housing crisis; they feel forgotten. The left, and politicians from all areas of the spectrum for that matter, need to come together and put plans in place to address the issues that this ‘left behind’ generation are currently facing.

Labelling them as racist, uneducated, or stupid is not the answer. The argument must be won in a way that convinces the opposition rather than antagonising them. A failure to do so will lead to more populists taking advantage of this discontent, and then we may well see history begin to repeat itself.

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