Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Europe’s populist tide has turned – leaving Brexit Britain washed up

Italy’s elections are the latest sign of many that populist insurgent parties are losing their grip. The European Union is growing stronger, argues James Newell** 



Riding the tide of popular protest against established institutions and parties, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) came to prominence in 2012, promising a new form of nonideological politics based on direct democracy and opposition to elites. In local elections earlier this month it came a poor third in most of the 160 larger municipalities where voting took place, making it through to the runoff ballots, held at the weekend, in only 10 cases.
True, in these cases it did well, winning in eight of them. But there was nothing unusual about this, for it is a protest party drawing support from across the left-right spectrum. So it almost always does well in runoffs. The headline result has been the success not of M5S but of the centre right, along with the increased vote share of the two established (centre-right and centre-left) coalitions. This is not dissimilar to what happened in the UK on 8 June, when the Ukip vote collapsed.

M5S has been quite resilient in the face of evidence that seems to fly in the face of its claim to stand for a new, more honest politics. But this time it has been handicapped by a lack of well-known faces, by its disastrous administration of Rome, and by internal conflicts. As it has penetrated political institutions, it has been called upon to make choices it could avoid as a mere protest movement, shouting from the outside.

As elsewhere in Europe, the Italian populists have found themselves grappling with the classic dilemma that arises when such parties join coalitions: do they make concessions in the interests of stability, hoping thereby to retain the support of moderates? Or do they threaten government stability so as not to lose the support of diehards?

They have suffered as a consequence, and the pattern is repeated elsewhere. In Norway, the Progress party has slipped back in opinion polls from the 16.3% of the vote it won in 2013, having been damaged by its unsympathetic response to the refugee crisis as well as its record in government. In Latvia, the National Alliance has seen a steady decline in its poll ratings, down to 9.1% from the 16.6% it won in 2014. In Finland, support for the Finns party dropped from 17.7% to 10.7% over just six months in 2015.

Though a number of western democracies have recently seen elections or referenda that have been widely dubbed as “populist revolts”, much depends, in interpreting the outcomes, on one’s chosen points of reference. Nothing makes this clearer than the result achieved by Corbyn’s Labour last month: yes he lost, but he has been immeasurably strengthened because he did so much better than expected. Trump, who by contrast won, did better than expected; but still, he lost the popular vote by some 2 million. Norbert Hofer, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen were all decisively beaten.

All these results have significant implications for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the future of Europe. On the one hand, governments under pressure from anti-establishment parties may be tempted to resist concessions to the UK in order not to encourage anti-European forces within their own borders.

On the other hand, if the growth of such forces has reached a peak, as recent results suggest they may have done, then the size of the obstacles in the way of European integration ambitions has been reduced. Either way, the European project is perhaps more secure than has been widely assumed; and it would still be relatively secure even if parties such as M5S were to find themselves doing better than they have done this week. In government, M5S would be uniquely badly placed to withstand the threats deriving from the capital flight and economic turmoil its promise of a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro would probably bring. And it would have to overcome a whole series of constitutional obstacles (not least the ban on referenda on international treaties) in order to hold such a vote in the first place.

At a time of uncertainty, when even the smallest political shifts can seem portentous, last Sunday’s local elections in Italy bode well for Europe. The same cannot be said for the UK which now looks likely, in the event of Brexit, to find itself left out of an EU that is increasingly integrated, and increasingly powerful.

** This blog post was originally published on 27 June 2017 in The Guardian

Monday, 5 June 2017

Populists are not taking over Europe, but neither are they on the way out

Populists must be taken seriously as builders of organisations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power - argues Daniele Albertazzi.**


The political developments of the last year or so have inspired a flurry of articles and analyses on the future of populism in Europe. However, too often the term “populism” is deployed in inconsistent, loose and undefined ways; moreover, the commentary tends to be characterised by unfounded claims about, either the populists’ alleged successes, or indeed their impending demise.

Populism is not the attempt to put forward “popular” proposals, nor is it about appealing to emotions during campaigns, or else every politician should by default be called a “populist” and the term would become useless. Moreover, the essence of populism is not necessarily overpromising. Whether we conceive of populism as a “thin”, simplistic ideology attaching itself to other ideologies (for instance, socialism and nationalism), or “just” a rhetorical style, its core argument is that the people, depicted as virtuous and homogeneous, are always pitted against a set of elites, who are depriving the people of everything they own - from their material wealth to their very identity. In other words, the core of populism is its anti-establishment rhetoric and anti-elitism.

Following the events leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the USA, it may be understandable to find so many commentators buying into a narrative whereby Europe would be on the verge of being “swept” by a populist tide. This narrative often reveals the Anglo-centric perspective of its proponents, as it is predicated on an understanding of political competition whereby only two/three actors can have a go at forming the government, usually on their own. But since the majority of European electoral systems have strong elements of proportionality, and in several of them (such as, for instance France, Germany, Belgium and, more recently, also the Netherlands) mainstream parties would find it very difficult to engage in forms of collaboration with their populist competitors, the picture on our continent seems in fact more nuanced. This, however, does not mean, as some commentators have concluded after Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election, that populism must now have “peaked”, let alone that it is on the way out. Assertions of this kind are not substantiated by the electoral data, nor indeed by a simple consideration of how often populists have been included in governing coalitions in recent years.

As far as elections are concerned, European populist parties have quite simply seen their vote share increase steadily and consistently since the 1970s. Even the recent and much discussed “defeats” that populists are alleged to have suffered in the Netherlands, France and Austria were very honourable indeed. Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom increased its tally of seats, the Austrian Norbert Gerwald Hofer came very close to being elected President of his country with 46 per cent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen attracted a much higher vote share than her father ever did when attempting to capture the French Presidency in the past.

As for populists accessing governments, all the signs are that they have a realistic hope to go on being included in government coalitions in several countries in the future.This has happened on numerous occasions in the recent past, and shrinking support for moderate parties militates in favour of populists remaining “coalitionable”.

Indeed, in countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Hungary, Poland, and others, this has happened fairly recently - not to mention nations such as Denmark and again, the Netherlands, in which populists have provided essential external support to executives. If this were not enough, in many European countries it is the populist parties that are now the most seasoned and durable parties of all, sometimes benefiting from very rooted and efficient organisations. In other words, they are most certainly not “new” challengers – quite the opposite in fact.

The time has therefore come to take populists seriously as builders of organizations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power. Their success may be far from inevitable, but they are definitely here to stay.

**this blog was originally published on the University of Birmingham website.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

IPSG is the PSA Specialist Group of the Year!

The PSA has awarded to us the coveted Specialist Group of the Year prize 2017!

In its letter to the group's convenors, the PSA spoke highly of our activism and the high quality of the work that we do over the year.
Prof. Matt Flinders (PSA Chair) awards the prize to IPSG conveners 
It recognised that we have been "working with other specialist groups, putting on international conferences, including some great speakers and guests, whilst also promoting diversity and supporting early career academics". 

We are delighted that the work of our members has led us to gain this recognition from the PSA and aim to continue doing our best to promote the study of Italian politics in comparative perspective. 
We are committed to continue to organise international events, collaborate with other specialist groups and, more generally, play an active role in the promotion of the study of politics. 
We remain particularly interested in welcoming PhD students and young researchers to our group and provide them opportunities to organise/participate in events with us so as to acquire experience and develop networks. 

Join us at this most exciting time for our group by contacting our membership officer Dario Quattromani, or simply log into the PSA website, then click on this link, and hit the 'request group membership' button! 

Jim Newell (IPSG Chair and founder), Arianna Giovannini & Daniele Albertazzi (IPSG Convenors), Laura Polverari (IPSG Secretary)