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EU Election Primer: Why Rising Populism Matters Most Now

EU Election Primer: Why Rising Populism Matters Most Now

by Kirk Samson

The European Union parliamentary elections this week give new urgency to finding an answer to the question of what is driving populist success in modern politics. Is there a distinct set of issues that explains the rise of populist parties and figures? What outside forces are exacerbating the trends we see in European politics, where populist parties have tripled their vote share in the last decade?

The bifurcated nature of populism (rising from both the right and left extremes of the political spectrum) makes it seem even more difficult to point to one factor that is driving this uptick in the popularity of populist political agendas. For example, the economic situation in Germany is entirely different from that of Greece, but both countries have seen a substantial rise in the political success of populist parties. Another issue often cited as a contributing factor to the rise in populist parties -- immigration -- also varies wildly among European countries. France has a large immigrant population, while Hungary and Poland have relatively smaller foreign-born populations despite the xenophobic fear-mongering that populist parties in those countries rely on to bolster their political success.

Despite some good research that drew parallels between unemployment and support for populist parties a few years ago, that connection does not seem to have borne out. The EU reported in February that EU-wide unemployment was at a mere 6.5%, the lowest it has ever been reported since they started to release monthly data back in 2000.

Interestingly enough, when we compare the most recent years' worth of Gallup polling data across the European Union (2010-2018), neither economic data nor institutional trust tracks with populism. Rather, it is the decline in perceived press freedom. Gallup data show that the percentage of the population that says their media have enough freedom drops as populism rises or takes a stronger hold. Looking at the charts below, we can see that the perspectives on media freedom in key countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary have changed dramatically.

Line graphs. Media freedom trends for the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary.

This connection between the poll data on a diminishing free press and the rise of populism also tracks with the observations of NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, both of which have shown that there is substantial reduction in press freedom in many of the European countries seeing a surge in populist party success at the ballot. Europe, as a whole, has seen a marked decrease in press freedom, which is part of a worrying global trend.

The dynamics, however, go deeper than this crucial balance between press freedom and populism. Three factors deepen the concern observers have over how the change in press freedom is fueling populist success: a surge in media consolidation, the spread of unprofessional social media as the primary news source for most voters, and the deliberate actions of outside state and non-state actors that are attempting to direct public opinion in support of their own agendas.

While media consolidation is often driven by economic competition, the consolidation of media in Europe for political purposes has taken on a troubling dimension. Many European political leaders and parties have followed in the footsteps of Silvio Berlusconi and his ilk by consolidating and controlling the major media houses in their countries. The trend toward major media sources being controlled by the same figures that they are supposed to be covering has cast a chill on objective reporting.

Further exacerbating this muzzling of the free and professional press are the changes in habits and technology -- the rise of "Facebook news" means that in many cases the majority of voters get their news from social media, and few of them bother to check on the veracity of that news. Political propagandists across the spectrum have seized on this change in news consumption to produce their own narratives, such as we saw just last month in the various Whatsapp-driven misinformation campaigns around the Spanish election.

Perhaps most troubling is the bad actors who have seized on these changes to manipulate the direction of the European political discourse. Russia has been waging a deliberate and consistent campaign to destabilize European politics and provides active support to populist parties such as the AfD in Germany. A weakened and divided EU (and NATO) are less apt to respond to Russian escapades in Ukraine or the Caucuses, and instability also opens windows for Russia to sidestep attempted sanctions. Russia is not alone in manipulating voter sentiment -- China is active as well, as are terrorist organizations and groups espousing hate and xenophobia.

Why is this relevant across the Atlantic? First, the trends we see in Europe are echoed in our own society -- press freedom is down, reliance on social media for the news is up at the expense of printed media, and yes -- foreign agencies are attempting to impact our election process. Additionally, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day next month, American society must take notice that many of the same trends (economic nationalism, press-repressive regimes and increasing populism) that preceded the last major war in Europe are once again present.

As the head of a consulting firm that advises American business clients on the political risk of overseas investments, these trends are worrisome. Populist parties are renowned for scapegoating foreign companies and "outside influence" when facing domestic political pressure. We've seen this manifest dramatically in Turkey, Hungary and in Russia with the arrest of Michael Calvey earlier this year.

What we see in Europe's parliamentary elections this month could be what awaits the U.S. in the next year as we approach our presidential election. Perhaps we can breathe a small sigh of relief that the Gallup figures on perceived press freedom in the U.S. are essentially unchanged over the last decade, but the increased social media use and outside manipulation of voter sentiment are similar to what we see in Europe. Despite the polling data, expert opinion on press freedom is adjudged to have continued a multi-year decline in the United States. The European parliament elections will be a global litmus test to see whether populism's march will continue unabated, or whether voters (and governments) are able to fight off manipulation and misinformation.

Kirk Samson is the head of Samson Atlantic -- a political risk consultancy -- and a staff member at Northwestern University.

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