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Populism will be moderated by the mainstream parties

We can expect a return to a more normal political situation in Europe in a few years, according to a political scientist at Roskilde University. The more extreme political parties will probably be weakened because mainstream parties will have realised that they need to be more in line with the population.
Mads Christian Dagnis
"From a democratic perspective, the revolt against the elites that we are witnessing at present is a sort of adjustment," Mads Dagnis Jensen points out.

Brexit. Support for Front National in France. The growth of the right-wing nationalist Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany.

The trends we are witnessing in European politics at present have been interpreted by many as a rebellion against the elites and the mainstream parties.

One of the reasons for the revolt is that the mainstream parties have not managed to capture significant political concerns among voters, according to the associate professor and political scientist at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, Mads Dagnis Jensen, who also thinks that this trend is now changing:

"From a democratic perspective, the revolt against the elites that we are witnessing at present is a sort of adjustment. Trump and Brexit are expressions of the fact that many mainstream politicians have not been sufficiently in touch with their constituents. If we look at the Netherlands, for example, the prime minister has had to change his refugee and immigration policies in order to reduce the influence of Geert Wilder. The same is true of the Danish Social Democrats, who have had to alter course to be more in tune with their constituents, thereby reducing their loss of votes to the Danish People's Party.”

Shades of grey

Seen from a democratic perspective, it is problematic if the parties resemble each other too much, or when they talk about the “politics of necessity”, as if there is only one way, explains Mads Dagnis Jensen:

"Many people experience it as different shades of grey, such as Margrethe Vestager and the “politics of necessity”. There is no such thing as the “politics of necessity”. Politics is politics and in reality, there are different options that you can choose from. If the population gets the impression that we need to save the banks because it is the politics of necessity, or that it is impossible to alter the negative consequences of globalization, i.e. if there are no options, then the voters will turn to someone who offers them options. And that will then be the populist parties“ Mads Dagnis Jensen points out.

Trade unions as a valve for populism

The negotiations on the Services Directive from the EU are an example of the fact that there are always alternatives and that strong trade unions can play a part in countering populist trends.

When the EU adopted the directive in 2006, it was significantly less ambitious than the original proposal from January 2004.

The purpose of the Directive was to remove barriers to EU citizens' right to provide services in other EU countries and to facilitate the export and import of small and medium-sized service companies in the EU's internal market. The modification of the directive is interesting in relation to Brexit and the political currents that we generally see in European politics at the moment, says Mads Dagnis Jensen.

There were actually much disagreement prior to the adoption of the Services Directive in the EU.

The United Kingdom, which is now leaving the EU, was a staunch supporter of a comprehensive Services Directive, because the country has traditionally stood for a liberal agenda within the EU. The eastern European countries were also ardent supporters, since they were interested in allowing their citizens to operate freely in the other European countries. The fact that it nevertheless ended with a modification of the Services Directive, was because several European trade unions mobilized against it and pointed out that it would lead to a significant decline in wages.

"They presented it as though a plumber from Poland could operate in e.g. Denmark under Polish conditions and at Polish prices, which was not the case" explains Mads Dagnis Jensen.

"If we look at the revolt in the UK right now and what the Services Directive can say about it, then maybe it tells us that the UK does not have strong trade unions that have been able to resist liberalization and we therefore see much greater resistance to the EU and parts of the elites within the population. In the UK and the United States, the trade unions are weaker compared with continental Europe and they have not managed to get politicians to do anything about the negative consequences of globalization, thereby shielding their citizens from them” he says.

The return to normal

However, the populist trend that we are witnessing in European politics will likely not continue, according to the researcher.

He points out that there was a polarization in the wake of the economic crisis in the 1970s, but it became less pronounced over time.

"We cannot let ourselves be overly influenced by what is happening right now, because in the coming years we can expect to see that mainstream parties will moderate the populist forces or that populist parties will transform into more demure mainstream parties" says Mads Dagnis Jensen. 

Mads Dagnis Jensen, associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, teaches at International Public Administration and Politics and Public Administration.


About populism:

Populism as a political brand

With respect to the entire discussion on populism, the researcher emphasizes that the scientific definition of populism is very different from that used in the public debate:

”Populism is a difficult concept. In the public debate, it is a political brand to place on the forehead of your political opponents to accuse them of pandering to the popular trends. But if you work with the concept of populism scientifically, then there is another, more precise definition of the term formulated by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell" explains Mads Dagnis Jensen, and says that there are two main criteria that a party must fulfil in order to be defined as populist:

"The one criterion is that it must define itself as against the established holders of power, whom it accuses of being disconnected from ordinary people. The second criterion is that it defines itself negatively as being opposed to ‘others’, who are portrayed as dangerous.”

For the right-wing populists, the 'dangerous others' are immigrants. For left-wing populists, the 'dangerous others' are global capitalism or those who destroy the environment, he explains. He also points out that Alternativet conforms to the criteria of a populist party, whereas it is difficult to define Donald Trump as a right-wing populist after he has been elected president, because he has become the established power and is therefore a part of the elite. 

"The same is true of the Danish People's Party, which is often described as populist. They have been a supportive party for conservative governments several times and have voted in favour of many of their policies, so they do not live up to the criterion of being anti-elite, since they are themselves part of the elite and the established system. The same applies to the Liberal Alliance, who have now entered government. This means that they have to accept the burdens of power and put away some of their populist rhetoric" says Mads Dagnis Jensen.