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The populist insurgency in Europe loomed large at the start of 2017, seeming to pose a threat to the future of the EU. Now it is suffering rout after unexpected rout. In the past week alone, Italy’s Five Star movement has been crushed at municipal elections, turnout for Marine Le Pen’s National Front more than halved in France between presidential and legislative polls, and in Britain, the UK Independence party’s share of the vote slumped to just 2 per cent, down from 13 per cent in 2015. Finland, where a power-sharing experiment with the far-right True Finns has been a test case for what happens to populists once saddled with the bureaucratic realities of office, also fits the trend.
In the past 48 hours, True Finns were first booted out of government, having selected a hardline anti-immigration, anti-EU candidate as their leader. Then, yesterday, they split. More moderate members changed their name and saved the coalition government by retaining a power-sharing role. Both factions look greatly diminished.
Of course, no two populist parties are the same, and although the rise of the far-right has been consistent across Europe in recent years, just as its decline has been so far this year, local circumstances differ greatly. Nonetheless, Finland has shown this: the far-right can be neutralised as effectively, or more so, inside the tent, as it can be when demonised on the outside as it is, for example, in Sweden.
Having become the second-largest party in parliament with nearly 18 per cent of the vote, the True Finns joined a rightwing coalition in 2015. In government, party members had to temper their stance on a trio of tricky issues: the Greek bailout, the migrant crisis, and reforms to the anaemic economy. Frustrated that their message had thus been blunted, and their opinion ratings nearly halved, the party this week voted to sharpen its claws anew with a virulently Islamophobic leader. The move backfired.
This year was forecast to be a turning point for the far-right. But the momentum is in the opposite direction from the one anticipated. Far from gaining a foothold via the ballot box, as many feared in the wake of Britain’s 2016 vote to exit the EU and the US’s vote to install Donald Trump in the White House, populists and nationalists have mostly been driven back to the margins. There is good cause for relief.
Not everyone, however, has been as effective as the Finns in neutering
the toxic blend of xenophobia and Europe bashing that has swept the continent in recent years. The UK, and the Netherlands, where the extremist Geert Wilders was also trounced in polls, offer counter points.
In both countries populists have been held at bay from the point of view of the electoral arithmetic. But in both countries elements of their agenda have been absorbed into the mainstream. In the UK, the ruling Tory party has hardened its opposition to the EU after last June’s referendum and the implosion of Ukip. This may make a final deal with Brussels much harder. In the Netherlands, the centre-right
has adopted at times fiercely anti-immigrant rhetoric along the path to power. This process of political osmosis may be natural but unhealthy if populists gain influence without responsibility.
Nor is there cause for complacency even in Finland. As elsewhere in Europe, the far-right may be on the retreat. But the circumstances that provided fertile ground for its rise have changed only slightly. It would be foolish to think that one will disappear without the other.