There was undisguised glee among Europe’s liberals and centrists when Joe Biden was projected the winner of the race for the White House. But for the continent’s populist nationalists, including a group of national leaders in Central Europe, the election outcome has prompted dismay, and some foreboding.
With Trump out of the White House they would be deprived of a powerful cheerleading ally in Washington and some centrists predict his departure will have a knock-on effect of retarding the political fortunes of leaders on the continent of Europe who espouse populist politics.
“Trump’s defeat can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and now head of the European People's Party, Europe's largest transnational political party made up Christian Democrats and moderate Conservatives.
While most European leaders congratulated Joe Biden Saturday when he was projected as the victor by America’s TV networks – based on the provisional tallies of the states – Central European populist leaders noticeably withheld their compliments, or were slower than Western European counterparts in doing so.
These included Janez Jansa, prime minister of Slovenia, where Melania Trump was born. Echoing the objections of Donald Trump, who disputes Biden’s projection as the winner, Jansa complained the media was premature in announcing the outcome, tweeting “complaints have been filed.” The Slovenian leader noted “the courts have not even begun to decide.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who like his Slovenian counterpart endorsed Trump in the run-up to the vote, also withheld his congratulations Saturday. A pro-government news site owned by Orban's political allies declared America was in the grip of chaos and criticized “big media” for declaring Biden the winner.
But Orban shifted Monday and offered his congratulations, albeit not on a phone call but via a letter. “Let me congratulate you for a successful presidential campaign. I wish you good health and continued success in performing your exceedingly responsible duties,” Orban wrote in the letter quoted by state news agency MTI.
Orban, who faces an election in 2022, was largely ostracized by the Obama administration for presiding over what Washington saw as an erosion of the country’s democratic checks and balances. Biden served as Obama’s vice president. In 2018 the Orban government was offended when the U.S. Department of State announced a $700,000 grant to help nurture independent media outlets in Hungary.
For Central Europe’s populist governments, Trump’s reversal coincides with an approaching rule-of-law showdown with Brussels. The European Union parliament and the Council of Europe have agreed on a mechanism for the disbursement of the bloc’s funds that would require countries like Hungary and Poland to uphold democratic rules — or lose the cash.
Hungarian ministers last week accused the EU of failing to focus on pressing problems, including rising anti-Semitism and Islamist terrorism. “Ideological pressure is used under the guise of the rule of law against certain countries just because we say no to migration, no to multiculturalism, and because we have a different view on the role of family in society,” said Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga.
In practical terms the departure of Trump gives the populist leaders less cover in their confrontations with Brussels and the bloc’s more liberal-minded Western European states, say analysts. Populists also believe their close alliance with Washington gave them a boost in electoral terms, making them appear in tune with the zeitgeist; they fear they may now appear to be going against the gain of history.
Trump is credited by members of Poland’s Law and Justice Party with helping Polish President Andrzej Duda win reelection in June in a closely fought race. An eve-of-poll White House meeting, as well as Trump’s decision to move some American troops stationed in Germany to Poland, boosted Duda’s campaign, they say.
Biden is expected to be much tougher on rule-of-law issues, although diplomats say they would be surprised if he reversed military and business deals with Central Europe’s populist governments already in the pipeline, if for no other reason than that might be exploited by Moscow, which has been courting them.
Populism out, liberalism in?
For populists out of power but hoping to win forthcoming elections, including Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega party, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally and Tino Chrupalla of Germany’s AfD, a Biden win means they may find themselves leaning into a headwind of liberalism. Their opponents are already predicting that 2021 will see in Germany the AfD slump and the Greens surge, and that the following year France’s Emmanuel Macron will secure reelection.
Other forecasts under this optimistic scenario suggest liberalism will be back and populism out, with the PiS losing in 2023 and Britain’s opposition Labour Party ousting Britain’s populist-leaning Conservatives in 2024.
Denis MacShane, a former British Labour Party lawmaker and one-time minister for Europe, says Biden’s projected win shows populist nationalism is not “taking over.” He highlights a series of election setbacks populists have suffered in recent months. Writing in The Article, a British news-site, he says: “Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all have social democratic prime ministers. Greens are the new rising force in European politics. In New Zealand, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, has won a new term of office, seeing off rightwing nationalist populist opposition.”
He added: “Political scientists, intellectuals and commentators now need to get down to work and stop leaning on the crutch of populism as a catch-all explanation of politics going into the next decade.”
Biden’s projected win has certainly spooked populist leaders currently out of power. Tomio Okamura, head of the Czech Republic’s far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party, said a Biden victory represents a victory for migration and the dictatorship of minorities. Jan Skopecek of the Civic Democratic Party, a Euro-skeptic party in the Czech Republic, the second largest in the country’s chamber of deputies, warned this week that Biden supports radical leftist views and would struggle to pinpoint Czechia on the map.
But the closeness of the U.S. presidential vote, as well as Republican seat gains in the House of Representatives and the likelihood Republicans will retain a majority in the U.S. Senate, is providing some solace for Europe’s populist nationalists.
They say the election doesn’t amount to a repudiation of populism as Trump managed to increase his overall vote, and they highlight how Trump even in defeat broadened his electoral coalition, making it more multi-ethnic.
They also say populist nationalism has been a long time in the making and is rooted deeply now. Distrust of establishment parties and political elites will persist amid continuing squabbles over immigration and fears of distant and unaccountable international organizations, they argue.
European populists have seen their support fall off since the coronavirus pandemic emerged. A survey in October by British pollster YouGov showed a decline in populist thinking in eight European countries, including Germany, Britain, France and Italy. Political analysts said the findings were likely tied to the pandemic because of the natural tendency for people to rally around their governments at times of national crisis.
Populists, like some establishment parties, have also struggled to maintain a consistent message about how to handle the pandemic.
But some analysts say there will likely be plenty of fertile ground for populists to hoe in the meantime. Support for populist beliefs could recover quickly as the focus of the crisis shifts to the economic fallout, impacting politics even more. Income disparity and industrial and rural decline — the bread-and-butter of populism — are likely to worsen after the pandemic. Migration is likely to increase. The transition towards green economies is also likely to help populists recruit supporters.
“We live in a populist era,” said Christoph Trebesch of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a research institute based in Germany. He doesn’t believe that the US election will come to be seen as marking the end of populist nationalism.
“At least all the signs suggest that this isn’t going to happen I don’t see evidence of a turnaround. It isn’t as though, say, Biden won by 10 percent. It is tempting to think that everything will go back to normal, but I don't think this is going to happen. Populists have their ups and downs but the trend is upwards,” he said.