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Populism’s Second Wind

10 9 15

PARIS – “Europe has the wind in its sails,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed in his State of the Union address last September. But are its sails too tattered to propel Europe forward?

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To be sure, ten years after the global economic crisis, Europe’s economy is finally returning to growth – and, with it, confidence. And Juncker’s optimism probably also reflected the triumph in France’s presidential election last year of the pro-European Emmanuel Macron, who advocates deep reforms – including banking union, fiscal union, and a federal budget – to advance integration.

But recent elections in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic tell a different story: a serious threat to Europe’s future – right-wing populism – remains very much alive. Although the economic crisis is over, its scars remain fresh. Middle- and working-class households are still recovering from the decline in their purchasing power, and they well recall how banks – which had been bailed out by the state – curtailed credit. For many citizens, the lesson seemed clear: in today’s Europe, gains are privatized, and losses are socialized.

The upshot of this assessment was the belief that economic and political elites – enabled by the European Union – would always act to maintain their position and impose their will on ordinary people. The push for austerity in struggling countries, rather than counter-cyclical measures that would have curtailed the slowdown, seemed to confirm this........

© Project Syndicate