Populism in Europe is not novel. Since the 1980s and especially the 1990s, much academic and political debate has taken place on this complex and controversial phenomenon. However, the social effects of the global economic crisis and of the Eurozone crisis have led to an upsurge of populism. The emergence of new movements and the decrease of consensus for traditional parties is striking and diffused. Therefore, although there are important country-specific differences, it is possible to argue for the spread of a ‘second wave’ of populism in Europe. Even if the emergence of populism may not be directly linked to the economic crisis, this appears to be a key factor that has contributed to its upsurge.
Our main research questions are based on these considerations. Since young people are one of the categories mostly affected by the crisis (high unemployment, increasingly precarious jobs, worsening of expectations etc.) it is unsurprising that a significant share of them look at populist parties or populist movements. In other words, this paper investigates potential connections between the youth’s difficult socio-economic situation and the appeal of populist movements. This is achieved by analysing to what extent populist movements have utilized young people’s hardships – such as youth unemployment and social exclusion – in their rhetoric in order to successfully mobilize young voters. The relationship between populist movements and youth is analysed in five European countries, asking how populist parties and movements have framed young people’s issues and their role in society.
Recently published public opinion surveys show that populist parties are supported by young people in a varying degree in our selected countries: Finland, Hungary, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. An Italian survey conducted in March 2013 highlighted that Movimento 5 Stelle was the most popular party among young Italian voters in the age group of 18-34 (29.8 per cent of people aged 18-24 and 35.9 per cent of people aged 25-34 would vote for M5S). According to the results of the recently released European Social Survey data from 2012, a remarkable ratio of young people voted for populist parties in Finland (15.1 per cent), in Hungary (11.4 per cent voted for Jobbik), and in Switzerland (28.7 per cent voted for Swiss People’s Party). In the case of Spain this percentage is much lower (3.2 per cent).
Exploring the relationship between populism and young people is crucial for the rethinking of progressive politics. As the statistics above show, there are notable and contemporary European examples of how young Europeans are becoming infatuated with populist-like movements. It has been claimed that populism often thrives on young people’s support. If this is true, what is the youth’s support based on?
The populist parties’ success to mobilize young voters can be seen both as a threat and an opportunity. The youth is a strategically important subgroup of society. It is the group that initiates change; it is flexible and open to innovations and new ideas. Even if the youth are not as large a demographic as they have been, young people are still the part of the society one should address if one wishes to change society. Involving young people in politics is necessary both for initiating a general process of political socialization and forming a new political élite that can lead the process of change.
However, nowadays young people are not attracted by progressive parties as much as they used to in the recent past. The emergence of populist parties is likely a sign not only of structural but also of strategic shortcomings within the social-democratic field. The development of new forms of popular populism should be regarded as a wake-up call for non-populist parties to start rekindling the interest of young voters. Analysing how populist movements frame their discourse towards and about young people can be useful to understand why young people are attracted by neo-populist parties. Getting an awareness of some of the underlying causes for the rise of the new European populisms can help reshape the progressive narrative and make it responsive to the needs of the youngest voting demographic.
Our paper has the following structure: Initially we clarify why the movements in question can be regarded as ‘populist’. Second, we give a comparative presentation of the situation of youth in the selected countries by using macro-statistical social-economic indicators provided by the EUROSTAT Youth Indicators collection. Third, we assess how populists address young people’s issues and role in society. Finally, we draw conclusions on our findings and attempt to spell a course of action for progressive parties to regain some of the lost electorate.
Background on the FEPS Young Academics Network
The Young Academics Network (YAN) was established in March 2009 by the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS) with the support of the Renner Institut to gather progressive PhD candidates and young PhD researchers, who are ready to use their academic experience in a debate about the Next Europe. The founding group was composed of awardees of the “Call for Paper” entitled “Next Europe, Next Left” – whose articles also help initiating the FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”. Quickly after, with the help of the FEPS member foundations, the group enlarged – presently incorporating around 30 outstanding and promising young academics.
FEPS YAN meets in the Viennese premises of Renner Institut, which offers great facilities for both reflections on the content and also on the process of building the network as such. Both elements constitute mutually enhancing factors, which due to innovative methods applied make this Network also a very unique project. Additionally, the groups work has been supervised by the Chair of the Next Left Research Programme, Dr. Alfred Gusenbauer – who at multiple occasions joined the sessions of the FEPS YAN, offering his feedback and guidance.
This paper is one of the results of the third cycle of FEPS YAN, (the first one ended with three papers in June 2011, while the second one led to five papers in spring 2013), in which six key themes were identified and were researched by FEPS YAN working groups. These topics encompass: “Precarious employment in Europe”; “Full employment: A progressive vision for Europe”; “Get the party started: Modernizing progressive politics”; “The 2014 European elections”; “EnhancingEU enlargement” and “Young and easily allured? A comparative analysis on the relationship between populism and youth in Europe”. Each of the meetings is an opportunity for the FEPS YAN to discuss the current state of their research, presenting their findings and questions both in the plenary, as also in the respective working groups. The added value of their work is the pan-European, innovative, interdisciplinary character – not to mention, that it is by principle that FEPS wishes to offer a prominent place to this generation of academics, seeing in it a potential to construct alternative that can attract young people to progressivism again. Though the process is very advanced already, the FEPS YAN remains a Network – and hence is ready to welcome new participants.
FEPS YAN plays also an important role within FEPS structure as a whole. The FEPS YAN members are asked to join different events (from large Conferences, such as FEPS “Call to Europe” or “Renaissance for Europe” and PES Convention to smaller High Level Seminars and Focus Group Meetings) and encouraged to provide inputs for publications (i.e. for FEPS Scientific Magazine “Queries”). Enhanced participation of the FEPS YAN Members in the overall FEPS life and increase of its visibility remains one of the strategic goals of the Network for 2014.
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