Skip to main content
Travels in Euroland, Ed Balls in front of tower blocks

Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls

Ed Balls explores national identity and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe. 

About the programme

In this three-part series, Ed Balls heads to Europe to discover how the divisions exposed by Brexit are reflected across the EU. He meets voters to find out what the future of Europe holds for its citizens. To find out more, visit the BBC programme page .

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Ed balls with camera crew - Euroland

Ed Balls - behind the scenes picture

Exclusive interview with Ed Balls

Professor Jo Phoenix and Alan Shipman of The Open University, met Ed Balls to discuss his experiences of filming Travels in Euroland with Ed Balls.

Understanding populism


Free movement of people


Is it right to blame the elite?


The flags of the EU countries surrounding the EU stars

Five factors driving Europe’s populism

Populism within politics has been on the increase in recent years. Alan Shipman looks at the reasons behind this.

Although they thrive on grievances that are specific to each country and region, populists’ manifestoes contain some common themes. Europeans have been especially driven towards new protest movements by three trends in the international economy and internal demography that they can’t do much about, combined with two features of the EU that set it up as a multilateral scapegoat.

1. Globalisation and changing technology

The EU flag 

Barriers to the international movement of goods, people and money have been falling away for decades, as governments pursue free international trade and financial-market deregulation in the belief this will make their countries better-off, and the world more harmonious. Beginning as a scheme for free trade and free movement within a small core of North European states, the EU progressively enlarged to 28 members and opened itself to trade with other regions , shedding its ’fortress Europe’ economic reputation. 

Critics claim this exposure has plunged the EU and other ‘rich’ economies into a premature de-industrialisation , as companies move production to lower-cost countries. Internationalisation of trade in services means that ‘white collar’ professional jobs are also disappearing overseas, and globalisation tends to leave incomes more unequally distributed  even when it raises them overall. Low-cost competition forces the remaining European producers into rapid automation, which still stifles job creation and shifts distribution from wages into profits 

The threat of relocation also gives multinationals unprecedented power over national governments, forcing them to cut taxes and regulations, resulting in erosion of the traditional European welfare state. ‘Globalism’ is an especially emotive target for populists because it suggests the erosion of national sovereignty , allowing its sponsors to be painted as unpatriotic and conspiring with a global elite. Public anger can then be directed at ‘enemies within’, who stand accused of gaining from open borders while everyone else loses out.  

2. Shrinking populations and economic pressure for immigration

A busy train station - Black and white

Europeans are gradually dying out. Women in the EU now give birth to 1.6 children on average , well below the 2.1 needed to maintain the current population size without net immigration. Numerous studies suggest that recent immigration has boosted European economies , by averting skill shortages, lowering costs, expanding demand and paying more tax than they claim in benefits.

But immigration sparks fears  – about competition for scarce jobs, and erosion of traditional ‘culture’ – which appear fulfilled when accelerated arrivals cause temporary absorption problems, as in Europe in 2015-16. The recent influx reflected a unique confluence of conflicts and environmental disasters in North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, and has already subsided. But populists can play up and prolong such fears, especially when they can point to fast population growth in regions bordering Europe  – with fertility rates still (for example) 2.5 in Morocco and Uzbekistan, 2.7 in Algeria and Kazakhstan, 3.3 in the ‘Arab World’ and 4.5 in Afghanistan. If they acknowledge a need for more people, they insist these can be ‘home-grown’ via social incentives like childcare subsidy and extra maternity leave. 

3. The generation game, with older people winning

Photo by Mykyta Martynenko on Unsplash

Low fertility and birth rates, combined with increased longevity due to generally better health, mean European societies are ageing as they shrink. While populist leaders are often younger than those of mainstream parties, they have proved skilful at targeting the ‘grey’ vote along with that of disaffected youth.  

Older voters are becoming more numerous and are more likely to exercise their vote  than their children and grandchildren. They tend to be more conservative , remaining sceptical towards new technology, new cultural traits and any breakaway from traditional attitudes to sex and marriage. This makes them more likely to swing behind populist parties , to defend ways of working and living that they fear are under threat. The Brexit referendum (and polls on a possible sequel) confirm the extent to which the older generation may reject the more cosmopolitan and Europhile preferences of the younger   – even if most do so with the interests of their children and grandchildren in mind.

4. The Eurozone: austerity and stagnation

Holding down wages, prices and welfare spending till the economy becomes more ‘competitive’ – is what devastated Greece and chased the previous mainstream parties out of Rome.

The EU’s resilience against globalisation, and recovery from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, may have been fatally compromised by its adoption of a single currency. The Euro, launched in 1999 and now used by 19 EU members, was meant to boost prosperity , by removing exchange-rate uncertainties and giving the EU a ‘reserve currency’ to rival the US dollar. But critics say it removes vital policy options . Eurozone rules prevent member governments from combating recession by running wider budget deficits, or by letting their currency depreciate to deliver an export boost. The zone’s one-size-fits-all interest rate and exchange rate benefits Germany , and any partners that can match its traditionally low inflation, while holding back investment, job creation and welfare spending everywhere else. 

Whereas the US responded to the post-2008 global downturn with a ‘stimulus plan’, which has already restored its pre-crisis income and employment levels, the Eurozone stayed much longer in recession and is still struggling to recover . In Italy, whose economy has not grown significantly since the 1990s, the populist government elected in 2018 proposed to kick-start recovery with an expansionary budget, and was ordered to make deep cuts to stay within EU rules . The alternative - holding down wages, prices and welfare spending till the economy becomes more ‘competitive’ – is what devastated Greece and chased the previous mainstream parties out of Rome.

5. Rule by ‘Brussels’

Photo by Guillaume Perigois on Unsplash

The Eurozone gifts populists an especially powerful stick with which to beat elites, because it was designed by a handful of Eurocrats and may have adversely affected millions. They can add it to a long list of grand ‘expert’ plans that don’t work well for ordinary people, and of internationalist projects that take power from national governments. Europe is a collection of small states with long histories of either fighting their way out of big empires or proudly preserving sovereignty against them. This makes it easy to liken the EU to a new imperial power, ruling a continent by decree and turning members into ‘vassal states’.

The advantages of blaming the EU grow as populists ascend from a regional to a national power base. If they enter government, especially in uneasy coalition with mainstream parties, populists often find their popularity ebbing. It can be hard to deliver on key promises, and harder still to blame this on people in the power when you’ve been sitting in cabinet with them. European populists can now trace their troubles to ‘Brussels’ – deflecting blame away from their national elite, towards unelected European Commissioners whose technocratic rules have tied their hands. It may prove a more persuasive excuse than that of Donald Trump’s administration, which has to blame any failures on a Congress that includes his own Republican party), or an obstructive ‘deep state’  which may just be the revered US Constitution.

Populist attitudes are likely to persist, shifting to new protest parties of the present ones disappoint, as the European Dream continues to suffer nocturnal disturbance. Much of the EU is still struggling with high unemployment, stagnant incomes, more poverty and less social-service provision more than a decade after the Global Financial Crisis. The additional strains on social provision caused by ageing populations, rising care costs and job displacement by new technology will go on, potentially pitching young and old into an intergenerational battle over pension funding  -  if the challenge of cheap imports (especially from China) and of rapid immigration now subsides.

The UK’s difficult experience on the path out of the EU has forced other populists and nationalists to back away from Frexit, Quitaly and the other triumphal walkouts they were previously planning. But this has hardened their resolve to fight the system from within . The 27 new EU Commissioners , many stepping up from a career in mainstream politics, can expect to remain under fire from their old domestic foes.

Charting Europe’s populism

Alan Shipman reviews populist politics in Europe and asks whether it is on the rise.

Europeans showed their disgruntlement with traditional party politics in 2019, swinging heavily towards ‘populist’ alternatives in European Parliament elections . Populist groups have also been gaining ground in national parliaments , often only a few years after launch.

Main populist parties in the EU, at the end of 2019

Sources: European Parliament and national election commissions .

A strong emphasis on job, family values and patriotism put Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party on course for re-election in October 2019. Power in Italy has swung to the Five Star Movement (M5S) and more recently to its former coalition partner the League, whose leader Matteo Salvini pulled out in August 2019 hoping to force an early election which opinion polls suggest he could now win. Some traditional ruling parties, such as Romania’s Social Democrats, have turned increasingly populist to preserve support.

Elsewhere, mainstream parties have beaten off the challenge only by forming uncomfortable coalitions among themselves, or by adopting some of the populists’ demands especially on slowing-down economic adjustment and restraining immigration. This has allowed the National Rally in France, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, rival Dutch populists Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, the UK’s Brexit Party and new conservative-nationalist groups in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to reshape the national agenda even when still in opposition.

While some populist parties (such as the Danish People’s Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Croatia’s Human Shield and Romania’s once-mainstream Social Democrats) have recently fallen away in the polls, others are still on the rise, looking to be kingmakers or coalition partners after their next election. Populists gained more than a quarter of votes cast nationally in Europe in 2018 .

What is populism?

We expect political parties to offer policies that people want. But ‘populism’ raises alarm because it opens the door to policies that:

  • Impose simple, ‘common sense’ solutions that may ignore the complexities of the problem.
  • Allow a majority interest to override those of vulnerable minorities.
  • Are chosen just on popularity, with no underlying political principle.

Populists try extra hard to show that they are ‘on the side of the people’, defending the many whose interests have been submerged by those of excessively influential or privileged small groups. This enemy is often branded the Elite – an unholy alliance of those with most power and the “1%” who control the nation’s wealth . Traditional political leaders, even where elected, are accused of not representing the majority, instead promoting the interests (because they rely on the support) of big businesses, the ultra-rich, or malign foreign powers, and a civil-service bureaucracy that blocks radical change. Populists sometimes extend this target to other minority groups, even those who were once disadvantaged but may have shaped past policy to improve their situation. This can include particular ethnic groups or religious denominations, feminist movements, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or anyone else for whom the Elite seems to show a special concern. 

Populists’ Us and Them story

By mixing nationalism and social activism, populists can capture votes simultaneously from the left (by promising higher living standards for ordinary working families) and from the right (defending the nation against external economic or cultural threats and ‘Big Government’ that yields too much to them). While appealing across traditional party lines, populists look especially to rally sections of the population that are small enough to have been overlooked by mainstream parties, but still large enough to wield significant votes. Their ascent is often helped by a charismatic leader, whose persuasive personality makes it easier to pick-and-mix among popular policies to attract key voter groups.

"Populist movements have risen before and then fallen away. For example Germany’s struggle in the 1990s with economic downturn and immigration after the fall of eastern ‘communism’ led to a surge of support for far-right nationalist parties."

Nigel Farage walks on stage at a conference

Populist promises are always tempting when parties are scrambling for votes in a democracy, but ”authoritarian populism” also seems to be on the rise . The label has been attached to presidents including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. All rose to power through elections, but took steps that made them harder to vote out, especially by clamping down on opponents. And in pursuing the interests of ‘the people’ who are clearly a majority, they swept aside political protections previously given to smaller groups, ranging from ethnic and cultural minorities to business owners, trade unionists and non-governmental organisations.

Rising and falling, or here to stay?

Populist parties tend to gain support when things are going badly – during economic downturns, or when rising amounts of crime, disorder and scandal, make people angry with the ‘parties of power’ that let these happen. EU and Euro Area labour productivity growth has been among the world’s lowest since 2008 , severely limiting the scope for increased living standards. Prolonged ‘austerity’ has led many voters to abandon their traditional parties, and switch to populists who can identify a simple cause of these problems – globalization and free trade, openness to foreigners, rich bankers, and the elites that promoted these – and supply obvious solutions.

But populist movements have risen before and then fallen away. For example Germany’s struggle in the 1990s with economic downturn and immigration after the fall of eastern ‘communism’ led to a surge of support for far-right nationalist parties, including the Republikaner and the German People’s Union (DVU-L). AfD, now making its biggest gains in relatively deprived eastern states , is going down a track that’s been trodden before. The earlier populism went into retreat in the early 2000s, as re-elected older parties repaired the social rifts with the help of faster economic growth.

Mainstream parties may yet bounce back again, if employment and incomes recover or if populists who’ve now got into power can’t deliver on their promises. But to do so, they will need to tackle some uniquely difficult problems, ranging from climate change to digital job loss  that may now extend into professional occupations. The answers are likely to be complicated, involving change that brings us pain before any gain. That leaves plenty of room for populists to keep winning votes with alternative solutions, or at least an easier target to blame the problems on.

Meet the OU experts

Jo Phoenix
Professor Jo Phoenix Chair in Criminology, Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Jo Phoenix
Professor Jo Phoenix Chair in Criminology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Although Jo is a professor of criminology, at heart she is a sociologist who studies governmental and professional discourse, plus the lived realities of marginalised people who find their ways into the criminal justice system. Jo has been a member of the editorial boards of The British Journal of Criminology, The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice and has worked with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies as well as the Howard League for Penal Reform. 

Alan Shipman, The Open University
Alan ShipmanSenior Lecturer - Economics, Art & Social SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Alan Shipman, The Open University
Alan ShipmanSenior Lecturer - Economics, Art & Social Sciences

I'm focused on macro-economics, especially how it interacts with political power - with an interest in the impact of the original (‘1992’) Single Market programme, industrial supply chains, and the recent ‘global value chain’ research which links company and industry studies with macro-level trade analysis. 

Author of The New Power Elite, a study of how elites exploit and manage social divisions to settle their own top-table disputes.

I'm involved in course design at all levels, usually trying to put more macro-economics into the curriculum, and finding ways to combine economics with other social sciences for joint degrees (especially Politics, Philosophy and Economics, for which he is Qualification Lead.

More on politics and international relations...

Jeremy Paxman outside of Berlaymont

Paxman in Brussels: Who really rules us?

In this one-off programme on BBC 1, Jeremy Paxman asks whether we have given the power to rule us to Europe, and if we have does it matter?

Read Article
Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story Brexit Storm - Hero

The Brexit Storm

Laura Kuenssberg’s inside story.

Read Article

Inside the Foreign Office

There’s never been a more significant time to look behind the scenes. 

Read Article
The House of Lords in session

Meet the Lords

Series following the larger-than-life characters that populate the House of Lords, one of Britain's oldest, most idiosyncratic and most important institutions.

Read Article
President Donald Trump and VP Mike Pence

Trump Takes on the World

Donald Trump’s top advisers and the leaders who clashed with him lift the lid on the critical moments of his foreign policy.

Read Article

Explore the OU

A cropped photo of students with documents scattered in front of them.

Open University courses

An image of the OU poster for 'A Perfect Planet'

Order a free OU Poster

A young woman on a computer in a cafe

OU subjects A-Z

A photograph taken in a cafe. A mug is in focus in the foreground, and a man using a laptop is out of focus in the background.

The latest OU news

A photo of a person using a laptop and notebook, and a small dog resting its head on the user's arm

About distance learning

A top-down picture of a man using a laptop at a desk

Free courses

A photo of a man wearing a red hoodie and headphones walking away from the camera, on a busy path by a road

Hear from students

About our BBC partnership

For over 50 years The Open University and the BBC have worked together; co-producing hundreds of hours of programming and bringing learning to life for millions. Find out more about our unique partnership.

OU website