A View From Europe: Transatlantic Populism

As a Smithie who has lived in Europe for the past 37 years, I have watched US-European relations wax and wane. Different US Presidents generated differing levels of popular sympathy here. However, at this point in time, Europe and the United States are largely in sync, with both facing a dramatic rise in populism. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States cannot be seen as an isolated incident, but rather it is the result of broader societal trends including: a rejection of open borders and the free trade policies that facilitate globalization; a related rise in nationalism and isolationism: increasing fear of “the other” including anti-foreigner, anti-migration and anti-refugee sentiment coupled with a real fear of terrorism; anger and resentment particularly amongst low and middle income white men as manufacturing and low-skilled jobs disappear to developing countries, while wealth in the West is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. These trends affect both sides of the Atlantic.

In June of 2016, a referendum was held in the United Kingdom in which the population voted 52% to 48% in favor of leaving the European Union. This outcome of the so called “Brexit” vote (combining Britain and exit) had not been predicted in the polls and was a major surprise to the urban Londoners who voted 75% in favor of staying in the EU. People who voted to leave were on average less educated, had lower income levels, were born in Britain (not foreign born) and lived in more rural areas. Perhaps this sounds familiar.

A general election will be held in the Netherlands on March the 15th where the self declared anti-Islam anti-migration Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders is currently predicted to win a majority in parliament. Then in April begins the first round of voting in the French Presidential election where the socialist incumbent Francois Hollande made the surprise decision not to run for re-election and the right wing National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen has advanced in the polls. Marine Le Pen opposes free trade, advocates protectionism, and blames the European Union and international organizations for the decline in French industry and agriculture.

When taken together, the US Presidential election, the Brexit vote and upcoming elections in the Netherlands and France, a clear picture emerges. Populist leaders are tapping into popular angst. The questions being asked in Europe regarding the US election depend very much on a person’s political persuasion and socio-economic position. Globalization has not benefited all equally and the popular backlash is clear. Here in Switzerland, where I live, the leader of the right wing Swiss People’s Party argues that Trump’s victory should serve as a warning to current world leaders not to ignore citizens’ concerns on issues including migration, while on the left the Swiss Socialist Party raised concern about the election of a “megalomaniac, narcissist and populist who shows contempt for diversity, multilateralism, and human rights, particularly the rights of women.” On a more optimistic note, the leader of the Swiss Liberal Party stated “the presidential role changes a man and forces him to be better.”

The view coming from the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland is that the world urgently needs responsible and responsive leaders, who can stimulate economic growth, build more inclusive economies and societies, adapt to the challenges of extremely rapid technological change, work as global citizens to address climate change and keep peace. Let us hope these leaders emerge on both sides of the Atlantic.


Janet ’75 is the Chairman of the Creating Shared Value Council at Nestle SA and a Non-Executive Director at BUPA, the British United Provident Association. She is also an Ambassador for the International Integrated Reporting Initiative. Previously she held the position of Global Head of Public Affairs at Nestle SA and was a member of the Board of Bamboo Finance, a social impact/private equity firm. Her career has spanned the public and private sectors, have spent 8 years as CEO of the World Heart Federation, as well as 10 years as a partner in the corporate strategy consulting firm, Bain & Company.

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