Europe's Trump moment: Countries see rise of populist leaders amid anger over economy, migrant crisis

The Associated Press

The Associated Press  (Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo is part of a rising tide of populist leaders on the continent. )

Italians vote Sunday on a series of sweeping reforms, the outcome of which could determine the future of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s rule - but also serve as a gauge for the rising populist movement throughout Europe.

If Italians reject the reforms – which are basically an unofficial plebiscite on the prime minister – Renzi has vowed to step down, setting up a caretaker government and the chance for the populist comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement to take power in the next election.

Italy’s situation is a microcosm of what is happening across Europe, where the political establishment is being challenged by a slew of populist – and mostly conservative – politicians who are riding the same anti-establishment anger that earlier this year saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union and the United States elect Donald Trump as president.

Mainland Europe’s populist leaders are up in the polls in large part because of their promises to restore flagging economies, reverse the continuing trend of unemployment, stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa and, in some cases, even leave the EU.

“Many of these countries are looking at a series of complex questions, but they want an easy answer,” Michael Geary, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told “People are looking for answers and these politicians can take advantage of this because of the political unrest.”

Here are some European nations that are experiencing populist uprisings:


Despite Renzi and his center-left government enjoying widespread approval when he came into office in 2014, Italians quickly soured to him as the country continued to struggle economically and unemployment rates remained high.

Adding to the fiscal woes, Italy has also been one of the main landing points for migrants from North Africa and many Italians are upset with Renzi’s handling of the crisis, which some see as an open door policy.

Mirroring both the campaigns of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Grillo and his Five Star Movement have gained a large number of followers by harnessing Italian anger at political elites and frustration over slow economic growth. Unlike his fellow populists throughout Europe, however, the ideologically-elusive Grillo has not played into national identity politics the way that more right-wing leaders in places such as France, the Netherlands and Austria have.

“Grillo and his movement is a bit more of a response to the economic crisis hitting Italy,” Kimberly Morgan, a political science professor at George Washington University, told “It’s much more of an economic issue and less to do with identity.”

With Italians voting on Sunday, most experts predict that Renzi’s reforms will not pass, but it is difficult to tell as before a blackout was imposed ahead of the vote, about a quarter of Italians were still undecided.


Francois Fillon, a socially conservative former prime minister and an adherent of Margaret Thatcher’s economics, looks poised to face the leader of the far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, in a run-off election next year.

While the two share similar ideologies when it comes to Europe’s migrant crisis – Fillon has shifted farther right by promising to crack down on immigration and to destroy what he has called “totalitarian” Islamists – they differ on how to solve France’s unemployment and economic issues. Unlike Le Pen, Fillon has given no indication that he would push for France to leave the EU and has instead been an ardent advocate of free market capitalism.

“Fillon picked up a lot of Le Pen’s line on immigration, but he is much more neoliberal when it comes to his economic policies,” Morgan said.

With the memory of the Paris and Nice terror attacks still fresh in the minds of many in France, Fillon has also promised to reduce immigration and invest 12 billion euros in security, defense and justice. He has also called for closer ties with Russia in the fight against terrorism and recently penned a book, entitled “Beating Islamic Totalitarianism."


As Chancellor Angela Merkel runs for a fourth term, the popular leader may face her toughest test yet from a resurgent right-wing led by populist politician Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party.

Merkel, who has been described by many as the last defender of the liberal West, has come under fire from opponents who disagree with her insistence on accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees and on Germany’s continued financial support for its faltering southern European neighbors.

“Petry has really mobilized a lot Germans with her stance on asylum for refugees,” Morgan said. She added that since World War II, the country has maintained a very open policy toward refugees “as a sort of atonement for their past,” but those attitudes appear to be shifting.

Despite the popularity of Petry and the Alternative for Germany party, experts say that Merkel still looks poised to maintain her chancellorship.

“Germany’s economy is in very good shape under Merkel and that bodes well for her chances of winning reelection,” Morgan said.

The Netherlands

If there is one European politician who earns comparison to President-elect Trump, it may be Geert Wilders.

From his unsparing rhetoric on immigrants to his infamous coif, Wilders and his bid to become prime minster have polarized the Netherlands in much the same way that Trump did during his presidential run.

He’s been described as a populist and right-winger, but Wilders has refused to align himself with European far-right leaders and instead considers himself a right-wing liberal even though he worked alongside Le Pen in a failed 2015 attempt to form a far-right parliamentary group in the European Parliament.

Wilders’ biggest issue is immigration, but his focus is less on the migrant crisis and more on immigrants – particularly those from North Africa - currently living in the Netherlands. The Dutch politician is strongly opposed to what he calls the “Islamization” of Europe (he once called the Koran a "fascist book" and said it should be outlawed in the Netherlands, like Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf). He is currently on trial for hate speech.

Prosecutors say Wilders crossed a line when he asked supporters if they wanted "fewer or more Moroccans" in the Netherlands.

After supporters chanted back "fewer," Wilders replied, "We'll organize that."

While Wilders and his Party for Freedom currently top the polls in the run up to the March 15 general election, experts say that the Dutch political system would make it difficult for him to pass a number of items on his agenda if elected.

“He’s popular, but the Dutch system has a  lot of coalitions and not many other parties appear willing to work with Wilders,” Morgan said.


While the big four European nations and the UK are seeing populist uprisings, a number of countries on both sides of the continent have already elected leaders with these ideologies.

Angered at the numbers of migrants from the Middle East coming through his country, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already completed one of Trump’s campaign proposals in his own country by building a border fence around his country.

In Austria, voters appear poised on Sunday to elect Western Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945 in Norbert Hofer. The Austrian Freedom Party candidate campaigned on a platform of clamping down on unchecked immigration and less interference from EU leaders in Brussels.

It’s not just Europe, however, that is experiencing a shift to the right. 

Argentines rejected the populist government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in favor of the conservative, business-minded Mauricio Macri and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff was impeached earlier this year before being replaced by her conservative vice president, Michel Temer.

Left-wing populist leaders through the region are also struggling to maintain power as Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro deals with widespread unrest against his rule, Bolivia’s Evo Morales' efforts to nationalize more of its natural resource-based industries are met with resistance and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa deals with anger over accusations that he will destabilize the country like Venezuela.

“What’s unique about what is going on in certain countries is the rise of populist leaders on both the extreme-right and the extreme-left,” Geary said.