EEAG Report 2017: Harold James

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The Director of Contemporary European Studies, Princeton University, spoke at the EEAG Report 2017: Populism and Economic Policy, hosted by the Swiss Re Institute.

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There's always been a sort of populist phenomenon but it's got I think much stronger in the aftermath of the global financial crisis after 2008 and after the Euro crisis, but there are many, many different types of populism.

2017 is a year of elections, and many people are looking in particular to the French elections because although a populist victory in Poland or in Hungary is in some ways a challenge to Europe, a populist victory in France, a victory of Madam Le Pen's Front National would be an existential crisis, an existential threat to the European Union.

The Dutch elections I think have been an agreeable surprise for people who were worried about the future of Europe. Geert Wilders has done less well in the elections than he did in the last set of elections. It looks as if this movement is on the decline. But then again look at some historical precedents and you see that populist movements can go down and then they can come up again.

The most striking example, the most frightening one is the last month's of 1932 in Germany because the National Socialist Party lost two million votes in the November elections and everybody thought for a bit that the Nazi phenomenon was over, and then it came back again, in part because people thought that it wasn't so threatening as they first thought that it might be.

I don't think we're on a one way path to populist victories everywhere, and in particular I don't really believe that there's such a thing as a momentum that goes from Brexit last year to Donald Trump and then to the French elections. It seems to me actually in some ways that the chaos that Brexit has produced and the chaos that you see in the United States is going to be a deterrent to many people in Europe to think of populist solutions.

We've had several experiences of populism in the past before the First World War but also above all in Europe in the 1930s, and the lessons of Europe in populism in the 1930s are really very, very depressing. The simple lesson is don't go that route.