The year 2015 was a dreadful one for Europe in general and for the EU in particular. It started with the terrorist attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and ended with an even more deadly jihadist assault in the same city. In between, the EU battled an economic crisis in Greece, which threatened the entire eurozone, and endured a staggering inflow of refugees from the Middle East and other war-torn regions.
The year 2016 has not been much better. More terrorist attacks have shaken the continent. The refugee crisis has abated slightly, but only because the EU has outsourced the problem to Turkey—a country that is itself experiencing a bout of instability. And for the first time, the EU is set to lose a member, the United Kingdom, as a result of the so-called Brexit referendum.
All these developments have helped push populist movements to the center of European politics. The threat of terrorism and anxiety about a massive wave of immigrants from the Muslim world, coupled with the widespread belief that the EU hinders rather than helps when it comes to such problems, have created a perfect storm for populists, especially enhancing the standing of right-wing populists in many countries. Chief among them is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has taken advantage of public fears to rally opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her belief that Europe should embrace a Willkommenskultur, a “culture of welcoming.” Meanwhile, the eurozone crisis has aided the rise of left-wing, anti-austerity populists in Greece and Spain.
But although the threats to security and economic stability that have rattled Europe in the past few years may have spurred the current populist surge, they did not create it. Its origins lie further back, in the structural shifts in European society and politics that began in the 1960s. Because so much commentary on contemporary populism overlooks its deep historical sources, many observers fail to appreciate the durability of today’s populist appeals and the