A pro-EU demonstrator sits and holds an EU flag DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Toward a More Democratic Europe?

The rise of extreme populism in Europe is coming at the expense of traditional center-right and center-left parties and putting the European Union at risk. But the populist threat could induce a restructuring of European politics that ultimately bolsters the EU's legitimacy.

WASHINGTON, DC – A year ago, Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory in the French presidential election, and his party’s subsequent success in legislative elections, caused many to breathe a sigh of relief. The rising tide of extremist populism in the West, it seemed, had finally turned. That has turned out not to be the case. But the stunning emergence of a populist majority government in Italy, a founding member of the European Union, does not necessarily spell disaster.

True, populists’ growing strength is threatening traditional center-right and center-left parties and making it very difficult for EU-level governance, in its current form, to function. But what if populist movements’ continued electoral success helps to drive forward a broader political restructuring that ultimately strengthens European democracy?

This reading is reinforced by the experience of Macron himself. Having never held elected office, Macron created a new party centered on himself, with support from both center-left and center-right voters. He seems to have restructured French politics in the process.

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