Europe: Ideas

Anger: Protesters in Spain, where unorthodox ideas are rising, rally against austerity. © PA

Movements which go against the political and economic consensus have gained support in countries such as Greece, Spain and France in recent years. Should Europeans welcome the trend?

When the UK Independence Party (UKIP) gathered more votes than any of their rivals at last year’s European elections, headlines spoke of a ‘political earthquake’. For the first time in 100 years, a party other than the Conservatives or Labour had topped a national poll.

UKIP’s victory was indicative of the recent success of populist parties (those hostile to the political consensus) across Europe. In France, the right-wing Front National won the most votes in the same election; left-wing parties in Greece (Syriza) and Spain (Podemos) have also enjoyed a surge in support in recent years. Both sides have drawn support from those who believe that national governments have surrendered their sovereignty to the EU, with right-wingers particularly attacking migration policy and EU regulations and left-wingers angry at the impact of austerity economics.

Europe has historically been a cradle of political, economic and philosophical ideas which diverge from accepted norms. During the 16th century, the theories of priests and theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin spread rapidly, aided by the invention of the printing press and increasing levels of interaction and trade between countries. The result was an unprecedented schism in Christianity between established Catholicism and the insurgent forces of Protestantism.

European philosophers were also central during the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries. Writers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire articulated the virtues of granting individual rights, limiting the power of rulers, landowners and the clergy and pursuing equality.

They inspired the French revolutionaries, who called for ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’, and subscribers to subsequent ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism. They also generated the backlash of conservatism, led by Irish politician Edmund Burke. Modern political, economic and philosophical battle lines were largely drawn in Europe.

Time to change?

Economist Thomas Piketty is among those welcoming the rise of different ideas in Europe. The European people are inevitably reacting against a failing, undemocratic elite which does not work in their interests. It is exciting to see the people realise their ability to take power away from them.

But Peter Praet, a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board, disagrees. It is easy to criticise those in charge, but much harder for those in power to make the tough decisions and compromises necessary in reality. The ideas currently taking hold in Europe are not new; they are simply re-heated offerings of past failures. When ideas sound too good to be true, they usually are.

You Decide

  1. Should we welcome the rise of anti-establishment movements across Europe?
  2. Is there such a thing as a new idea?


  1. Draw a poster showing some examples of the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers’ ideas (such as individual rights) have had an impact on our lives today.
  2. Write a letter to a friend living outside Europe, explaining the current changes of ideas taking place on the continent. Do you approve of them? Explain why, or why not.

Some People Say...

“If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Albert Einstein

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are these ideas becoming fashionable?
Commentators aren’t entirely sure, and have often been taken aback themselves by the passion inspired by political parties who used to be on the fringe. But the financial crisis of 2008 appears to have played a role in stirring people’s anger, which they have turned against the orthodox politicians in charge.
Have the fringe parties really created a ‘political earthquake’?
Many in Europe think that the populist parties will not last, and as evidence some of them point to the difficulties which Syriza have had in negotiating a better deal for Greece. But the success of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign for the Labour leadership in the UK provides the latest evidence for those who say democracy is unpredictable.

Word Watch

Printing press
German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is usually credited with inventing this, in the mid-15th century. The printing press allowed writing to be mass-produced, encouraging reading and the spread of new ideas.
The Reformation saw unprecedented challenges to Catholic traditions, creating the range of theological viewpoints broadly known as Protestantism. The result was instability, exemplified most clearly by the French Wars of Religion.
Liberalism, socialism and feminism
Liberals believe fundamentally in freedom, socialists prioritise the pursuit of equality, and feminists believe in emancipating women. Debates within each ideology have tended to focus on how to define those key terms and how best to achieve the desired goals.
Edmund Burke
Burke criticised the French revolutionaries for changing the structures of society too quickly. He argued that traditional institutions which had stood the test of time (such as the monarchy) should be preserved and that change should only be undertaken as far as was necessary while conserving the established order.

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