One of the debates that marked the fourthInternazionale Festival, held last weekend in the Italian town of Ferrara, dealt with the question of "Winners in the crisis" in Europe. During the discussion, one of the speakers, a special advisor to the European Commission, presented a list of ongoing EU projects in theEuropean year for combating poverty and social exclusion, which ironically occurred in 2010 — the worst year for the continent’s economy in living memory. This proved all too much for a London-based Italian economist who retorted that European institutions are only good for “talk, talk and more talk,” which never results in any real change — an affirmation that was welcomed by a huge wave of applause. Someone even shouted, "Basta!"

As European living standards decline in the midst of a global economic crisis accompanied by severe austerity measures, disillusion with traditional politics and institutions is growing. Most analysts dismiss these symptoms as "populist" and "anti-political", a trap for the ignorant fringes of society that are especially vulnerable to political manipulation. However, the fact that an audience of highly educated people in Ferrara should applaud the economist’s sentiments, even to the point of yelling “Stop”, ought to give us pause for thought.

Populism as defined byDaniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell is "an ideology which pits a virtuous people against a set of elites that deprive them of their rights, their values, their prosperity and their voice." In the wake of a crisis that has disrupted the lives of millions of Europeans without affecting the elites who are in part to blame, this sentiment now presents an alarmingly accurate reflection of political reality — and this is the case in Ireland, where the cost of rescuing its zombie banks now amounts to a third of the country’s GDP.

As French sociologist Alain Touraine recently pointed out, growing inequality is now the foremost threat to the stability and cohesion of the EU and its member states. The populist political parties which have made inroads all across the continent do not have the right answers, but the question as to why they have come to the fore should not be dismissed as readily as their largely bankrupt ideas.