MADRID (Reuters) - Europe's political mainstream needs to tone down its austerity drive and focus more on growth if it wants to fight off the populist movements spreading across the continent, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told the Wall Street Journal on Friday.


"The most important objective across Europe is to achieve economic growth and employment," said Rajoy, one of a handful of incumbent leaders to have ridden out the tide of left- and right-wing populism that is shaking up European politics.


Now in his second term of office at the head of a minority government, Rajoy adopted austerity-focused economic policies during his first term between 2011 and 2015, when Spain emerged from a deep recession.


Calling the Italian situation "a mess" days after Matteo Renzi resigned as Prime Minister, Rajoy said traditional parties in France and Germany were however likely have the upper hand against rising anti-establishment movements when the two countries go to the polls next year.


"If traditional political parties defend themselves with the same energy and good arguments as opponents of the system do, then things will stabilize," he said.


(Reporting by Julien Toyer; editing by John Stonestreet)