Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
“Destroying” is too strong a word. The European body politic is increasingly looking inward at the expense of the continent’s traditional global focus.
Yet creeping populism does pose two grave challenges. First, it is not inconceivable that in ten to twenty years’ time, some parties—France’s National Front comes to mind—might upend the liberal constitutional order that Europeans take for granted today. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz provides an example of how this could be done.
These movements’ political programs reveal planks such as the abridgment of some civil rights or the sharp curtailment of economic freedoms. The last wave of populism that swept through Europe in the 1920s and 1930s caused much material and intellectual damage.
Second, European populism would over time erode the global goodwill of the European Union itself. Illiberal policies would countervail the EU’s soft power of individual freedoms and open markets. Populist parties tend to be isolationist and protectionist. The EU’s current staunch allies, such as the United States, Canada, and Japan, might lose strategic interest in a continental power that is turning its back on the world.
In sum, populism is a clear and present danger for Europe—if not yet a destructive force.
Populism is a Trojan horse inside the European Union. The strategy of populist parties is to use the European system to destroy it from within. These parties’ political programs go against the very idea of European integration. One of the EU’s founding fathers, French diplomat Jean Monnet, described this idea very clearly: “There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection.”
The biggest problem is not that populism exists. The phenomenon has always been there, and it always will be. The problem is that populism is growing. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, populist parties doubled their number of seats compared with the 2009 elections. In every national election in the EU since then, populist parties have made gains.
Maybe more worrying is the fact that populism appears to be contagious. It affects not only parties at the extremes of the political spectrum but also those in the center. A clear example is Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party is becoming increasingly populist despite being a member of the main center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Similar trends are occurring in France and the UK as well.
Populism is not only destroying the European construction as such. It is also threatening the foundations of European postwar peace and prosperity.
Nation-states, not the EU, are having a hard time these days. National politics seems to provide the main boost to most populist movements. Or does anyone still believe populism is a result of European integration? If so, they should read the history books again!
One must be careful in labeling all national populists as one big anti-European movement. In fact, there are three different versions of populism. First, the Scandinavian and Central European variety stems from a fear of losing social standards within the respective welfare states.
Second, antiestablishment populism is deeply opposed to a capital-centric national elite represented by graduates from grandes écoles or Westminster stakeholders.
And last but not least, there is social populism in crisis countries in Southern Europe, where much of the criticism is directed toward the corrupt systems of national elites.
Election results in the EU show that never more than 15–20 percent of national electorates vote for populist parties that are Euroskeptic or merely critical of the EU. Take note, however, that a large majority of EU citizens are happy to be European.
In most national societies, ruling parties or elites try to safeguard their positions of power by spinning national media against external enemies. Politico pointed out recently that the new trend of populism is not against the EU institutions, but against foreigners. This is not reassuring.
Blaming minorities or “the others” is indeed destroying the values of the EU from within.
Populism has become a lazy shorthand for any politics we do not like. Europe survived twenty or thirty years of left-wing populism in the form of mass Communist parties. In the case of the French Communist Party, such populism was both hostile to European integration and often racist and xenophobic.
Today, the most successful populist party in Europe is the Swiss People’s Party, which is hostile to the EU and to EU immigrant workers as well as Islamophobic—but Switzerland survives. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is populist even though it belongs to the center-right European People’s Party, while Greece’s ruling left-wing Syriza has inherited and amplified the populism of the center-left PASOK party.
All successful politics must have a dose of populism. Big leaders like former French president Charles de Gaulle or former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at times appeal directly to the people, bypassing party structures and conventional ways of doing politics. Divisions between insiders and outsiders, or between the establishment and insurgents, are nothing new. If Europe is failing to answer populist questions, it is because there are not enough jobs, not enough new firms, not enough homes, and not enough social justice.
These solutions cannot be dictated by Brussels. Twentieth-century parties have given up on political education, and many politicians think a tweet is an intellectual challenge. Populism isn’t Europe’s problem. The lack of political leadership and vision is.
In the post-Lehman political environment, it is hard not to be a populist—particularly in Western Europe, where aggressive anticapitalist rhetoric coupled with mild anti-Americanism is now the most effective vote-winner.
Dramatic changes in political constellations can sometimes be strikingly similar to economic cycles. Europe is now inexorably nearing the end of an era in which bipolar systems were dominant and traditional parties seemed deeply entrenched and unmovable.
The Spanish example is superb in this respect: the Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) had been alternating in power for decades. It was a very comfortable situation for both. However, by living in this protective bubble, immune to any outside intrusions, the parties became outrageously selfish, corrupt, and, eventually, inefficient. This malaise was a perfect breeding ground for Podemos, a neo-Marxist political movement with outlandish views on the economy—but also with one overwhelming advantage: it is neither PP nor PSOE.
In several European countries where bipolar systems are crumbling and populist parties are making significant gains, you’ll hear the same mantra, from both the radical Left and the nationalist Right: “There is no difference between the big players.”
To be honest, this diagnosis is not entirely false. The current wave of populism is dangerous for Europe, but it can also be analyzed with a pinch of optimism. If you catch a cold, you need a fever to combat the virus. Europe has been sick for a very long time. Political elites in Brussels, Paris, Rome, and Madrid were so brazenly decoupled from reality and so desperately attached to their little privileges that they didn’t even notice the rising temperature. But this is what Europe probably needs at this moment: a political fever.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, once stated that the problem with critics of European integration is that they are often right. It is difficult to talk about populism: simplistic slogans and ungrounded claims can be found everywhere on the European spectrum. Yet it is mostly detractors of the EU who are called populists. Usually, talk of populism simply equals disrespect for the EU’s critics.
What is more, criticism of the EU is widespread within governments and ministries. This is no surprise given that the EU is a mature political reality that has been, needs to be, and deserves to be questioned. Criticism in any shape or form is part of political dialogue and ranges from in-depth analysis to one-liners.
Finally, the EU has disregarded its critics for too long. The French and Dutch votes in 2005 against the proposed EU constitution presented democratic challenges to European integration. It seems that the Netherlands has been rather active in addressing these challenges. France, by contrast, has been less engaged in drawing lessons from 2005.
Europeans should stop referring to populism and should get on with real public dialogue. That means listening to other views and respecting fears and doubts. The EU will get nowhere if the French and Dutch far-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are not taken seriously.
Populism is a loaded term generally used by people who do not like the politics of those they call populists. Populism is typically associated with the right, but Spain’s left-wing Podemos and Greece’s far-left Syriza are as populist as France’s right-wing National Front and Britain’s Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Populist parties are a symptom, not the cause, of Europe’s malaise. They are not destroying Europe, as Europe is doing that on its own. The EU has moved from being a dream and a cure for overcoming the war and nationalism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the twentieth century to a largely cold economic and technocratic force removed from the populace.
The question is whether Europe can survive during bad times, for the sake of those generations who have been socialized in the postheroic decades of slow growth, high youth unemployment, and high immigration. The populists are the canaries in the coal mine—a warning signal rather than the problem.
There are significant differences between the political parties to which the term “populist” is routinely applied. In this sense, populism is too diverse a phenomenon to allow black-and-white conclusions—for us to determine whether or not it is “destroying Europe from within.”
Some populists adhere to values that are clearly inimical to the EU’s core principles. But the rise of at least some populist parties represents a potentially healthy corrective to the well-known democratic shortcomings of the European integration process. The fact that populist parties may have a different vision for organizing cooperation among European states is not in itself a reason for censure. Indeed, the standard, elite-led script that has dominated European integration for half a century needs to be challenged and debated.
The rise of populism may even inadvertently help by prompting elites into more critical self-reflection about how the EU needs to change. In most member states, populists are more likely to establish themselves as secondary players than to win outright power. These parties’ impact will be felt in the way they influence the mainstream parties that are likely to hold the center ground.
Populism will be antithetical to benign European cooperation to the extent that it unleashes widespread illiberalism—not simply because it questions the prevailing parameters of EU integration.
Even the more progressive strain of populism proffers solutions that are reflexive, partial, and riven by internal inconsistencies. This is the ground on which populists should be critically engaged.
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