Rosa BalfourSenior fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Alas, no—not yet. There is little time and political imagination on the horizon, but if European democrats of the Left, Right, and center recovered from their shell-shocking loss of consent there could be alternatives to populism. Note the use of the plural: alternatives of Left, Right, and center are needed.
The old mainstream political parties, squeezed into a smaller space on the political spectrum, might be tempted to forge deals—be they grand coalitions or agreements to keep the populist parties out of power. This has been a pattern at the European Parliament.
But this is one reason driving citizens to vote against the establishment. Mainstream political parties have become colored by sameness since the end-of-ideology myth. The dearth of ideas is reflected in the inability of political actors to renew and reach out to broader sectors of society.
Populists, too, do not have the answers to the preoccupations that are driving their voters. This is where the alternatives can emerge: new ideas on addressing inequality and insecurity about one’s place in society, on creating jobs in the green economy, and on how to connect positively with the rest of the world instead of building walls are what are needed. The Left, Right, and center need to fight the battle of ideas, not of seats and power.
Natalia Banulescu-BogdanAssociate director of the International Program at the Migration Policy Institute
Europe has by now learned that sweeping controversial issues under the rug only gives them more power.
Anxieties about immigration—that it has happened too fast, with too little preparation, and with disastrous consequences for parts of society—have festered under the surface, with few outlets for legitimate expression. In countries like Sweden, questioning humanitarian generosity was taboo, while in countries like Austria—with elections invariably resulting in a grand coalition between the center-left and center-right—there was a sense that no matter how you vote, the result is the same. In this landscape, populists successfully positioned themselves as the only true alternative to politics as usual.
The way forward for mainstream politicians is to create new channels for public grievances. This does not mean more referenda—complex, controversial issues are rarely resolved by binary outcomes. Instead, politicians now seen as rigidly imposing a set of values from above (including openness to immigration at all costs) should create new ways to gather input from below. Forums such as citizen consultations or digital policy platforms can give voice to those who feel left behind.
Instead of rejecting populism, in other words, mainstream politicians should co-opt it—not by embracing nativism, but by becoming more responsive to “everyday” concerns.
Caroline de GruyterEuropean affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad
Of course it has. Populists on the Far Right and Far Left are voicing voters’ discontent with many things: globalization, migration, the prominence of financial markets, etc. The real extremist hardcore remains rather small but makes a lot of noise. The main problem in many European countries, but also in America, is that centrist parties move away from the political center, toward the populists. They take over the populist discourse and make it mainstream. As a result, populists dominate the public debate everywhere. The same thing happened in the 1930s.
It is the centrist parties that are the problem, not the populists. Instead of sticking to their own story and defending their ground, they ape the extremists. Many traditional Conservative parties are now framing immigration as a “problem of multiculturalism;” Social Democrats do the same. That’s all voters hear. Other angles are disappearing from the public discourse: few centrist politicians dare to defend the economic benefits of migration, for example.
Many voters in the political middle feel orphaned. There are few credible and capable politicians to vote for. This is an excellent time to be a Macron or a Van der Bellen—there’s hardly any competition!
Sophia GastonVisiting research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science
Populist narratives find appeal with electorates both dissatisfied with their country’s social and economic settlement, and the efforts of traditional parties to respect and respond to their grievances. Even voters who disagree with the simplistic solutions proposed by populist leaders may find reassurance in their brazen confrontation of issues that have too long fallen outside of political discourse.
There has been a tendency to pay too much attention to the language and policies of populists, rather than really listening to the grievances underpinning their voters’ support. Populism should be a sounding siren for mainstream politicians to pay greater heed to the less tangible elements of nation-building—identity, citizens’ sense of belonging, patriotism, culture, and traditions—and to start to deliver on the big national reforms that have consistently been shuffled into the “too hard” basket.
Just as the forces that gave rise to populism were not formed overnight, there’s a long road ahead to reclaim the trust and attention of electorates—it may take another generation. So, the alternative to populism is clear—the question is whether political leaders have the courage, and the energy, to achieve it.
Josef JanningHead of the Berlin office and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
Yes, Europe has an alternative to populism—at least to one of its principal claims.
Populists around the EU rally support on two themes: social inequality and national sovereignty. They accuse the EU of driving the growth of the former and the demise of the latter. On social security, Europe cannot deliver a straight answer. On sovereignty, however, European politicians need to make the case for strengthening national sovereignty by pooling it.
Populists insist on formal sovereignty, which in their view can only be national. They miss the purpose of sovereign states, which is most fundamentally the ability to deliver security and prosperity to its citizens. A repatriation of powers actually means a loss in the ability to achieve such outcomes for citizens in EU member states. Europe needs the concept of European sovereignty; that is, the claim to sustain and defend the interests, the integrity, the freedoms, and the self-government of the EU and its member states. It is the idea of “co-sovereignty,” with genuine European powers and shared sovereign rights and privileges. Nationalism is best countered by protecting the nation state from the effects of its dysfunctionality. The EU was developed to do just that.
Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Yes, plenty! The media seem to have just two modes of approaching populism: either they panic about an imminent takeover of Europe or they think that the populist beast can be eliminated from European politics. In reality, populist parties have gained ground but remain a minority in most EU countries. Orbán and Salvini may claim that the next European Parliament election will be a turning point in European history, but in fact nationalist rightist parties are unlikely to gain even a quarter of the votes. At the same time, populism will not go away. As traditional mainstream parties become weaker, populist parties will continue to be a significant factor in a more volatile political scene and—as they participate in several governments—a considerable challenge for EU politics.
Mainstream politicians need to get smarter in handling this situation by focusing on concrete solutions on migration and the adverse effects of globalization and by strongly defending the values that have held the EU together for so long. The greatest danger remains that many centrist politicians, out of fear, allow populists to set the agenda and copy their nationalist and xenophobic policies. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural speech: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
Yes. Europe has always had to live with populisms—note plural. The most populist parties after 1945 were the communist parties of France and Italy, which obtained 25 percent of the vote in elections up to the 1970s. The Greens, Syriza, Podemos, and the Five Star Movement are all parties based on populist appeals. National or regional identity populism in Europe—including Scottish nationalists, Catalan secessionists, Hungarian irredentism in Romania and Slovakia, the Northern League in Italy, and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland—requires more devolved autonomy and respect for different cultures.
Today, successful populists like Kaczyński support pro-poor redistribution and economic growth. Europe does not so much need an alternative to populism but how to produce policies that are popular. The focus on ordoliberalismus austerity management in the eurozone fuels populism.
Populism dries up when policies supporting economic growth and social justice have priority. The European Parliament after 2019 will have many populist mini-groups, and its election method needs reform. The populism that produced Brexit will turn out to have failed as Britain becomes poorer and more isolated, bitter, and divided. A coherent 2019-2024 European Commission that focuses on what people need can make a difference and put the populists in their place.
Michael Meyer-ResendeExecutive director of Democracy Reporting International
Europe has many alternatives to populism, but the overwhelming media attention on the “populist challenge” in every European election has created a sense of inevitability and reduced election reporting to a narrative of “the populists against the rest.” While this makes a good story, it perfectly fits the agenda of extremist parties because it mirrors their own.
In this alarmist frenzy, democracy loses. The diversity of other platforms and parties are not reported on. Instead, the agenda is set by these challenger parties, namely their focus on immigration. The fact that far less migrants and refugees are arriving to the EU gets lost. European governments have resolved the issue as the right-wingers have demanded, but nobody is talking about it.
In many cases, liberal journalists compound the problem by applying the fuzzy populism label to each and every Conservative or right-wing political position. Democracy has a space for parties that are against immigration or against European integration, but it is at risk when parties attack or undermine institutions like independent courts, when they question the state’s monopoly of power by calling for citizen self-defense, or when they vilify people based on their origins or skin color. Calling a party “populist” gives us no indication about such differences.
Conclusion: there are many alternatives to extremism, but the media, in its hunger for an exciting story, does not give them airtime.
Nora MüllerHead of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation
A specter is haunting Europe. This time around, it is not the brainchild of a Trier-born philosopher but an ideology that feeds its very own opium to the masses: the delusional belief that turning inward and keeping the Other out will make Europe stronger. Not only has populism evolved into a major political force; Europe’s populists “are waltzing into the mainstream,” as The Economist recently pointed out. Italy’s populist coalition government is just the latest incarnation of this worrisome trend.
But Europe—the continent of liberty, solidarity, and diversity—has a proven track record of dealing with specters, and it must not lose heart in view of the present challenge. People’s concerns about a globalized and increasingly complex world deserve an answer, but not one copied from populist playbooks. The antidote to populism consists of two ingredients: an unwavering commitment to Europe’s fundamental values and the doubling down on efforts to improve policy performance in areas where the shoe pinches—both nationally and in Brussels. If we are to fight populism with its antithesis—a bright vision for Europe’s future—then “a Europe that protects” will need to evolve from a catchy slogan into a political reality.
Tessa SzyszkowitzUK correspondent for the Austrian news magazine profil
The financial crisis 2008 and the refugee wave of 2015 have swept forces into power whose promises will not deliver answers to the challenges of the twenty-first century. If European countries want to stay competitive, stopping immigration is not an option for aging populations. Nationalism in Europe has historically been more destructive than constructive. Populism in Austria comes on top of that with a far-right twist, which leaves a bad aftertaste.
There is an alternative. The crisis of the old established parties on the center left and right needs to be overcome by renewing the contract with society and voters. The European model of the welfare state—combined with values of liberal democracies in the framework of the European Union—has in principle produced very good results. Where it has not, EU leaders need to start reforming EU structures. In this age of anger, people’s parties need to regain the trust of voters by taking their fears seriously—but not by legitimizing xenophobic policies. These will ultimately harm societies and economies. In the long term it will be more productive to emphasize inclusive values like solidarity, cooperation, and openness.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO and senior fellow at Friends of Europe
Populism feeds on failure to find solutions to economic and migratory problems. Populists often make the EU a scapegoat for national failures, like the collapse of a bridge or for phenomena such as globalization. They play on fears of loss of control, loss of identity, and loss of social status.
The alternative lies in more effective European policy on cross-border issues like migration, climate change, and trade; a new narrative on European identity; and a greater readiness by governments, businesses, and trade unions to advertise the benefits of EU membership.
The EU has little power over income distribution, the balance between wages and profits, and precarious employment trends that fuel populism. But it can use tax, trade, and competition policies to make multinationals pay a fair share of tax in Europe and act as responsible employers.
On migration, the EU and governments should do a better job of publicizing statistics of falling migrant numbers to puncture fear-mongering. Brussels can help strengthen external border controls, provide more support to first arrival countries, and run a voluntary relocation system for asylum seekers. Mandatory systems won’t work and offer an easy target for the populists.
On identity, it shouldn’t be too difficult to project Europe as a desirable brand with strong values and a cooperative model of governance, compared to the alternatives: Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, and indeed Brexit Britain. Our leaders need the courage to stand up for the European model, as Canada’s leaders do for their brand.