Spotlight Populism: The People Have to Fight

How do we survive populism in europe? By ignoring it? By writing about it? By fearing it? By discussing it? How?​

French National Front party leader Marine Le Pen visiting a horse show in Villepinte Foto: reuters

What a question to answer… What an article to write… What a notion to live with it… Ok, the last days of 2016 are over. But populism is not a phenomenon of 2016. It only took very big dimensions during this year of turnovers that shocked not only Europe but also the rest of the world. Austrian presidential elections, brexit, the phenomenon of Donald Trump were only some countable facts concerning the rise of populism in Europe but also in the USA. But still. It existed for a long time and revived at least the last two or three decades.

Especially in Europe it could be seen in the rhetoric of the Front National or in Austria when the Freedom Party joined the government in 1999 provoking the sanctions of the EU… But lately because of the economic crises and the refugee- immigrant crises and the terrorist attacks and the confusion that exists in all societies’ populism took another dimension. Some citizens consider populism as a threat to their existence. Societies are willing to take protective measures even by forbidding extremist populist parties.

Politicians are trying to understand what happened and how to face it especially in a post-truth era where nothing seems evident and everything needs double checking and verification, and of course nothing should be taken for granted. And, what about Academia? It depends… there are some researchers trying to address populism, define it, show the reasons of its rise, explain it, find solutions. Academia willing to speak to the media and the society in order to find a solution as left or right populism is a matter that affects everyone in a society.

But there are others that are unwilling to deal with it. They consider it as something really difficult to focus on, too dangerous to leave it to the hands and the pens of journalists to address it. Well, not addressing it sounds a little bit like elitist approach, an approach that strengthens populism.

In December 2016 the European Academy Berlin invited 20 journalists from Southern Europe to visit Berlin. taz was part of their official tour programme. The meeting quickly turned into a talk about our shared need for international cooperation, aiming to find a media counterbalance to current crises in Europe. To start with, we decided on a question that concerns us all: How will we survive populism in Europe?

Not writing about it, ignoring it only leads to the opposite result, meaning it’s growing. Because those who are willing to accept populism are doing quite the opposite: they do speak a lot and they are so energetic, they can make their opinions prevail even if those opinions are considered as extreme or false. And by campaigning populist and also charismatic leaders manage to gain popularity, legislative or ministerial seats etc.

How can we define populism?

Auf Einladung der Europäischen Akademie Berlin besuchten 20 JournalistInnen aus Südeuropa im Dezember 2016 Berlin und die taz. Schnell wurde deutlich, wie groß das gemeinsame Bedürfnis nach internationalen Kooperationen ist, einem Medien-Gegengewicht zu den aktuellen Krisen in Europa. Wir haben uns zum Auftakt für eine Frage entschieden, die uns alle gleichermaßen umtreibt: Wie überleben wir den Populismus in Europa?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary populism means the political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want. Cas Mudde wrote in the Guardian: In its original form, populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people“ and “the corrupt elite“, and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.

Practically, populist politicians almost always combine it with other ideologies, such as nativism on the right and socialism on the left“. During 2016 populism show a surge of its power as brexit and the election of Donald Trump were considered to be wins. The fierce, xenophobic rhetoric, the lies, those who were left behind because of the globalisation, the growing gap of non educated people, the fear of the immigrants and the refugees, the terror, the loss of contact between governments and societies – especially on the European level- all of these were reasons that made many voters turn their back on mainstream politicians and follow those who gave them very simple answers to big problems.

One other explication is that nowadays societies turned out to be very tolerant, very liberal, and open as basic cultural values were concerned as marriage, as race, that a lot of people couldn’t digest them as they were considered as a threat to traditional values. So tolerant that many people mainly not educated and older ones could not follow and as a result felt left behind and marginalised. For example Pipa Norris writes in The Washington Post that Trump’s popularity “is a reaction to the election (and reelection) of the first African American president to the White House; a backlash against Obama’s policies and style…“.

Another reason for the rise of populism is the economic crises that damaged the life of a very big part of populations. People who felt that globalisation stole their identity – especially the ethnic identity- and they felt threatened by the other, the stranger. Those people use to combine that loss with the one of the sovereignty of their country – especially as far as it concerns the European Union- by giving authority used to belong to their state to Brussels.

The loss of jobs and the economic crisis together with the loss of faith to the mainstream institutions –as the judiciary or parliaments- all that produced a very strong and dangerous cocktail very easy to be exploited by populist politicians who are proposing for example to close the borders for refugees or migrants, who are not willing to respect human rights for all, who are willing to follow protectionist measures in order to safeguard jobs and values, their micro-cosmos. But the world of the 21rst century is an interconnected world. That means that nowadays societies need to develop other ways in order to face rising populism.

Some Thoughts

So, how can we survive populism? Well… maybe by understanding its causes, by addressing the problem, by dealing with that. Yorgos Christidis, Assistant Professor at the University of Macedonia, Greece responded to this question by saying: “Can we deal with the “populist challenge? Politics First! That should be the answer! On a national level, established parties should “rediscover“ politics, return or redefine their ideological profiles, so that their political agendas become more clear and relevant to the needs of societies (like fighting unemployment and income redistribution)“.

Cas Mudde wrote in Politico that “mainstream parties must learn to offer credible solutions“. Mudde suggests that “if liberal parties are going to win back voters, they will have to stop simply reacting to the analyses and solutions offered by the right- wing populists and regain the initiative in the public debate. This will require providing more attractive and convincing ideological solutions to the problems voters perceive they are facing“. And continues proposing “these ideological alternatives should be modern and realistic ones“.

Populism and the EU

Another very big part in this fight against populism should be played on the EU. Mr Christidis suggests that: “At an EU level, as problems demand a pan-European approach and solution, the EU should re-examine a number of crucial policy areas from the workings of the Euro and the Eurozone to control of its common, external borders. On both the national level and the EU-institutional level, European societies a growing part of the electorate feels that parties and institutions have become unresponsive and irrelevant for the needs of societies. And that should change!

At the same time, maybe the exercise of power by populists is not only an unavoidable phase of European politics, but a necessary one. As long as populists don’t seek to undermine the fundamentals of liberal democracy once in power – as some populists of the right-wing are attempting to do (Hungary) – or undermine the European Union itself – as some are threatening a return to the old Europe of nation-states – holding power can only expose the weaknesses and the unsustainability of their political promises. Only time will tell“.

Also, Heather Grabbe and Stefan Leehne in an article published in Carnegie Europe are proposing that “to respond to the growing threat of populism the EU should engage citizens directly, refocus on their grievances and promote tolerance and pluralism“. EU should protect its core values and adopt new and convenient ones with the world that is changing. Find a way to restore the lost communication with European citizens, address and respond to their anxieties about the future; find a way to be more attractive once again. Let the extremists talk as long as they do not conduct criminal behavior.

As long as extremists talk there is no hidden agenda and the EU, societies, people can find arguments to confront them. Otherwise there is hatred and revenge. EU should also show to its citizens that “it’s on their side as far as it concerns tax evasion, corruption and inequality and not on the side of the political elites and big businesses, as Grabbe and Leehne propose. Also there is the need for accountability of those responsible for banking scandals and a coherent alternative response to the needs and the problems of European citizens.

The Fight

Will this fight against populism be easy? Timothy Garton Ash writes: „We must brace ourselves for a long struggle, perhaps a generational struggle“ against populism. He points that “the forces behind the popular front of populism are strong, traditional parties are often weak and such waves are not reversed overnight“…

Of course EU and citizens have to fight. And react as soon as possible. Because as Guy Verhofstadt writes, “after all we could well be one or two national elections away from the disintegration of the EU. Let’s try and fix it, not throw it away“. And it’s clear that people will have to fight for that.

Dr Dimitra Makri, Journalist, PhD in International Law, member of the Journalists Union of Macedonia and Thrace Daily Newspapers

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