Can Europe Make It?

Confronting populism anew in Europe

The re-emergence of right-wing populism constitutes a threat and dilemma not only to the more traditional conservative right, but also to parties of the left.

Ian Bancroft
3 November 2015

Viktor Orban - one of Europe's most successful contemporary populists? Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved.Europe has long been intrigued by the lure of populism and its potential to mobilize citizens beyond traditional cleavages within society. Though still a relatively marginal political phenomena, populism of both the extreme left and right continues to exert a profound impact on political debate. Populists have, in particular, benefitted from mounting dissatisfaction with political elites that have repeatedly been either unable or unwilling to address contentious issues.

In a Europe where actions once deemed extreme are increasingly considered normal, the threats of populism are ever more pronounced. Europe is now ripe for a populist surge; one that the right is better placed to exploit, and that the left would be well-advised to oppose. Confronting this surge, however, requires not a new movement of counter-populism, but a genuine renewal of democratic political participation.

The re-emergence of right-wing populism constitutes a threat and dilemma not only to the more traditional conservative right, but also to parties of the left. Right-wing populists do not simply attract support from those who are xenophobic or harbor nationalistic tendencies, but from those who interpret that their living standards have been adversely affected by immigration.

In contexts strained by economic downturn, populists on the right have offered simple solutions wrapped-up in anti-immigration narratives that speak of foreigners stealing jobs whilst simultaneously exploiting benefits systems. Vital contributions of human capital are ignored (despite the inevitable collapse of health systems that would result), whilst other policy debates with implications for living standards (such as austerity measures, privatization or labour market reforms) are downplayed. Such appeals attract support from unlikely sources, including those whose parents or grandparents were themselves once upon a time immigrants.    

And yet populism is also ripe in countries where there is essentially no immigration, such as Hungary. In such contexts, the perceived threats deriving from globalization and/or Europeanisation, especially their impact on traditional values, have prompted movements that are grounded in appeals to nativism. Orban’s Fidesz is a prime example that has been further exposed by the country’s response to the refugee crisis.

Yet Europe remains largely silent in the face of such politics, choosing instead to relativise Orban’s conduct through comparisons with the far right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), and thereby tacitly legitimising a politics of xenophobia. This passivity is further compounded by a tendency to view populism as being driven by economic downturn, thereby ignoring other social and cultural drivers.   

Contemporary populism is replete with new conundrums that make it distinct from previous historical manifestations. Elements of both the left and the right have flirted with anti-EU narratives that attribute social or economic deficiencies - or both - to a surplus of Europe.

This new “external” enemy (despite the fact the states concerned are themselves members) is slated for all manner of policies, from the banal (regulating vacuum cleaners) to the brutal (austerity and the Euro crisis). Claims by the likes of Cameron and Merkel that multiculturalism has failed only give further credence those opposed to further integration. In a changed media landscape, especially on the social front, there are new openings for those seeking to stir and exploit popular discontent.

One of the prime enemies of democracy and human rights in Europe derives from the normalization of actions that would once upon a time have been deemed extreme and unacceptable. The relative silence that has accompanied member state’s responses to the refugee crisis – the erection of barbed wire fences or the killing of a refugee on the Bulgarian border – suggests broadening acceptance of previously untenable policies. And yet such silence is not a new or recent trend.

The treatment of Roma in ‘new’ and ‘old’ Europe - in Slovakia (where an anti-Roma wall was erected in Kosice) and France (which deported hundreds of Roma) - elicited little reaction, despite mistreatment bordering on persecution. As contexts change, so definitions of what constitute extremism are narrowed.

As nationalism re-emerges across Europe, so populism becomes an ever more alluring tool for politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. Though a largely misunderstood concept - not simply reducible to examples of demagogy - populism remains a potent strategy, one that is a great temptation for many on the left. Populism by its very nature, however, tends to undermine pluralism and weaken institutions; two dimensions of democratic politics that require harnessing, not subverting.

Confronting populism requires not yet more populism, but more democracy; a revitalization of the public sphere that can counteract populism by closing the deficits of participation and leadership that have harmed people’s faith in politics. 

This article is based upon comments made during the Transeuropa Festival in Belgrade, and reflects the personal opinions of the author only.

See here for more information on the festival, and click here for more of openDemocracy's coverage of the event.

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