The surge in the protest vote (in spectacular support for far-right, far-left, Eurosceptic and anti-establishment, ‘fringe’, parties) at the recent elections for the European Parliament has been bemoaned; we are warned that an increased presence of such parties in the European Parliament bodes ill for the European project and for the health of democracy in Europe. Yet, these parties might turn out to be Europe’s saviours. Here is why.
First: the new populism might be using the old language of xenophobia, but is driven by a motivation quite other than the political chauvinism and cultural superiority that defined the post-WWII extreme right.
The populism of our day is activated by concerns with economic insecurity. This is the common denominator behind radical-left and far-right parties – as they are uniting the two extremes of the political spectrum into a common pole of mobilisation – that of Risk.
As the rising support to the Austrian Freedom Party indicates, these are not necessarily concerns with real economic woes such as job losses (Austria’s 4.9 per cent unemployment rates rank the country the lowest in the EU), but with perceived and anticipated threats associated with the unruly waters of open, integrated, free markets.
Significantly, the rise of populism precedes the current economic crisis by at a decade - it began in the 1990s - a context of economic growth and low unemployment, but of economic liberalisation and open-market policies that centre-left and centre-right parties alike pursued with zeal.
On the opposite side of the axis of political mobilisation, the centre-right and centre–left parties are converging around an Opportunity pole (hailing the opportunities the new economy of open borders and high technologies offers). By demonizing the parties of the Risk pole, the parties of Opportunity are dismissing a valid social grievance (even if expressed in the wrong terms – those of xenophobia) – the grievance of people facing a future of economic uncertainty threatening both their survival and their dignity. This is a respectable populism (more often than not) that needs to be taken seriously.
Note, for instance, that as the Austrian Freedom party is increasing its demands for social protection, it is deliberately distancing itself from racism (the party’s main candidate in the European Elections was forced by the party leadership to resign after a scandal over racist remarks.)
Loss of the European social model
Second: the reason why populist parties manage to mobilise increasing electoral support is that they are expressing a shared frustration, across European publics, not so much with European integration, but with the economic insecurity that the EU policies have been incurring.
The Single European Act of 1986 committed the Union to ensuring the so-called four European freedoms - freedom of movement of goods, capital, labour and money - freedoms no one is ready to die for. The policies enacted to safeguard these freedoms (mainly deregulation of product- and labour-markets) have entailed the dismantling of the European social model, incurring massive economic uncertainty.
The first tangible expression of the public resentment against an EU turned into a trans-national free market economy was the rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty by two of the founding nations of the Union – France and the Netherlands in their national referenda in 2005. The novel anti-Americanism of the extremist formations is another expression of this aversion to the dominance of a “technocratic elite serving the American and European financial oligarchy”, as Aymeric Chauprade of the French National Front has put it.
Mephistopheles by Joseph Keppler. Public domain.Third: As the centre-left and centre-right parties won the European elections it is the Opportunity pole that will continue to govern the EU. Yet, under the pressure of the new populism that is effectively mobilising public demands for more social protection, the centrist parties might curb their infatuation with the model of free-market globally integrated capitalism and revive somewhat the moribund European social model, eventually re-generating public enthusiasm for EU integration.
Thus, not unlike Satan in romantic literature (think Bulgakov’s Woland or Goethe’s Mephistopheles) anti-EU, populist parties might, unwittingly, be a force for good – as they might become a catalyst for a renewal of the EU project on the grounds of a more inclusive and humane, or at least more merciful, capitalism.