A new spectre is haunting Europe – that of right-wing populism. There is more than an air of panic in the media and political circles about it, especially in Germany – a country whose Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a latecomer in the European populist landscape.
Historian Paul Nolte recently called the success of the party a “quasi-revolutionary unrest”. This might come as a surprise, given that the AfD is still small compared to other European populist parties. In Italy and the Netherlands, for instance, a slow collapse of the traditional party system over two decades gave rise to the populists. But Germany’s history and developments in other European countries have led more than one observer to draw parallels to the often violent discourse of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s that helped Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power.
“We are experiencing at the moment that all over Europe democracies become unstable, just like in the 1920s [sic],” Nolte said in an interview.
Even in France, a country that has been living with the Front National for decades, panic shook the political spectrum when the populist, xenophobic party came out strong in the first round of the regional elections at the end of 2015, although they could not retain that lead in the subsequent round. Yet, all of a sudden it seemed possible that Front National chair Marine Le Pen could become the next French president in 2017.
Austria was recently even closer to a similar scenario but avoided it: The country narrowly escaped the election of right-wing populist Norbert Hofer in the presidential elections in May 2016. Hofer gained 49.7% of the vote while Alexander Van der Bellen, candidate of the Green Party, won with 50.3 %.
Both cases show it is realistic that a major western European country can fall into the hands of right-wing populism, just as Donald Trump stands a good chance of winning the presidential elections in the US. Such a development would exacerbate the malaise of an EU plagued by the Ukraine crisis, the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and the refugee crisis.
The hard facts
All populist parties are fiercely anti-European. It is therefore high time to stop their ascent.
A few reasons that explain their development are regularly discussed. For instance, populist parties believe globalisation has robbed people all over the world of their distinct identities that were tied to the nation state and its symbols. The EU, as a project that attempts to overcome nationalism, is a natural enemy of those who dislike the whole idea.
The Brexit discussion had been partly driven by the will to maintain what is considered national identity under threat from Europe. The murder of Jo Cox by an assailant who apparently screamed “Britain first” before stabbing her, is a sad climax to a discourse that seems to be totally out of control.
Economics also matters. The ascent of emerging powers such as China and India plus the economic crisis has produced more losers of globalisation than winners in the West. For the first time in Europe and the US, a whole generation knows that it will not be economically better-off than the one before it. Years of neo-liberal politics have widened the gap between the rich and the poor, and arguably intensified the problem.
The pinch of alienation
While these developments are unlikely to be reversed, it is worth looking at other softer factors that make people vote for right-wing populists. These are also easier to tackle and could therefore give hints about a possible strategy to counter populism.
Europe has become increasingly politically and socially liberal in the last 20 years. This is best exemplified by German chancellor Angela Merkel and her government. A women as the head of government and a female defence minister were unthinkable not very long ago but are now quite common in many countries of Europe.
Merkel is specifically a good example because she opened up her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) to new voters by shifting it programmatically to the centre or even centre-left. Her government scrapped nuclear energy and compulsory military service, introduced a marriage-like partnership for homosexual couples, allowed dual citizenship for children of immigrants and made compulsory a women’s quota for supervisory boards of large companies. These have been the political demands of the centre-left parties in the past.
This worked for Merkel because large parts of her electorate had become more liberal over the years. But a considerable number of traditionally conservative voters became politically homeless in the process.
Social Democrats who have been covering traditional conservative positions in the past (for example, through law-and-order politics) also find it difficult to keep a clear profile all over Europe today because many of them felt the need to adjust their programmes to the demands of the corporate world and financial markets.
As a result, roughly 25% of European voters who can be considered ‘conservative’ in one or the other have become easy prey for right-wing populists. Even voters who just want their beer or cheese to remain as it is might be counted as conservative in this context because they too feel the pinch of alienation.
The fact that populism is what Michael Freeden called a ‘thin ideology’ allows conservative voters to cast their ballot in favour of populist leaders, even if they do not agree with all their demands. ‘Thin ideologies’ pursue only a few goals (for instance, to reduce the number of immigrants or to leave the Eurozone) and borrow from different ideologies in other political contexts. That is why the phenomenon of populism often seems so contradictory.
Populists oscillate between traditionally different political positions so that the old categories of right and left seem to vanish. Or they consciously muddy the waters between themselves and extremist positions in order to reach out to these voters who are still a small minority in Europe. Cynics therefore argue that populism is mainly a tool to gain power. But one does not really want to know what “the empty heart of populism”, in Paul Taggart’s words, pours out once it is in power.
While the Greek crisis saw an increase in left-wing populism, the refugee crisis has paved the way for xenophobic and anti-Islamic positions that often border on racism and anti-Semitism. The German AfD, for instance, has perfected the art of making racist or anti-Semitic statements and then backtracking when scrutinised by journalists. Le Pen is said to have purged the Front National of anti-Semitism and racism – a highly doubtful claim, given the continuity of members in the party and its strong anti-Islamic profile.
But even if right-wing populists are not fascists or Nazis, these parties are a threat to Europe because they are deeply illiberal. They resent representative democracy in the name of a pre-modern ‘common sense’ of ‘the people’ as opposed to the ruling elites, who are described as ‘technocratic’ or ‘corrupt’. Their hostility towards institutions raises serious questions about their ability to govern a modern state.
Shrinking space for liberal politics
Rousseau’s idea of a volonté générale (the will of the people) on the political left and a pre-democratic access of the common people to a higher truth on the right lead to authoritarian forms of government, which brought disaster to Europe in the 20th century and should not be repeated. The fact that their criticism of the EU contains more than a grain of truth does not make their answers any better.
While recent studies indicate that the number of people in Europe who actually hold right wing extremist views have not increased, the above analysis shows that the phenomenon of right wing populism has grown by far too big to be ignored by mainstream political parties anymore.
The ascent of right-wing populism has already started to make liberal politics more difficult, as seen in the refugee crisis and the problems Merkel is facing for opening doors to refugees. Knives are out against the German chancellor in her own party and it might even cost her the job in the next elections, a development that seemed unthinkable just a year ago.
Whenever a right-wing populist party becomes a force to reckon with, liberal parties nervously start adjusting their politics to the demands of populists. This could lead to a vicious circle for Europe because the answer to the continent’s problems on a global scale lies in greater openness, in walking the talk, in harnessing the true potential of enlightenment instead of attempting to turn Europe into a fortress.
Towards a counter-populism strategy
It is therefore important to draw the right lessons from what is happening. There are a few things that can be done to reduce the populists to size. While it seems useless to reach out to hard-wired extremists, conservative voters that make up a significant part of the vote bank of right wing populists at the moment usually do not want to overthrow the political system.
They need to be wooed by both conservative and social democratic parties by creating new narratives around traditionally conservative and social democratic values:
An efficient handling of the influx of refugees plus enforcement of existing laws would send a signal that European governments and the European Union are committed to good governance. The message must be that strong states in a strong EU are able to protect their citizens and also absorb people in need. This requires more spending on police and security institutions and the will to live up to the challenge.
Family values are cherished not only by conservatives. Creating work conditions that allow families more time with their children or ageing parents is what most people want. All European countries have social support policies for families but there is still room for more. Right-wing populists usually have very little to say about social politics. This is therefore wide field to win back voters.
Regional identities within European countries and a European identity as a whole are not contradictory. Promoting both at the same time has to figure high on the political agenda. The EU does not need to be a one-size-fits-all club. There are a lot of ideas how this could realised. It has to be done now. This requires a conscious effort of pro-European parties all over Europe to give up the policy of blaming the EU for everything that could be unpopular and promote Europe proactively.
If populism is “a shadow cast by democracy”, as Margaret Canovan once argued, it is time to address the complaints about the European project more openly. The rationalistic political discourse of “no alternative” as exemplified by the cerebral Merkel has proven fatal. Democracies per definition must provide voters with alternatives. And it is the job of democratic parties to develop and formulate these alternatives in forms that appeal to voters of different backgrounds.
At the same time, democratic parties have to resist the politics of division. The Economist recently called “divided we fall” a comment to those supporting the Brexit. But this has a message for democratic parties in each and every European country as well. Hate-speech and war-mongering are instruments of the populists. The European project was always about overcoming differences, about leaving centuries of war and even the cold war behind.
This is the greatest challenge to these ideas so far. If Europe cannot defend itself against the enemy from within now, there might be nothing left to defend.
Britta Petersen is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.