A rise in populism

Interview of C. Froio & Nonna Mayer
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1.Several European countries are seeing a rise in populism. What is this a sign of?

Caterina Froio: I share Nonna’s interpretation on globalization, but I would add an extra layer to it. I believe Europe is witnessing the success of a specific form of populism combined with ethnocentrism. It voices the fear of loss of (natives’) values and (natives’) ways of life resulting from the weakening of nation-states related to globalization.

Populism is indeed an ambiguous concept. If we define populism mainly as distrust in national politicians nourishing dissatisfaction with the way in which democracy works, Eurobarometer data show that today’s trends are not remarkably different from those in the past. Northern European countries exhibit higher satisfaction with democracy than Southern and Eastern European ones. In western Europe, a majority of the population is still “fairly satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the way in which democracy works. This suggests that populism is not the only catalyser of discontent. What is changing are citizens’ priorities and anxieties associated (mainly) with immigration. According to the Eurobarometer data (http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Chart/getChart/chartType/lineChart//themeKy/42/groupKy/208/savFile/632 ) in 2005 50% of the population considered “The Economic situation” as the most important problem in their countries. These figures changed with the euro crisis in 2016 (reaching peaks of 95%!). Today however only 33% of the EU population thinks that the economy is the most urgent priority. The issue that instead acquired importance overtime is “immigration” passing from 14% in 2005 to 28% in 2016. Immigration is now considered to be the most important issue in most European countries and in particular in Denmark (by 57% of the country population), Germany (56%) and the Netherlands (46%). Compared to other EU members, none of them appear to have the highest number of asylum-seekers in proportion to the country’s population (http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/08/02/number-of-refugees-to-europe-surges-to-record-1-3-million-in-2015/).

Parties combining strong anti-immigrant and anti-establishment rhetoric are those that seem to profit more of these societal changes, and these are ‘radical right populist parties’. One likely explanation for their rise is the crisis of the model of nation-state resulting from globalization. In nation-states a cultural identity (the nation) was combined with a political entity (the State). Globalization processes reshape this equation since they bring increasing levels of economic, cultural and political interconnectedness between different individuals and states. In this sense globalization challenges (and triggers) the pillars of populist radical right’s identity: nativism, nationalism and cultural homogeneity (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/populist-radical-right-parties-in-europe/244D86C50E6D1DC44C86C4D1D313F16D). Thus radical right populists oppose globalization portraying it as a triple threat to the native people in cultural, economic, and political terms as Nonna says. In sum, populism (alone) remains a challenging but poorly explanatory concept to understand contemporary European politics. I believe that Europe is experiencing a specific form of populism combined with ethnocentrism gaining support by striving to redefine who the (native) ‘people’ are.

Nonna Mayer: Populism is a fuzzy concept. If one just defines it by the rejection of elites, today it’s 79% of French citizens who think that those who govern us « do not care what people like us think », as well as the 75% who think the political class is « somewhat corrupt », that should be labelled as populist !I’ll limit myself to the Populist Radical Rights parties that have developed in Europe for the last three decades, whose anti-elite stands are colored by nativism, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism as shown by Cas Mudde. In spite of their diversity these parties have a common claim: defending the « losers of globalization », a globalization framed as a triple threat, economic (immigrants take our jobs), cultural (they do not respect our values) and political (the sovereignty of the nation state is at risk). Cutting through the old party cleavages based on religion and class, they form, in spite of their diversity, a new party family that’s here to stay, challenging the old lefts and the old rights as well as the European integration process they support, an EU seen as the open door to migrants and a major threat to national identites. 

2.Is the European democratic model itself being called into question?

Caterina Froio: I agree with what Nonna said with respect to the European Union and democracy, and to avoid redundancy I would try to push the reasoning even further and focus on the tensions between radical right-populists and democracy.

Differently from “extreme right” organizations that oppose democracy and advocate authoritarian or totalitarian orders (like Fascism or Nazism), most “radical right populist parties” comply with the formal procedures of representative democracy. In this sense, they do not challenge democratic procedures although they criticize electoral outcomes, especially when they are unsuccessful. Yet, the fact that populist radical right parties respect the procedures of democracy does not mean that their way of interpreting democracy is in line with liberal democratic understandings. In other words, the fact that they run for elections does not mean that radical right populists “dream” about liberal democracy. As suggested by Cas Mudde in his 2007 book, the unsolvable tension between the populist radical right and liberal democracy lies in different ways of envisaging society. Liberal democracy endorses a plural vision of the society, whereas radical right populists defend a monist vision of it. Most radical right populist parties consider the society as being homogeneous (mainly but not exclusively) in cultural terms. Liberal democracy instead encompasses and presupposes groups that are very different. In this sense, there is little doubt that populist radical rightists challenge the democratic model itself in Europe and (when they exist) also abroad.

Nonna Mayer: I would disconnect the two things, European Union and democracy. Round 6 of the European Social Survey (ESS), in 2013, explored the attitudes of European citizens towards democracy, five years after the start of the Great Recession. The results showed a strong commitment to democracy, equality before the law and free and fair elections coming as the first requisites. But also a strong gap between what it should be and what it was in practice in their country, the most satisfied with the functioning of their democracies being the Northern Europeans, followed by the Western Europeans, and Southern and Central-Eastern Europeans lagging behind. As for the EU, it qualifies even worse, not precisely seen by the mass public as a model of democracy, rather a distant bureaucratic machine with complex and nit picking regulations, faraway from citizens’ everyday needs and problems. Yet, even after the Brexit, maybe all the more after the Brexit, as shown by a comparativepoll conducted by IFOP for Fondation Jean-Jaurès and Fondation européenne d’études progressistes (FEPS) in 6 European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Poland), a clear majority of their citizens judge positively their belonging to the EU, and a minority is willing to abandon the euro. So they don’t reject democracy, they want more of it and a better one! 

3.While the far right is gaining ground in certain countries, such as France, Austria and Italy, other European countries are not being affected in the same way. Why not? What can we learn from this?

Caterina Froio: This is unfortunately not very easy to answer. For long time scholars believed that specific institutional features (like majoritarian electoral systems) could inhibit far right’s electoral success. Yet, as the cases of France and the United Kingdom show, there is no ‘iron law’ that one may learn and apply.

Still I believe that what matters is how opened mainstream parties are to the ideas of the populist radical right, and how do they frame their (op)position. On the one hand, many left and right mainstream parties have already started "speaking to the people", but rather than addressing their needs and hopes, they have primarily fueled their fears. In so doing, they have provided fertile grounds to radical right populist arguments, radicalizing mainstream values. On the other hand, too often mainstream parties compete with radical right populist parties mainly on the basis of near moralistic-tones, reducing their discourses to an anti-far right agenda. What is left of this is that while mainstream parties converge on an anti-populist radical right agenda, populist radical right parties themselves can appear as those having clear alternative proposals. Let’s not forget, for example, that UK internal politics set up the conservative party to allow for the referendum! If mainstream parties keep following these strategies, I believe that they will prove to be completely impotent against radical right-wing populism. 

If there is something that we may learn, it is that counter discourses are needed. The pro-EU camp should react changing - radically - the political direction of the EU. The community project is facing a structural crisis from decades, which EU intelligentsia has tackled with slogans -like “more Europe”. These sound as empty for most European citizens that have instead experienced (and suffered) austerity measures. The situation is unsustainable as it stands, and it will become worse if countermeasures in terms of fiscal union and European welfare services are not taken. Let's hope - at least - that Brexit will serve as a lesson in this sense. 

Nonna Mayer: It reflects social and political idiosyncracies. Germany for instance was for a long time immunized by the memory of the Holocaust against a return of the far right. With the exception of the short lived emergence of the Republikaner in the 1990s it’s only now that an eurosceptic populist far right party like Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) is electorally successful. As for the rest of Europe, there seems to be a North South cleavage. Populist radical rights have more audience in the better off Northern old established democracies, while radical lefts are more successful in Southern countries (Spain, Greece) far more severely hit by the recession and the austerity policies of the EU. But maybe because they only recently came out of authoritarian regimes, their revolt inclines them more towards Radical lefts than radical rights


The streaming of the conference which took place at Sciences Po, CEE on November 29, 201 can be seen here




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