The most effective antidote to populism is a sense of national community among citizens of the same country and cooperation between member countries of the EU.
The greatest danger facing democracies does not come from external threats; it is internal breakdown from the pressure of strong populist feelings. Populism is a term used to describe protest movements, led by charismatic leaders, that take advantage of the troubles caused for free countries and their peoples by major historical upheavals which call for authoritarian power based on the glorification of feelings of identity. The form they take and the doctrine they preach may be very different, bringing together far-right and far-left extremism by the fusion of strong social, radical and national feelings.
In the inter-war period, the after-effects of the First World War followed by the ravages of the Great Depression gave rise to fascism and Nazism. Today, a new wave of populism has arisen from the destabilization of the middle classes (due to globalization and the digital revolution), deflationary trends caused by the 2008 crash, turmoil over the issue of identity, and security risks linked to Jihadism and the démocratures (regimes combining democracy and dictatorship).
In 2016, the Brexit vote, then the election of Donald Trump, undermined both the oldest and most powerful of our democracies. In 2017, the unexpected accession of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency of the French Republic, following on the defeat of Norbert Hofer in Austria and of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, was seen as a turn in the tide. Although, fortunately, France’s image has changed in the eyes of world leaders and the marketplace, it is obvious that the populist impact is no way at an end, despite the disastrous results obtained by demagogues who have climbed the echelons of power.
Far from having been eradicated, populism continues to spread throughout Europe. In the west, extremist parties are flourishing, including in the Germanic world where taboos are disappearing, as shown in the inroads made by the AfD in Germany and by the FPÖ in Austria – the latter being the main partner of Sebastian Kurz in the future coalition government. Furthermore, the future of the EU and the euro is still hanging in the balance, dependent upon the results of the Italian general election in February 2018, an election caught in the crossfire between Beppe Grillo’s CInque Stelle movement and Lega Nord (the Northern League). In the east, less than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberal democracy of Viktor Orban in Hungary is now being emulated by – and is federating – the countries in the VIsegrad group, which was originally constituted to speed up convergence with the EU: Poland under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Slovakia under Robert Fico and the Czech Republic under Andrej Babis. Separatism, the ultimate embodiment of populism, is sweeping Catalonia, causing political and economic shock waves with the departure of 1,300 companies, and in Italy where Lega Nord has just achieved resounding successes in autonomy referendums in the regions of the Veneto (57% turnout, 98% in favor) and of Lombardy (38% turnout, 95% in favor).
What distinguishes populist movements in Europe is a resolutely hostile attitude to European integration. This has been fired by the euro crisis, the wave of migration and the increase in Islamic terrorist attacks. As for separatism, this is a phenomenon concerning wealthy metropolises, firmy attached to globalization, that oppose any financial solidarity with the rest of the country, as in Northern Italy and Catalonia where 70 and 17 billion euros respectively have been transferred to the rest of Italy and Spain. The danger raised by populism is not behind us but in front of us. There is a serious danger that, after their defeats, its initial leaders will take the path of extremism. Therefore, it has never been more urgent to combat populism. However, condemning its values on principle can be counterproductive, for this only fosters the denunciation of the political system and the ruling elite. First and foremost, it is the concrete causes that must be attacked: unemployment; exclusion, inequality, deficiencies in education and healthcare, the break-up of certain regions, the lack of application of the rule of law, and the spread of violence.
Æsop wrote that “demagogues are best advantaged when they have thrown their countries into disorder”. The most effective antidote to populism is a sense of national community among citizens of the same country and cooperation between member countries of the EU. But these come at a price; they must constantly be reinvented.
The European Union is remains instrumental in the maintenance of prosperity and peace. But it must take a new direction with six priorities in mind. Stabilization of its configuration by putting an end to pseudo-negotiations with the Turkish démocrature over its becoming a member. Reinforcement of the Eurozone by creating a fund for the stabilization and completion of the Banking Union. Assertion of European sovereignty on commercial, fiscal and environmental matters. Convergence and tranferability of social rights. Effective regulation of immigration and the right to asylum. Creation of a Security Union whose first mission must be border control.
Furthermore, it is also indispensable for each country to combat the polarization in terms of jobs, individual trajectories and regions. By prioritizing inclusive growth. By massive investment in education and training. By supporting innovation. By restoring security. By modernizing each nation.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 30th October 2017)