Many shades of populism in Europe

This is a short review of European populism, with the focus on its relationship to multi lateralism, social democracy and European integration.   I aim to help unpack and demystify `The Movement`and put populism in a broader perspective than what is offered by European media, to assist campaign strategies and mobilization around a pro-European agenda.


1. Europe`s populist moment

According to a recent overview by Euronews, almost all 28 member states of the EU have a populist political formation of some kind, and their popularity has been steadily growing since 2008 ( except in Belgium, UK, Austria and the Netherlands). My country of origin Hungary is clearly the leading populist homeland,  but we have right wing, or nationalist populist governments in Italy, Poland and Austria right now. Populism, however, has been around a lot longer: some say it all started with the anti-terrorist narrative after 9/11, others say it came in response to the 2008 financial crisis and its impact on society.

Chantal Mouffe, Belgian political theorist calls the current political climate in Europe a populist moment, which emerged out of the crisis of the neoliberal hegemony that has shaped  Europe in the last decades. According to Mouffe, who researches mainly Western Europe, the neoliberal hegemony transformed real politics into `post-politics`. In other words, a settlement between capital an labour led to a grand coalition of conservatives and left, and the societal debate was replaced by expert policymaking. `Politics, therefore, has become a mere issue of managing the established order.` 

Europe`s `populist` leaders who are currently in the limelight, like Salvini, Orban, Kurz claim that they finally take back control, and will represent the `people`. They, however, do not do any reform that would strengthen democratic participation or would interfere with any of the power relations, and the neoliberal hegemony that shape and frame Europe. The only issue that binds them together is anti-immigration and the reopening of earlier agreements on EU integration, to favour nationalism.

Other populist leaders like Pablo Iglesias Turrion of Podemos, or Alexis Tsipras of Syriza who brought populism into European politics after the economic crisis in response to the impact of austerity policies. Both Podemos and Syriza grew out of popular movements and brought in democratic practices to increase people`s voice in crucial political decisions. These populist leaders are sceptical of the EU but not against multilateralism and reject xenophobia, as they are trying to re-create the `People` from fragmented contemporary European societies. Their heroic battle against the political mainstream was most visible as the standoff between the Greek government and the Troika, during the Greek debt crisis.

Left-wing populism has recently been revived in the UK, where Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour party and in France,  where Jean-Luc Melenchon,  now represents the main opposition on the left to Macron.

2.Populism: left, right, centre?

Populism – as defined by Mouffe –  is a way of doing politics and can have many different ideological forms.

It is clearly visible in Europe, where one can see a major ideological divide between Western and Eastern populisms, and also one on the left-right spectrum. The ideological differences are rooted in the political history of the countries as well as their social and economic development, and position inside the EU.

Populism in Southern Europe is dominantly left wing, while in the rest of Europe it is more dominantly right wing.  According to Vieten and Poynting `right-wing racism has plunged into a more common populist project as an everyday phenomenon in numerous countries.`

Right-wing, nationalist populists are currently much more successful, as they already have formed governments in Hungary, Poland and Austria, have their own party group in the EU Parliament and are present with powerful movements in almost all European countries.

Despite their American advocate Steve Bannon`s vision for a `Movement`,  beyond the agenda of reinforcing national governance and tougher immigration rules, there is very little right-wing populists agree on.

In Eastern Europe, we can see a form of illiberal nationalist populism, with a strong, independent and autocratic leader on top, questioning liberal values to the extreme, and ready to dismantle the checks and balances of European liberal democracy. In Western Europe, populism is a `civilisational`version of identity politics, mainly constructed from the threat of Islam destroying Christian Europe. It strangely also incorporates women and gay rights, and certain manifestations of freedom of speech, which are strongly attacked as `foreign influence`in Poland and Hungary. Eastern European populism shows more resemblance to Latin American and US populism and supported dominantly by white male voters. eastern European populism is in a confrontation with the Western European agenda, and many times poses itself against the latter.

According to Stavrakakis, Katsambekis, Nikisianis, Kioupkiolis and Siomos parties currently grouped as right-wing or nationalist populists are better categorized as xenophobic, maybe even elitist, and only secondarily, if at all as a populist. This is because the central character of their discourse is the protection of the nation, the native people and their culture, against the enemies of the nation.  The so-called `populist`leaders who are currently shaking Europe do not talk about `the people vs the establishment`, their references to the `people`in most cases have to be seen as a rhetorical tool to express nationalism.

Left-wing populism on the other hand, as defined by Mouffe in her new book For a Left Populism, and by Europe’s left-wing populists listed above, stand for a radicalisation of democracy:

`A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a `we, a `people`confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.`

For this to happen, the chain of equivalence (E.Laclau) between the demands of different social groups like workers, immigrants, women, LGBTQI need to be established, to create a new hegemony. One can understand anti-immigration and the fear of Islam as a successful attempt to that, especially in Western Europe. One can also see other European issues that cut across national borders and could be the basis of a chain of equivalence to unite Europeans, who don`t feel represented by their increasingly xenophobic and conservative national governments.

Steve Bannon the political consultant from the US advocates for an alliance of left and right wing populists and goes on about the irrelevance of this division in 21st-century politics. Maybe he does that, in order to legitimize right-wing xenophobia and the false claim of nation-state representing the people? The current government of Italy constituted by the 5 Star Movement and the Liga, is an experiment in this direction, and we yet to see how far it goes.

Mouffe predicts, that the next decade will be the battle between right and left-wing populism. On the other hand, Bannon talks a lot about the shared interests and the possibility to join forces. What is clear so far, that right-wing populism has more visibility and political leverage by presenting themselves as a `movement`across nations.

Whether left and right populists can collaborate or will compete in Europe is a question for the future, that also depends on the ability of traditional left-right political forces respond to them.

The role of social democratic parties is crucial in that: if they continue to suppress and ignore left populism for fear of losing their fading hegemony, then right-wing xenophobia, disguised as populism will reshape politics in Europe, without touching the real problems the continent is suffering from, namely extreme weather events, growing inequality, shrinking democracy, neoliberal hegemony, and the corporate influence over politics.












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