Fighting back against populism

, by Alistair Spearing

Fighting back against populism

Confidence in the political system has been one of the major casualties of the economic crisis tormenting Europe. Voters’ trust in their elected representatives has been shaken all over the continent and, in some places, has fallen to an all-time low. While centre-right parties have taken lots of flak for what was seen by some as a crisis caused by the rich, left-wing ones have failed to capitalise on the opportunity by presenting a convincing vision for a better future. But one particular current has thrived in all this turmoil: populism.

Populism comes in different shapes and colours, but it ultimately consists of pandering to the majority by scapegoating minorities: “The situation is bad but, you, member of the majority, shouldn’t be held responsible for this. It’s all somebody else’s fault: the elite/foreigners/disabled/rich... vote for us and we’ll take things away from THEM and give them to YOU.”

As toxic as this ideology is, it does have a strong appeal to those who have been hit the hardest by the downturn, driving up support for parties such as UKIP in Britain, the FN in France or the PVV in the Netherlands. Scared by the haemorrhage of votes to these groups, the leaders of the main political parties moved to counter the threat.

In an utterly clumsy and unimaginative approach, the best they came up with was to follow the populists deep into their political territory and engage them in a dangerous game of one-upmanship: who will deprive immigrants of most rights? Who will stoke the nationalist fire the most? Who will blame Brussels for every problem under the sun? Many European federalists and similarly minded people watched in dismay as its rebellious backbenchers whipped the British government into an isolationist frenzy, Sarkozy shook the foundations of Schengen to the core in Ventimiglia and a timid Rutte failed to condemn the blatantly anti-Eastern European hotline set up by Wilders’ party.

One of the lessons of history is that the worst way to respond to a challenge by a populist party is by copying its policies and assimilating them as your own. The mistake is threefold: it legitimises extremist views in the eyes of the electorate, it prostitutes the core values of your own party and it often fails spectacularly anyway, as voters prefer to stick with the “real deal” instead of voting for a “copy”.

Stealing the populists’ mantle is the disingenuous option. So, how should politicians tackle the populist threat? To answer that, let us look at what a proper politician should be like. In any democratic system, and most certainly in a Federal Europe, the governed are the ultimate source of sovereignty, and politicians are elected to represent their will. However, politicians are the servants of the people, not its mindless puppets. When public opinion seems to clash with a politician’s convictions, he should go to the electorate, have a frank discussion about the issue, and deliver a powerful and passionate defence of his point of view. Sure, if differences persist, the will of the people should prevail, but I am thoroughly convinced that, armed with an unabashed conviction, supporting facts and figures and a strong belief in his cause, an elected representative will be able to get the public on board the vast majority of times.

With a few notable exceptions, European politicians have failed to do any of the above. Faced with a choice between saying what’s right and saying what may net them a few votes, they have consistently chosen the latter. They would do well to remember a wise remark by Hillary Clinton: “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election, while the statesman thinks about the next generation”.

A good start would be for the leaders of Eurozone creditor countries to drop the heinous “hard-working northerners paying for lazy southerners” narrative and outline to their populations just how much they have benefitted from membership of the euro. Politicians all over the continent should also stand up for European mobility by reminding their voters that intra-EU migration has boosted the economy of every single Member State. And they should also highlight that a big chunk of the much maligned “red tape from Brussels” are actually laws which underpin our labour rights, protect our consumers and keep our environment clean.

As imperfect as it is, the European Union is a force for good. A united Europe is a stronger Europe. But this counts for little if voters are unaware. For too long, mainstream European politicians have responded to populism by becoming populists themselves. It is time for them to abandon this failed approach. It is time to go to the electorate with a strong case for Europe. It is time to fight back against populism.

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