When there are no European parties to respond to citizens’ demands, you get populism

, by Riccardo Moschetti

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

When there are no European parties to respond to citizens' demands, you get populism
Marine Le Pen at a Front National rally in 2012 Blandine Le Cain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, with the spread of the economic and financial crisis all over the world, the idea that the difference between the left and the right had vanished influenced national political arenas. The truth is a bit different, however.

The increasing success of the so-called populist movements, and their related propaganda, creates a very tough challenge to the mainstream parties. First of all, the cleavages. The classic clash on the political spectrum with two recognisable main blocks, the right and the left, has been questioned.

Anti-globalisation sentiment was expressed by the extremities of the two blocks, motivated to contest against the first consequences of the globalisation era. Sooner than anyone else, populist movements identified a new social class, the so-called losers of globalisation, and they invested every single effort in communication to the ‘outside world’ through the web.

The populist electorate

In many cases, populists have been organised in the traditional way, behind a strong leader. For the Italian Five-Star Movement, or even with the French “gilets jaunes”, the assets have rather been a depersonalised agenda and message, the lacking of a leader, and ability to use the viral power of social media. This has been combined with the position as a new entry onto the political arena, helping the populists organise themselves better and manage their seemingly ever-increasing appeal. This, the emergence of new political actors, is not something we need to avoid. Politics is the representation of society’s requests, so if there is an organised group that can advocate people’s interests, how can we say it is a problem?

Actually, the problem may be the political alternative to organised populist movements. Or more precisely, their inability to compete with new political forces. In the years of crisis, many elements of politics have changed: the way to communicate, how to organise crowds, electoral volatility, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, the old, structured moderate parties on both the left and the right have all been said to make the same arguments.

Initially this anti-establishment propaganda was addressed only to the political spectrum, but later on it has been used in order to create a new social clash not based on the classic political cleavage (capital vs labour) but on something new. This new perspective, pitting the highly educated (an extension of the white collar, if you like) class against basically everyone else revolutionised, in a certain way, both political contestation and the political arena.

With this new line-up, not necessarily strongly related to a political force, younger parties and movements were able to implant their propaganda and messages inside society, avoiding the biggest pitfall: namely, addressing the core constituency of another movement. Anti-establishment propaganda is perfectly fitting for the new class. The affirmation that the losers of globalisation belong to society give populist political movements an imposing coalition of supporters.

A new concept of democracy

In addition, these political forces questioned the concept of representative democracy, especially the democratic deficit of international institutions, accusing officers, politicians and the institutions themselves of producing policies ‘against’ citizens’ demands. Again, the first aim was to divide society around an easy split: the ones who were in favour of this political order, which one can’t defend without speaking out, and the ones who recognise the political actor as a motor of ‘change’.

Adopting this rhetoric, populists moved to the second part of their strategy, that is, delegitimising international institutions. This strong political message, opposed not to a political opinion, but to a political order in general, assumed that these bodies were representing nobody, so they were not working ‘for the citizens’. Combined with the anti-establishment propaganda, the fight against the disparity of democratic representation between international institutions and national politics (obviously in favour of the second) organised what Putnam called ‘the disaffected’.

So these new political actors politicised the institution, instead of the agenda. As a consequence, other parties focused their action on the opposite: defending democratic institutions, whatever they are, which assigned them the role of ‘keeping what now does not work very well’ without offering any alternative. And this is where we are today.

What we can call the third (and maybe the last) wave of populism is here. This involves a transition from being for or against (the political order, institutions and so on) to choosing a side on the classic political spectrum (left and right), but with a massive difference: populist parties change their political positions, depending on public opinion on the issue. This is another strategic decision because in this way they are not identifiable in the political arena, and furthermore, they are distinguishable from their opponents.

European-level parties as a cure

The populists do have a weak point. The answer lies in the European party system, or rather in the lack of a European party system. Since populist movements typically have a hard nationalist, Eurosceptic part within, and due to their combined propaganda, it is harder for them to make coalitions or to handle EU politics. After all, nationalist Europarties, or better European Parliament groups, are something illogical and even if they sit together in the European Parliament, there are coalitions based only on large principles (taking back sovereignty to nation states, blaming the EU Commission and so on).

At the moment, parties at the EU level are not able to make the step that they already made in different countries. The Europarties cannot politicise the EU arena because they are just confederations. As they are arranged, European confederations are at the mercy of national parties (and interests): heads of state are generally also leaders of their parties, so congresses of the European parties are basically structured the same way as the European Council, even if the representatives are national party members.

Moreover, due to the fact that the European elections are arranged solely on 28 (until now) national electoral arenas, it’s hard to see how an MEP could represent their European political party instead of their national concerns, considering that they are elected in a national constituency. A non-Europeanised party system allows political actors to organise, compete and debate on national level, which is a defect of the European Union.

If we had a solid European party system based on federations of European parties, we could represent what citizens ask of the EU, observing the so-called subsidiarity principle. Without it, we will have a political system with weak accountability and responsiveness. But most importantly, European society could be represented on the classic political sphere, with European political parties lined up on the same cleavages present in national arenas. If we want the EU to be properly politicised and if we want EU citizens at the centre of European politics, we need to enable the representation of interests via political parties.

The left and the right are not dead, they just have to stand up to the nationalist-populist propaganda. And the EU is the right place to do it.

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