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Democracy and Contradictions: Articulating a New European vision

Populist and radical movements are on the rise in Europe while grassroots and democratic movements also gather strength. In this interview the Green European Journal asks Gaël Brustier to reflect on the reasons behind and triggers for these developments. Brustier calls for seizing the opportunity to build the progressives’ discourse around democracy and for the Greens to show citizens they are all about the material realities of daily life.

Populism and radical movements in Europe

Green European Journal: How do you explain the call for a populist uprising, essentially from the extreme Right, and in parallel, the return to borders, both in terms of identity and security? Is this advent of populism driving new wedges in society?

Gaël Brustier: If we focus only on new radical right-wing groups, it should be noted that not all countries have seen a proliferation of these groups, although they have made astounding inroads in a number of different European countries, such as the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, and more recently during the Länder elections in Germany the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), the most recent of the radical rightist movements.
Analysis of the emergence of these parties over the last 30 years shows that there has been a break with the neo-fascist heritage post-1945. The parties have been reconfigured and bear no resemblance to that past. Some of these parties are the heirs of that history, yet have changed. Others are new parties. The Northern League (Lega Nord) is a good example of the latter group. The Northern League does not have roots in fascism or neo-fascism, but is a movement for the autonomy of a region with identity – even ethnic – undertones. It is not however, the successor to Italian fascism, and even finds itself diametrically opposed to that movement. PVV is another good example, as is AfD, which mixes populism with anti-single currency rhetoric.

These movements latch on to an idea that is commonly floated in our societies: that Europe is on the decline. The interpretation of this decline varies in degree and in expression from country to country. Additionally, they feed this discourse by lumping all of the big political parties into one big group, those very parties that built Europe and ran governments in their respective countries. The movements are strongest in countries where the economic and social policies are relatively similar on the right and on the left. FPÖ is a case in point. It has based itself on drawing no distinction between the policies of the larger parties, but also has used the progressive integration of Austria into the European Union as fodder for its dissent and to boost its identity-based rhetoric, which it links to social issues.

It is important to remember that all criticism of Europe is not equal. Therefore, protest movements coming out of the South, like Syriza, Podemos and the Portuguese Left, or even the Irish Sinn Féin, should not be put in the same group as all of these national and regional populist parties of the new radical right. UKIP has a specifically British characteristic that moves it close to the new radical rightist movements, but this can only be seen cautiously through the lens of the insular nature of the party. UKIP does not have the same things driving it as that which moves Heinz-Christian Strache, Marine Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini.

Looking at the phenomena of Pegida, La Manif pour Tous (mobilisation in France against same-sex marriage), or even Donald Trump, it seems that there is a general trend towards a new wave of conservatism. Some say that had the circumstances been different, these movements could have been left leaning. Do you agree with that?

Individuals use concrete experiences as a basis for their ideology. At a certain moment, that experience encounters a discursive expression which gives meaning to those concrete experiences. There is a constant play between the citizen-elector and the strategies, ideological productions, cultural productions, etc. Some intellectual productions influence people’s settings. It would be interesting to take a look at the production of television series on geopolitics of fear. Ideology takes form in a very complex way. From that point on, it is necessary to see how things are articulated: political groups must, in order to articulate things, disarticulate them. The bits and pieces that are in the minds of people must be picked up and used to influence people’s common sense. People can think very contradictory things: for example, an individual can think that Europe is in decline, that the flows, immigrants and Islam are potential dangers; meanwhile, that same person may simultaneously have a democratic and egalitarian penchant, and might be inclined to take in a family of refugees were they to knock on his/her door.

People are paradoxical. Political activists or political strategists have a specific role to play, which is to capitalise on these contradictions for the benefit of the ideal to be promoted. Therein lies the failure of the Left, or the continued failure of the Left, if we take the example of France. The current Prime Minister reckons that politics is tantamount to a market, where there is supply and demand. He maintains that the demand is a rightist demand, of authority, of identity, of ethno-security, if you will. He serves the questionable members of society and believes that is the key to his survival.  Through this approach he shifts to rightist territory. He just pulled out his latest great find: an identity battle against radical Islam. I don’t believe that this is an intelligent approach to conceiving the ideology and future of a society, because it consists in kowtowing to right. Since 2002, we’ve been having this debate on the Left and in some small circles. Some have moved forward well; others, very badly. That is one of the big elements of political debate: how to disarticulate and how to rearticulate people’s ideology and how to tap contradictions in favour of a political platform.

European values and democracy

How do you envisage rearticulating the idea of Europe and the values and principles that underpin it? Evidently, the symbols and ideals do not resonate with the citizens.

The real war to wage is that of the interpretation of Europe. For those who feel public action on a continental scale is important, understanding the European institutions and their background is fundamental. My analysis of the European Convention, at the time and now, is that in order to understand what Europe is, it is necessary to stymie stato-morphism and an interpretation of Europe which is based on the construction of the Nation State. The process of building Europe has been on-going since 1955 and based on the increased empowerment of the elites of each country, essentially political-administrative, but not only. These individuals have had heightened access to institutional powers. There is also the progressive construction of a form of unitary and consensus-based sovereignty in Europe. That has had positive effects, like several examples of consensus-based-conflict resolution amongst the elites of each country. Yet, that has also had a consequence: the context for what we used to call unit of survival, a context like a legitimate place for solidarity, has remained exclusively within the Nation-State. The same is true for civic life and democratic debate.

The problem is that we are increasingly interdependent, but the consciousness of that is lagging. Moreover, the symbolic death of the Nation-State, which would enable melting into a European whole, has not yet taken place. Essentially, this is Norbert Elias’s thinking of the subject and it dates back thirty years. I think it remains relevant in many respects. We can also look at it in another way: the European Union does not have a developed civil society, and has not, therefore, rallied the consent of European citizens.

The Community institutions have never held back on communication, but there is no civil society to pass the message along in Europe. The only thing left visible to citizens in Europe is coercion. For example, citizens see the increased influence of the ECB or D.G. Competition, who act in a coercive fashion towards national leaders in economic and social terms. July 2015 and Alexis Tsipras was a perfect illustration of that.

Defending a European project is all fine and good, but what European project?  The idea of democracy and equality must be defended as the core of our political project. As a consequence, rather than using the idea that the European Union is a good thing in itself, it is necessary to reach out to other peoples. We must address the reality of a Europe, which appears harsh on Alexis Tsipras and soft on Viktor Orban. Rather than defending the Community Institutions at all costs – they’re doing fine by themselves – it seems urgent to me to re-establish a political discourse with the idea of democracy at its core.

The Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer puts it well: the issue of democracy is not one that is just being raised in the European Union. True, and another good reason for placing emphasis on the important issue of citizens taking control back over their fate and placing that at the core of the political message. The subject of democracy must be taken up promptly and should not be left to the European radical right.

Social movements and citizens in Europe

Some European movements such as DIEM25, anti-TTIP or pro-climate activism seem to be barren of political vision. Do these groups lack a clear political direction? Could they possibly be forces for European integration?

If we look at the problem from the opposite angle we can see that there are disintegrating forces: successive border closures, the wall in Hungary, Brexit, etc. The purpose of politics is to define an ideal and define what we are mobilised against. The most urgent issue is to save what is essential, i.e., we must protect the idea of a continent on which we do not pit peoples against peoples. Failing to do so might lead to a return to authoritarianism. I believe that the period is not one for more liberalism; on the contrary, it is one for a return to public authority. This could be done in several ways, regressively or progressively. We must define the objective: defending the institutions at all costs? Those institutions, which are today perceived to or even effectively favour social and economic regression and a retreat back into identities in European countries? The European Union’s indifference to Viktor Orban and its harshness to the Greek government are baffling. That is the major force for disintegration today.

Could the social, environmental and democratic activism that we see today in Europe serve as a basis for establishing a veritable European civil society that is currently lacking?

Each time the subject of civil society is raised, I have two different ways of viewing it. The first is very institutional and is symbolised by the great hyper-technical talents on thematic European issues.  They try to drive an alternative crosscutting European project. The intellectual class that is currently promoting a pan-European project is doing it more against the European Union.

When we see the rise in popularity amongst young Europeans – in all European countries – of figures like Owen Jones, Alexis Tsipras – if a European civil society is emerging, it is mainly from there and less from the very institutionalised offices that we all know so well. Young Europeans have been slammed by the crisis.  That has left a whole generation of young people who became acquainted both with Erasmus and the crisis. They are the €450 Generation. They fully understand the interdependence of Europe. They’ve studied on foreign campuses. Even if they did not study abroad, they form a popular youth, which in France at least, is not nearly as seeped in retreating back into national identity as one would have us believe. They are a very conscious group of young people, which take up issues of feminism, environmental protection, inter alia. I see European civil society emerging from there much more than from a list of experts and organisations that has been drawn up by the European Commission for consultation.

The future of Greens

You have said that political ecology could be the future for the Left. Does the future of political ecology have to necessarily involve centrality, and identifying with the Left?

I believe that the ecological crisis will predominantly affect the poor. There will be a real struggle. Not all will suffer equally in the face of rising sea levels, temperatures, and severe storms, for example. Those with means to do so will adapt. Capitalism will find renewal. The real challenge lies in founding a political platform that includes all of that. With that in mind, the question of the Right-Left divide, well, first of all do we need a Left? Countries like Japan, Israel, and Poland do not have a Left.

That being said, I think the black hole of political ecology is abstract ecology, something that cannot take concrete form in the daily lives of people. I observed that participating in local, social, environmental action, which mixes sanitation concerns with economic consequences, meant outstanding citizen mobilisation. This motivated me to really evolve as far as those issues are concerned. It all began with the rejection of an incinerator. We, as the local population, felt it would be bad for our health.

Less theory and more concreteness will be the key to moving forward the fight to protect the environment, which will have a direct affect on the people. People do not come because they want to save the planet.  They come because they think that, from a strictly personal standpoint, it is bad for them. Only later do they build their political message, read books, debate, hold exhibitions, show slides, protest, boo local officials who they deem to be half corrupt. And so, a movement is born to reject a given project.

Of course, then comes the question of making the movement last. A movement can survive for three or four years like that. If there is not a solid political offer underpinning it, however, it will fizzle out. I believe that the starting point should be people’s concrete lives. People say NIMBY (Not in my backyard). We should begin building on that. Institutionally elected officials tend to have a lamentable response to citizens’ NIMBY response. NIMBY – much like when people reject something economic – is a solid foundation for building a political message. I think there is a real opportunity for renewal on the Left. First, there was the question of identifying on the Left. Now, Podemos is currently holding major debates on whether the Left should be sanctified or not…

If we can agree that a rejection of neo-liberalism is at the heart of the issue, then the Left label becomes relatively secondary. It seems to me that there is another dimension. I believe that political ecology can bring more people on board by addressing concrete things. People feel more keen to act when they feel directly affected by something.

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Democracy and Contradictions: Articulating a New European vision

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