Established parties making populism enemy number one fall into the same trap as their contenders. Populist movements, often nationalist, gain ground by responding to material needs overlooked by politics as usual. While the half-constructed European nationalist front would like nothing more than to be dismissed and demonised, only through answering the political and economic concerns that fuel it will it be defeated. As part of the Green European Journal’s series on where Europe finds itself in 2019, political scientist Emilia Palonen unpicks the populist moment beyond the media hype. As a way of doing politics it is here to stay, she argues. The challenge for its opponents is to offer real alternatives and keep political debate grounded upon the choices at hand.

For the first time since the establishment of the European Union its traditional leadership finds itself challenged, as is healthy for any political organisation. Its founding principles, from peace to economic collaboration, have been taken for granted. So much so that military expansion on the edge of Europe went unnoticed, and economic principles that were supposed to underpin EU policy – from regional policy to trade agreements – were forgotten.

The populist wave in Europe will continue. Populism can be understood as a logic of confrontation that constitutes the political ‘us’. It is therefore, to a degree, a necessary part of democracy. By this definition, it does not have specific pre-defined contents, though recently anti-immigration, anti-elitism, and Euroscepticism have become conceptually entangled with it. Left populism too has been on the rise, and, as climate change becomes increasingly salient, there is no reason not to expect the emergence of green populism.

Support for nationalists emerges from changes in material conditions that are transforming different parts of Europe.

While racism, islamophobia, and xenophobia may have entered the political mainstream in recent years, their roots lie much deeper. Institutionalised racism is a reality in many parts of Europe and colonial pasts are left untouched. Nevertheless, votes for nationalist parties should not be reduced to anti-immigrant sentiment.

Support for nationalists emerges from changes in material conditions that are transforming different parts of Europe. Structural changes are felt in youth unemployment and the fact that the next generations will be less well educated and worse paid than their predecessors. Nationalist movements also speak for the livelihoods of people from non-metropolitan regions and (semi-)rural communities. Voters of the populist parties may not experience these conditions themselves, but they are aware of them and seek solutions in anti-elitism and xenophobia. Other parties would benefit from making clear how they would fix these material questions.

Competing populisms

The 2019 European Parliament elections offer the nationalist bloc momentum. It might be an oxymoron, but the nationalists, who advocate more power to the nation state, are quickly becoming more European as they develop a shared outlook. But a common platform is easy to build as long as precise policies are not discussed. The parties tend to differ on Euroscepticism and economics. Some, such as the Finns Party, have moved to the right in economic terms. Whereas the Danish People’s Party has adopted the traditional rhetoric of Denmark’s Social Democrats. The divisions within populism are not just between left and right; even within the nationalist camp, agreement is by no means guaranteed.

Competition between populists is likely to grow. Take the right-wing spectrum of Hungarian politics, which has seen the opposition party Jobbik move from a far-right to a moderate position as the incumbent Fidesz party moved right. It was moderate in its tones during in the 2018 election. Jobbik participated in the opposition coalition, in some compromising districts, and was endorsed in this role by figures such as the philosopher and Holocaust survivor Agnes Heller. Yet in the European elections, it has reverted to its core message: “Hungary for Hungarians.” Since 2015, the ruling party Fidesz has been moving to adopt Jobbik’s discourse and now there is fierce competition on the anti-immigrant right with the Our Homelend Movement (Mi hazánk). For the 2019 EU elections, Fidesz offers voters a similarly blunt opportunity to send “a message to the European Union: stop immigration.” This is a competition about who is the most nationalist. On the united list of the left opposition, two parties – the Social Democratic Party and Green Dialogue – call for “homeland, love, Europe”.

In attacking populism, liberal democracy appears intolerant to internal critique, its fixation on binaries drawing attention away from real matters of policy.

Immigration remains an issue in Europe, especially as sizeable numbers of people emigrate from poorer areas, as Ivan Krastev has argued. As the rural areas empty out, those who remain feel their communities at risk and oppose migration into them.  Outwards migration may be blamed as the reason for shrinking communities and services, whereas the root causes for shrinkage may lie elsewhere: the structural shift to the service economy and precarious work, combined with the effects of austerity.

Whereas in Western Europe populist competition in anti-elitist terms often comes from the Left, in Central Eastern Europe right-wing populists attack not only immigration and immigrants but anything they see as left wing or even liberal. The emergence of new left parties or even left populism is denounced as communism, as cases from Romania show.

Anti-populists in glass houses

At this point in history, populism is challenging EU politics and its traditional way of thinking, seeking to replace it with another vision which intertwines anti-immigration, islamophobia, and xenophobia. Curiously, populism emerges where it is criticised the most. Anti-populism, which populist victories have sparked plenty of, is just as populist as its target.

Faced with nationalist or populist opposition, established parties have an easier time building a common front against a joint enemy than discussing divisive issues. Not only Emmanuel Macron, but most established parties that simply reject the populists – and often adapt their nationalist language without discussing alternatives in migration policy. Polarising the situation only strengthens the other’s message.

In attacking populism, liberal democracy appears intolerant to internal critique, its fixation on binaries drawing attention away from real matters of policy. But potentially uncomfortable issues cannot be skirted forever. It is simple to call for more electric cars, but to discuss how electricity is produced is more complicated. For example, Germany has not been able to break free from fossil fuels though it has banned diesel cars, and at the same time reuse of oils produce carbon-free alternatives to diesel such as NesteMY. Similarly, the question in Europe is not necessarily about whether or not the European Union should exist, but about how it can solve the problems faced by its citizens. That is what the EU’s legitimacy hinges upon, and also what has become less than clear to people. The question ‘Why do we need Europe?’ requires not just rationalising but also some populist enthusiasm.

Changing the debate

The 2019 elections will be momentous because they will set the tone for the European Union’s next chapter: what is integration about? Which policy issues generate collaboration? Will there be disintegration? Nationalist cooperation across member states would represent a historic challenge to integration as a whole. Yet the elections also present an opportunity for collaboration on proposals for a better Europe beyond the nationalist-populist bloc. A battle over which ‘Europe’ undermines the foundations of the nationalist-populist challenge.

A battle over the EU’s future could create the alternatives to challenge migration’s place as the most salient issue in Europe.

The following questions arise: is integration mainly about economic prosperity and profit, or something else? Can the EU fight complex struggles such as climate change through legislation that sets the bar not just for member states, but for the whole world? How can the distance between elites in Brussels and Europeans across the continent be bridged? Will the EU be able to address the worries of its citizens?

Politics is not just about rationality. A battle over the EU’s future could create the alternatives to challenge migration’s place as the most salient issue in Europe. It would show that there is more than just the European elite and those who challenge it. Most importantly, it would put social justice and climate on the negotiating table.

Our hype-prone hybrid media rewards simplification and confrontation. The logic of social media will not stop fuelling populism, which does not equal xenophobia and can take on many forms. Populism is a logic of political argumentation and other forces are bound to increasingly adopt it. Will green populism emerge? With the status quo in Europe, populist struggles against climate change and neoliberalism are likely.

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