A populist authoritarian leader and an EU bureaucrat walk into a room and one slaps the other across the face. Who slapped whom? Most would be inclined to assume it was the populist authoritarian who would commit such an egregious act of wanton aggression, but alas! On May 21, 2015, it was the EU bureaucrat who slapped the authoritarian leader.
This event actually happened: at the May 21-22, 2015 Eastern Partnership summit held in Riga, Latvia, European Commission President at the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, greeted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban by calling him a dictator and slapping him across the face on a stage for the whole world to see.
This action, on the part of Juncker, can be taken as generally symbolic of the EU’s typical response to Eurosceptics and populists, and this is a problem. However harmful and ignorant the discourse and actions of right-wing populists are, it is woefully insufficient for the liberal bastion of the EU’s bureaucratic core to simply belittle them. This tendency to dismiss right-wing populism as an illegitimate form of political expression only adds fuel to the fire that is Eurosceptic populism in Europe.
The EU has a democratic deficit and a legitimacy problem – that is, the EU’s complex bureaucratic machine lacks transparency, it fails to reflect democratic values, and therefore it is viewed by most EU citizens as illegitimate and unimportant. This all seems to paint the EU – a self-declared beacon of democracy and liberal values – in a somewhat unsavoury light. It’s no wonder, then, that EU citizens have increasingly begun to voice their dissatisfaction with this arrangement. The strategy turned to by many disgruntled citizens is one which paints itself as a voice for the common people against a corrupt political elite: “populism.”
How has the EU chosen to respond to its citizens’ legitimate worries about the functioning of the EU, and the revelation that EU citizens possess diverse political beliefs and values? By declaring Hungary to be “diseased,” and labeling all right-wing populists racist, sexist, and xenophobic. Does the right-wing populist movement demonstrate sentiments of racism, sexism, and xenophobia? Yes. Is it fruitful to alienate all right-wing populists by labelling them as such? No.
When the EU stands in opposition to the right-wing populist movement, it is essentially demanding EU citizens and member states to reflect the wills of the EU bureaucracy, rather than one where the EU seeks to reflect the views of its citizens. Such a position is problematic for the EU because it directly contradicts one of their primary mandates, and it appears much more akin to a metropole-periphery relationship – or even one of imperial nature – rather than that of an international organization built on cooperation.
Perhaps the EU’s slogan, “United in Diversity,” should be replaced with: “United in Diversity, unless you are too divergent from the EU’s preferred political views.”
By choosing the belittle right-wing populists and not take them seriously – as Juncker treated Viktor Orban in May 2015 – the EU is sadly demonstrating that it has built a liberal echo-chamber for themselves. What is even more dangerous, though, is that through this behaviour they are building one for right-wing populist extremists as well. The EU is essentially giving right-wing populists, who mobilize themselves primarily due to feelings of being disrespected and ignored, more justification to feel disrespected and ignored by the EU
In order to properly address the issue of right-wing populism within the EU, then, I believe there are only two respectable avenues remaining for the EU to take: (1) become more transparent and democratic as an institution while allowing for equal representativeness of all EU member states and populations, regardless of their political leanings, or (2) rebrand itself as an actor which, at its core, upholds and promotes liberal values at all costs, and risk alienating vast portions of the European population which do not espouse these values.
The core issue with the EU seems to be that it wants to make everyone happy, uniting all Europeans around a belief that not all Europeans hold, which is simply not possible. The EU is perceived by many as an example of undemocratic liberalism. As Cas Mudde famously put it, the right-wing populist movement is an illiberal democratic response to the EU’s undemocratic liberalism. The EU simply can’t have it all, and it must change its approach before it fans the flames of right-wing populism into a fire that engulfs the entire continent.
Ágh, Attila. “The Decline of Democracy in East-Central Europe.” Problems of Post-Communism, 63:5-6, 277-287, 2016.
“‘Hello Dictator’: Hungarian prime minister faces barbs at EU summit.” In The Guardian, May 22, 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/22/hello-dictator-hungarian-prime-minister -faces-barbs-at-eu-summit> [Accessed October 27, 2019].
Mudde, Cas. “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism.” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania. <https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/casmudde-populism-twenty-first-century>
Ruzza, Carlo. “Populism, Migration and Xenophobia in Europe”, in C. de la Torre, ed., Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (London: Routledge, 2019).