Op-Ed #3: Populism and the Future of Europe

Populism and the Future of Europe

Banner Future is Europe

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before”

-Rahm Emanuel

The Euro Crisis, Immigration Crisis; since it’s inception, the European project has faced crisis after crisis. Today the crisis facing the European Union (EU) is Populism. Despite the fear that the rise of populism has brought, now is the time for the EU to act.

While populism can be found across the globe from the United States, India, and much of Latin America; populism has been most prominent in Europe. Populist leaders like Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders have captured the headlines and inspired the rise in populism across Europe.Populist parties in Poland, Italy and Belgium have seen electoral success. Populist groups fared well in this years European Parliamentary elections. Populism has undeniably taken hold across Europe.

But why has Populism gripped Europe tighter than other regions?

The reason for this is the EU itself. The EU as an institution is the perfect scapegoat for populists to rally against. Populist movements rely on pitting the‘corrupt elite’ against the ‘ordinary people’ . The EU fills the corrupt elite role as the role and purpose of the EU is not understood by the European public. As Time’s correspondent Vivienne Walt argues, populists and nationalists cast E.U. executives as disconnected elitists out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Related, populists claim the EU takes away national sovereignty. Populists leverage this by painting the EU as undemocratic. This rhetoric is often used, as shown by this tweet by Nigel Farage, one of the populist leaders behind Brexit.

The Future of Europe

All is not lost. In fact, now is the time for action by the EU! Ironically, populism may have provided the spark to spur deeper European integration. The problem of a ‘democratic deficit’ ‘has dogged the EU for decades, a claim often used in populist playbooks. However, with the spotlight of populism, European wide issues have been brought into the pubic sphere for debate.

This is the EU’s chance to pursue deeper integration, become more democratic, and finally defeat the populist surge. As demonstrated with the Eurozone Crisis, in times of crisis, the EU can increases its mandate. An example of this is the recently introduced European Citizens Initiative (ECI). The ECI allows European citizens to directly influence EU policy making. This mechanism has been seen as a great step towards solving the EU’s democratic deficit.

Only if Europeans know they are being heard will they feel like they belong to Europe, care about Europe, and engage with Europe.

– Manfred Weber, Leader of the European Peoples party (EPP)

Now is the opportunity to make this a reality.

Populists have engaged not only the public on EU level policies but brought the attention of national leaders to debate. French President Emanuel Macron has lead the debate with some calling him the leader of Europe. Macron has supported the creation of an EU army, European minimum salary, and has called for a European Renewal. The renewed spark of debate around the future of the EU and Europe in no small part has been thanks to the populist groups, who have increased the salience of EU integration.

 There is now a clear reaction by Europeans against the rise of populism. The populist movement within Europe seems to be stalling. Within the EU,  populist parties fell short of expectations in the last European Parliament elections. Further, the populist parties within the European Parliament are divided. Nationally, populists have lost out in key states such as Austria. Locally there are now challenges  to the populist strong holds.

While unlikely to be gone overnight, populism in Europe may have caused its own demise. The EU should take this opportunity and address populist claims head on. By doing so, the EU is poised to see a renewal in public interest and debate, something long awaited by many.

The Future is Europe

Hacer España Grande Otra Vez

Borrowed from across the Atlantic, in 2016 Spain’s far-right populist party Vox used an all too similar slogan to broadcast its message. “Make Spain Great Again.” While this message immediately brings to mind similar far-right populist movements occurring across Europe, and in particular the United States, Vox embodies quite a unique character. Vox is a breakaway political party led by Santiago Abascal that removed itself from Spain’s conventional rightwing People’s Party in 2013. In its pursuit of anti-Muslim, nationalist, anti-feminist and Eurosceptic policies, Vox is gaining traction amongst the Spanish electorate. Just today, Vox captured the attention of headlines around the world for its refusal to sign on to a resolution commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, instead shifting the focus towards violence against men. Vox wields this amount of power because it managed to achieve nearly double the number of seats it holds in the Spanish parliament between two elections held in April and November this year, up from 24 to 52 seats, making it the third largest political party in Spain. What differentiates Vox from similar movements across Europe, and largely explains the recent upswing in support, is their firm position on territorial integrity and opposition to Catalan nationalism. However, for all its differences, Vox still gains much of its legitimacy from international support and far-right populist movements around the world, much like its slogan.

Ironically, for all of its anti-Islamic rhetoric, Vox owes much of its origins to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which donated almost 1 million euros to Vox between December 2013 and May 2014 leading up to the European Parliamentary elections. The NCRI is an organization with close links to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). MEK assisted in the toppling of the US-backed Shah of Iran, and is ideologically driven by Marxism, feminism and Islamism. However, MEK was cast into exile following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 due to its popular support within Iran. Owing to their exile, MEK supported Iraq’s war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, which is how they managed to fund themselves. However, since Saddam Hussein’s demise following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his subsequent execution in 2006, it is speculated that MEK now receives funding from Saudi Arabia. This external funding was primarily linked to Alejo Vidal-Quadras, one of the founding members of Vox and a longtime supporter of the MEK. Nonetheless, whether the 1 million euros came from Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, it is fascinating to consider that a bigoted political party relied on an Islamic nation to contribute to their Islamophobic ideology.

Another example of international support that has provided Vox with legitimacy derives from CitizenGO. Uncovered by openDemocracy (an independent media platform), CitizenGo is a campaign group that helps to coordinate far-right parties across Europe through petitions and events. The campaign group has been compared to a US-styled “Super PAC,” which aims to influence elections. openDemocracy displayed close coordination between CitizenGo and Vox leading up to the parliamentary elections in April, along with other far-right populist parties across Europe. This is of particular interest when considering the broad support and congratulatory remarks that Vox received from France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, each of whom hold far-right populist views. What’s truly astonishing about these developments, such as the funding from the NCRI, campaigning of CitizenGo and broad support for one another, is that they are inherently contradictory to the very ideologies that these movements profess to lead. Vox, along with other right-wing populist movements claim to be the will of the people or nation against a corrupt elite, and yet they rely heavily on international funding and networks in order to achieve their aims.

#NousToutes and the limits of populism

In September 2019, protestors took to the streets of France using the hashtag #NousToutes (All of Us), to call attention to the domestic violence that women face in the country. Thousands have voiced concern about the rate of femicide – the killing of women by their partners, ex-partners or family. In France, the number of femicide deaths have reached 128 this year. Today the French government is expected to unveil new measures to combat domestic violence and protect the lives of women.

Prior to the unveiling of these new measures it is worth considering how a populist movement might seek out change from the state. Populism as Cas Mudde a scholar of the European far right has framed it, divides populations into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups”. There is a criticism of the ‘elites’ who have used ‘corrupt’ means to deprive the ‘ordinary’ people meaningful recognition by the state. The popular belief that the allocation of resources serves the ‘elites’ and forgets the rest, evokes calls to deliver for “the people,” “the real people,” and “the silent majority” as political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has argued. It is also important to note that while populism is often associated with the alt-right, it exists on both the left and right side of the political spectrum.
Unlike a populist movement, the #NousToutes does not evoke the ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ terminology used by populists to rally people to their cause. Instead, women are critical of the state while remaining outside the ‘common’ folk. Women challenging the structural norms that permit abusive partners to kill their spouses are undermining, in much needed ways, the day to day business of the French state.

#NousToutes unites a caucus of people that would otherwise not have come together under the pretense of shared domestic threats. #NousToutes calls out the state and those in positions of power for turning a blind eye to the horrific consequences of structural norms. In many ways, these are components of populism. Yet, #NousToutes is not a populist movement as those who band together remain outside the ‘common’ French people.
While #NousToutes much like the ‘common’ people call to renegotiate their position in France they remain Othered. The Other is a group that does not get to renegotiate their position within the state but must rely on pre-established rules of the ‘common’ people to do so. A reliance on the pre-established rules to achieve new ends is homonormativity for French women. Gender scholar Lisa Duggan termed homonormativity to refer to “a mainstreamed gay discourse that attempts to expand rather than dismantle heteronormativity by internalizing a conceptualization of LGBT identity that constructs legitimacy and rights along established lines”. In France, women of #NousToutes must advocate for change within the heteronormative structure established by the ‘common’ folks. Professor of Ethnic Studies Fatima El-Tayeb argued that this offers the Other “protection” within the heteronormative structure and acceptance as a part of the ‘common’, at the exclusion of diverse groups such as refugee women to France.

For the structural changes desired by women of the #NousToutes movement to be achieved within the current heteronormative system in France the ‘common’ must embrace their objective as well. Thus, social change driven by the Other goes only as far as the ‘common’ folk will allow. Following the study of Anti-gender campaigns by social scientists David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar, support by ‘common’ folk may be hard to obtain. In their review of common opposition in Europe to structural changes that would combat domestic abuse they noted that there were fears of the Other extending their reach beyond what the ‘common’ folk were willing to tolerate. Such as the institutionalization of sexual and reproductive rights, international recognition of abortion, additional attacks on traditional motherhood.

With populist movements leaving no room for the Other, those like the women of the #NousToutes movement and other minority groups are left unacknowledged by both ‘elites’ and the ‘common’ folk. To minority groups, the ‘common’ folks are elite, and the ‘elites’ are even further out of reach. In France, populism can no longer deliver for women at the margins and it is perhaps time to think about what new forms populism will take; a neo-populist agenda may reposition minorities in the heteronormative structure within and outside France.

Intellectual Populism – The Chameleon of Truth

TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 6 – Profile of Dr. Jordan Peterson. The U of T prof at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as “they,” to recognize non-binary genders. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

By: Nadiya Alexandra

The rise of political populism has been seen across Europe, the United States, and Canada (amongst others). While far-right populist movements have taken centre stage the term ‘populism’ is migrating to realms beyond politics. In an article by the New York Review of books, Jordan B. Peterson (a professor at the University of Toronto) was branded an ‘intellectual populist.’

Unable to find what the term ‘intellectual populism’ means, I try to frame a definition drawing on elements of political populism and Jordan B. Peterson’s teachings. The elements of populism that I will use to structure intellectual populism are a sense of crisis; identifying the ‘other’ that is the enemy; speaking on behalf of ordinary people and standing in opposition to the corrupt elite; offering clear solutions to complex societal problems; and the added benefit of charismatic leadership.

Sense of Crisis

Reaching into history to start our definition, Robert Paxton defined one of the “mobilizing passions” of fascism as the “sense of overwhelming crisis.” It appears that populism follows in the same vein. The rise of populism has been attributed to several crises, including the economic crisis, ‘refugee crisis’, and globalization. Peterson classifies the crisis of our society as “a loss of faith in old verities.” This includes (in the West), withdrawing from our traditions, religion, and nation-centered culture. Peterson seems to have identified a potent crisis, as he has gained a massive following.

The ‘Other’

Also voiced by Paxton was the element of believing that ‘one’s group is a victim.’ Again, while this was a key factor in defining fascism, it also applies in defining populism. In the populist response to the ‘refugee crisis’, the ‘other’ has been identified as Muslims. Peterson has identified ‘social justice warriors’ (which he also calls ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’) as the corrupt other that ‘we’ need to worry about. These social justice warriors, according to Peterson, are responsible for our crisis and loss of faith in old verities.

Speaking on Behalf of Ordinary People

Although academics have trouble defining populism, it appears there is consensus on two core ideas: populism speaks on behalf of ordinary people; and these people stand in opposition of the elite who block the achievement of popular political goals. Peterson claims to speak for the protection of his students and particularly men. Peterson speaks for these ‘ordinary people’ against the ‘corrupt elite’, which he defines as the faculties of women’s studies, sociology, anthropology, English literature, and the faulty of education. Peterson identifies (inherently corrupt) feminists as waging an assault on masculinity. In 2017, Peterson said public appearances and videos that “he wants to lower the enrollment in courses that have been “corrupted” or that lead students to become “social justice warriors.” Peterson was planning on building a website that would rank courses and professors that were likely to turn students into, heaven-forbid, ‘social justice warriors.’

Offering Clear Solutions to Complex Societal Problems

In her 2017 article on hybrid populist movements, Ina Schmidt highlights a key element of populism: it “often offers seemingly clear and easy solutions for political problems within a society.” In Peterson’s popular book 12 Rules of Life: an Antidote to Chaos, he offers constructive advice, but it comes “with some dubious traditionalist baggage.” Peterson wrote that “healthy women” want men who “outclass” them in intelligence, dominance and status. It seems the clear solution that Peterson is presenting is a return to more ‘traditional’ times when men were men and women were housewives.

Charismatic Leaders

Paxton also cites charismatic leaders as key elements of fascism, again, this applies to populist leaders also. Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump are prime examples of right-wing populist charismatic leaders who have the power to mobilise the people. Undeniably, Peterson is an effective public speaker. No doubt his ‘charisma’ has added to his rise in popularity and to his following (despite the questionable ideals he preaches).

Peterson has amassed a huge following, besides being a professor of Psychology at UofT, he is a YouTube Star (2.38 million subscribers), his public talks sell out, and his 12 Rules of Life book sold millions of copies worldwide. While some of his teachings seem backward and disturbing, he appears to have tapped into a real frustration: even decades after the feminist revolution in the 1960s, “we have yet to figure out new rules for partnership between men and women.” Drawing on the parallels between political populism and Jordan Peterson, a case can be made for defining intellectual populism.

What is most worrying is that Peterson’s ‘truth’ has resonated with many people. Peterson has been a proud proponent of the freedom of speech, but the outcome of this democratic value has been questionable. Why have so many people bought into this truth? Why have so many people bought into the truth of right-wing political populists? One answer could be that the pragmatism and fluidity of populism allows it to adjust to its environment. In this case, Peterson’s truth and intellectual populism has become the hope for “young men perplexed by cultural upheaval.”

“Populism is here to stay – Get used to it!”

By: PSjoberg

The past few years has seen a dramatic increase in populist political leaders and movements – not only in Europe, but around the world. The rise of populism is not necessarily a “bad” thing: what is often perceived as “bad” about a populist movement is the degree to which you may disagree with its ideological motivations. While certain people may view certain populist movements as good or bad, they are ignoring the more important attribute of populism: its rise was inevitable, and it is here to stay.

Populism is a political ideology or strategy claiming to be “for the people,” and is largely motivated by an opposition to a perceived corrupt elite. While there existed populist movements as early as the 1920s, modern 21st century populism is a far different beast. But why? Were there not corrupt elites in the 1920s, and indeed in every subsequent decade up until today? What is it about the 21st century, and the 2010s in particular, that is so conducive to the rise of populism? The answer is: modernization and globalization, linked by the theme of technology.

Through the hyper-increased process of technological innovation and modernization, a huge percentage of the world’s population now interacts in large part through social media. The now pervasive social media mindset of only reading the titles of articles and ignoring the content, writing journalistic articles for the objective of getting the most “views” or “clicks” rather than for the purpose of imparting truth with integrity and accuracy, and rushing to throw every unfiltered thought onto the internet is the perfect breeding ground for populism. It is emotionally driven and serves to unite people against an “Other.”

Globalization supplements this development by making it easier for ideas to spread to the farthest corners of the world. Populist movements in Europe can borrow from those in Latin America, Asia, and the United States, and vice versa, and populist movements can span multiple countries and even continents.

The bastardization of journalism as a profession, as brought on by the social media mindset, is of course worthy of criticism. However, social media’s tentacles have infiltrated and taken hold of the modern world, and it is never letting go. It may change and adapt, as does populism, but it will never disappear. Therefore, political discourse itself is being forced to change. Critique social media all you like, but by rejecting it you run the risk of cutting yourself out of the wider world.

As bleak as this new reality may seem, is it really so bad?

Populism is not inherently illiberal, right-wing, or extremist. Rather, these are attributes that can be applied to certain populist movements, like those which have taken hold in Europe, most prominently in Poland and Hungary but also in France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Populism can also take on left-wing personas, as in the global climate strike movement, Bernie Sanders’ mobilization of the common people, and the numerous anti-corruption protests currently taking place in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, and elsewhere, all united by the common purpose of liberty and anti-elitism.

The populist political strategy is becoming the new norm in world politics and, for once (perhaps counterintuitively), right-wing groups have largely been at the forefront of this new development.

The political pendulum will never stop swinging between the right and the left. Every now and then, one side will simply take on new strategies in order to get the pendulum to swing in their favour. The pendulum is now beginning to swing more to the right, for the first time in many decades, in large thanks to the rise of populism. To reject populism at large would be suicidal for the neoliberal left, for the simple reason that populism is working. Therefore, the left must instead adjust its strategies accordingly.

Modernization, globalization, and technological advancements are progressing in one direction: forward. It just so happens that populism has emerged as a by-product of this progression. In order for the world’s neoliberal left to win back some support, they are increasingly finding that they must embrace the new norm of political discourse and fight the radical right at their own game. Populism isn’t a moment in history, like fascism was in the 1930s; it is here to stay, for better or worse. The real challenge will be how we shape it.


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