Growing concerns over growing populism

This article about the rise of populism was written in fall 2015 in a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world for a research project proposal. The recent developments probably emphasize even more how important this type of study is. This is the reason why I decided to share this work with you today. I would like to encourage readers to react, comment and contribute to this short study review.

Following years of monetary integration and geographical extension in the late 90’s and early 00’s the European agenda abruptly stopped after the failed attempt of the constitutional treaty, rejected by several countries after referendum. After this, some national leaders started to show signs of division, being less keen to promote a more united Europe and reflecting on growing concerns in some populations.

A less united Europe could be problematic in a globalised economy where some of the main players and emerging countries are continent-wide (USA, China, India and Brazil). Here rising threats and Islamic terrorism hit entire continents and would require cooperation and pan-European sustainable solutions. Free market and free trade has been found to be an effective solution to millennial intra-European conflicts and led to a Europe at peace – this perhaps seems anachronistic to the young generation of Western Europe, given the sceptical welcome the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize received in the region.

The pierce of right-wing populisms in Western Europe is one of the main detractors from further integration due to parties engineering division and fostering Euroscepticism at local and national levels. Their increasing popularity could result in the destruction of some European mechanisms like Schengen agreements or the common currency. Overcoming the sum of national interest at the European level is increasingly difficult, as realised during Grexit negotiations in the summer of 2014 and in the heightening of the refugee crisis. However, as Charlemagne writes, even if right-wing populists do not hold the majority they influence key decisions and leaders’ behaviour as they struggle to garner votes. The sparring between Francois Hollande and Marine Le Pen during the French-German speech to the European Parliament in September 2015, lacking both elegance and constructiveness, offers a view into the next 15 years as the involvement of Eurosceptic parties increases.

The influence of Eurosceptics is not only indirect; they are personally involved. Critical of Europeans institutions and its Parliament, historically they constituted the greatest proportion of absentees. However, since 2014 they have been ‘playing by the rules’ more, improving drastically their attendance rate to plenary sessions and votes, and reached a climax in new behaviours when they finally built a parliamentary group (Europe of Nations and Freedom – ENF) drawing more visibility, more power and more funds. Clear demonstration of their intent to grow their strength and influence, they have the leverage to join the decision-making process and be part of the various political arbitrages. Whatever their role is in the Union in the next few years, they will have a part in the Union.

It should be pointed out, additionally, than a strong eurosceptic political presence in the institution could represent a concrete threat in the Russian conflict escalation with Syria or Ukraine, or any international affairs matter to that extend. Russia is known for funding some far-right wing parties like the Front National, which very often pass on pro-Moscow propaganda.


Disclaimer – In the following lines, I focus on a short selection of papers on the topic for the sake of the proposal. I will extend this list in the dissertation.

European Project in Danger? Understanding Precisely the Phenomena “Euroscepticsm, Populism and Extremism” in Times of Crisis – Florian Hartleb

Euroscepticism electoral results have increased at European level, reaching around one-third of the 751 MEPs in the last election in May 2014. Beginning with the current state of the right-wing populism, Florian Hartleb proposes a comprehensive inventory of the Eurosceptic landscape across Europe, considering the results of the 2009 European elections alongside national scores. He compares countries’ views and ideas, and expresses his belief that even if we can find some similarities between them, they are not conciliatory. In particular, they are assumed to be driven above all by national political interest. Precise when it comes to describing the national situations, the paper contains more arguable points like that UKIP isn’t a right-wing populist party. Hartleb seems optimistic about European integration and see the rise of Eurosceptic parties as being unthreatening. Above all, the conclusion, very one-sided, is neither persuasive nor perspicacious:

“It is unlikely that any right-wing populist or extremist international groups will be formed any time soon competing as unified force at the European level. Extremist parties do not have enough potential support to pose a threat to the existing liberal democratic order […]. The power of European integration is so strong that it is unlikely that there will be any national U-turns on this issue, despite the occasional upsurge of populism or extremism in individual countries.”

Even if Eurosceptic parties cannot reach a majority their traction will influence leaders and parties in power (as shown in the above Charlemagne example) and can weaken European integration. Secondly, the 2014 elections proved Hartleb wrong, with a significant progress in results and the creation of a proper parliamentary group, showing that the right-wing populism’s union is happening. This dissertation hopes to successfully emphasize the opposite view to that of Hartleb.

The right-wing populism rise is often described as a consequence of a growing mistrust against politicians, an “us” versus “them” schematic view motivated by lack of representativeness and supposedly opaque and “anti-democratic” processes in place in political institutions, especially at European level. On the subject, The Populist Signal is an interesting read.

The Populist Signal – Claudia Chwalisz

Claudia Chwalisz examines political causes of populism in the United Kingdom, dealing with institutional causes and answers, rather than economic or cultural aspects of populism. Backing her proposal through several polls surveying on voters behaviour towards politicians, she indicates that these voters among all would plebiscite democratic innovation and yearn for more direct, bottom-up democracy. Mistrust of the current system and belief that one’s voice does not count, is unsurprising, but the openness to citizen assemblies and the will to take part in law elaboration, does not follow common belief and is interesting in several ways – in particular this means that we are no longer looking at a purely challenging vote but for a more constructive contribution. Populism is not a threat to democracy but a warning “signal” to governments in their law-making process to stay relevant to the time and place in which they live. The paper places populist voters as part of the solution, however, there is no proof it would be truly efficient. The fact that UKIP voters would like to take part to citizen assemblies or would appreciate a more bottom-up democracy does not establish the consequence that UKIP would drop in the polls.

It is interesting to qualify this study with a recent French poll result, which at first glance seems contradictory with the British situation. It shows that 40% of French voters would, for the sake of efficiency, swap their democratic mechanisms’ for an authoritarianism government. This score is much higher within Front National voters, around 2 in 3 voters.

How Populist Are the People? Measuring Populist Attitudes in Voters

This is, to some extent, more in line with conclusions in a Dutch study called “How populist are the people?” and shows a strong correlation between populist voters and the inclination towards strong leadership, instead of following the people. In this paper, Akkerman, Mudde and Zaslove propose to measure populism, as opposed to pluralism and elitism, within the Dutch voters and political landscape. After defining the three concepts and reviewing literature on the topic, the study tests several statements related to three concepts on a survey, and analyses the results through PCA. It emphasizes counter-intuitive commonalities between populism and elitism, since the correlation between the two is important, because both value strong leadership and charismatic figures. It also highlights the existence of several populisms, comparing European versus Latin American populism, left and right ideas, Dutch Socialists vs PVV, and thus demonstrates the complexity of defining populism, and how to classify its features. The paper concludes with a possible opening to a more economic and social based study to better understand these voters, the idea that spearheads this dissertation. Indeed, much of the literature on the topic deals with institutional or democratic causes and answers, rather than economic or cultural aspects of populism.

There is evidence that right-wing populisms are multiple and different between countries, as Hartleb highlights, and within a given country a right-wing party could be confronted by irreconcilable viewpoints in different regions, like in France with the Front National and its North and South ambivalence

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