It has become common to take the growing power of populists in European countries as a sign of the European Union’s declining political viability
Encounters of European politicians that used to be rather technocratic and diplomatic in nature are being politicised. When the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited the German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, this was not diplomacy between Austria and Germany but two European politicians building a political alliance
It has become common to take the growing power of populists in European countries as a sign of the European Union’s declining political viability. I would argue to the contrary and say that it is a sign of how European politics in Europe have become.
Encounters of European politicians that used to be rather technocratic and diplomatic in nature are being politicised. When the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited the German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer, this was not diplomacy between Austria and Germany but two European politicians building a political alliance.
When Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache met Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, we witnessed not a diplomatic exchange of interests between two states but a declaration of solidarity from the European populist coalition. When Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and others congratulate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on his election victory, we hear the same full-throated proclamation from the populist coalition.
It is a confederation of like-minded and well-connected politicians who support each other in their respective campaigns, share strategies and use the same narratives. The danger is not that populists might make politics less European but that populists have become better than any other political force at communicating a potential political agenda for a European future.
We do not have to fear that Europe might come to matter less, but that liberal democracy and the rule of law might become less appealing. If we are committed to saving democracy and the rule of law in Europe, we should look to two important populist strategies for inspiration.
First, we need a vision of Europe that acknowledges public dissatisfaction with the status quo and demonstrates a clear departure from our current course. Populists sell voters a promise of a return to the “Europe of fatherlands” that they believe existed before the EU.
They envision a European political arena defined by self-sufficient, independent nations dominated by a purely Christian culture and unrestrained by international laws and norms in their pursuits of national glory. Too often, established political forces simply unpassionately dismiss this vision as unrealistic or state that Europeans profit from bureaucratic flagships projects, like the single market, that epitomise the status quo.
Although this response is closer to the truth than the populists’ proposition, it is nowhere near as powerful due to its lack of emotion and vision. Moreover, it is intellectually lazy to argue that the status quo is good just because it is better than an unrealistic, nationalist version of Europe. The status quo is not good enough. If it was sufficient, we would not have to write articles like this one, worrying about the decline of liberal democracy.
We have to put forward our own vision of a democratic Europe, rooted in the rule of law, committed to providing opportunities to its citizenry, ambitious in its approach to the big issues of today and striving to be an example of human progress. As long as the status quo does not provide this, it is on us to criticise and propose changes to the status quo. The fight for Europe can only be won on the offensive.
Second, we need to identify and unite against those that stand in opposition of these objectives and values. I do not mean just the populists by this. Dictatorships are increasingly challenging liberal democracy across the globe. The Chinese regime is building a dystopian digital dictatorship that is amassing power at great speed.
The Russian regime violates the foundations of the international rules-based border through its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as by conducting misinformation campaigns against democracies that aim to undermine the informed political discourse central to the success of democracy.
Uniting against these adversaries is essential for the survival of liberal democracy. These actions would also provide a counter-narrative to the populists who have been propelled into positions of influence by mobilising constituencies against allegedly illiberal migrants.
Additionally, while the politics of us versus them is dangerous, they are actual threats to liberal democracy. If we hesitate to talk about and confront them, we stay vulnerable to these threats and leave one of the most important areas of public discussion, namely “who is our adversary?”, open for the populists to define at their discretion.
Both strategies are probably counterintuitive to established politicians that have grown up, politically, in the belief that there were no real adversaries to liberal democracy anymore and that the essential questions of our times were technocratic, rather than political, in nature. Liberal democracy will have to be strengthened by a new generation. Considering myself a part of this new generation, I propose we fight for a truly democratic and federal Europe with a real European government.
Let’s advance towards a federal Europe that has all the military capabilities to defend itself against its adversaries, but sources its power from its ability to outshine its adversaries due to the opportunities it provides to people irrespective of their origin, gender, belief or wealth. One might say that this is a distant vision and this might be true. However, it is a lot likelier to work out well for Europeans than a divided Europe of populist nation-states.
*Member of the Board at the political movement Operation Libero