Ralf Dahrendorf Roundtable Study Launch “The Unstoppable far-right? Populism and the Aftermath of European Elections”
Can mainstream parties stop the seeming success of right-wing populist parties? The outcome of the European elections in May 2014 raised growing concern about the success of extreme-right populist movements in many European countries and the weakness of democratic parties and institutions in responding adequately to this issue. The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the European Liberal Forum (ELF) recently launched a study authored by Timo Lochocki on what mainstream parties and the media can do to stem the tide of populism in Europe. The European Parliament hosted the study launch and roundtable discussion before an audience that works to communicate European politics to its constituents on a daily basis.
Since the study offers solutions for all mainstream parties to counter populism, the roundtable featured speakers from the Liberal, Green, and Christian Democrat groups in the European Parliament. Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Member of Parliament Gesine Meissner hosted the event, expressing her hope that the study will help European Liberals hone and improve their message to ensure that it reaches an ever wider audience. In her welcome, ELF President Felicita Medved emphasised the foundation’s commitment to making European politics accessible to the citizen through events and publications such as these, not only in Brussels but throughout the EU.
In his presentation, Lochocki drew the audience a picture of what characteristics populist success stories shared in the Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. He argued that if traditional parties embrace and legitimize populist topics during European election campaigns, Euroskeptic parties increase their share of the vote. Building on these findings, he formulated three strategic options for pro-European parties: either they continue to pursue a clear pro-European agenda or put aside the issue of European integration, at least temporarily. Alternatively, they can choose to devote energy and efforts to better communicate European integration as embedded in national interest. In his final remarks, he underlined how important it is that pro-European parties communicate in a clear-cut and confident way in the face of populist politicians. He insisted that parties should focus on fundamental messages that the people can relate to.
Martens Centre Research Associate Florian Hartleb praised the study for connecting the success of populist parties with the way media presents them and how mainstream parties react to them. Hartleb affirmed that there are five crucial conditions for the success of populist parties: a critical mass of floating voters, euroskepticism and anti-immigration attitudes in public opinion, the openness of the media to populist rhetoric, institutional conditions (electoral system), and a charismatic leader. Two policy areas — immigration and European integration — are the central point of populist campaigning and attract media attention, which then helps populist parties attract voters.
Green European Foundation Affiliate Erica Meijers in turn raised the question of definition and the correlation between populism, the extreme right, and euroskepticism. She insisted that populism can also be part of democracy and that populists thrive on unaccountable politics. Meijers pointed out that a change in the campaigning strategy it is not enough to fight Euroskepticism, because EU politics are not a “popular” issue in many countries. Meijers suggested instead that liberals should focus on their own core issues and stress the link between individual and universal rights, as well as social issues, because they are more important for the people than the future of the EU. Meissner countered this by pointing out that what is needed is not to steer clear of EU topics, but rather to effectively communicate how the EU affects most facets of everyday life in EU member states. She brought the message across that EU is the solution, not the problem — contrary to what populist parties tend to assert in their campaigns.
Clara Sandelind, author of a forthcoming ELF study on populism and the migration debate, echoed Meijers’ call for liberals to focus on their core issues. She also pointed out that controversial issues such as migration are too central to leave to populist parties. Sandelind called on all mainstream parties to bravely engage on thorny issues like these.
Lochocki summarised the discussion by pointing out that the debate during their own roundtable demonstrated how difficult it can be to communicate a pro-European message in the face of a simplistic, populist alternative. The overarching message of the study, as well as of the roundtable, was to refocus the mainstream political message and to rethink the way mainstream parties and media communicate European politics.