Event Report » 30 January 2013 in Vienna, Austria

Populism in Europe - Books in Perspective

The European elections in June 2014 will likely see a rise of fringe parties, many of them of a populist nature. The topic of populism is thus high on the agenda. “Populism in Europe” was published by GEF in 2011/2012 in English and in German and aims to bring a different, European angle of analysis to the debate on right-wing populism. On 31 January 2013 in Vienna, Austria, a debate on the topic organised by GEF, the Austrian Grüne Bildungswerkstatt and the IWM (Institute for Human Sciences) enriched the understanding of this phenomenon. Is populism here to stay?

After introducing the book as a publication that addresses the concept of populism from a political and a European perspective, Leonore Gewessler (Director of GEF) used the basic definition of the book to question the evening’s two speakers Ivan Krastev (Permanent Fellow at the IWM) and Ulrike Lunacek (Austrian Green MEP) on their reaction to the books proposed approach. 

If the speakers agreed upon the existence of populist actors, and populist stances from non-populist actors, how then to define the concept of populism? For the authors in GEF's book, in a "minimal" definition, populism creates a distinction between the so-called "good people" and the “other”, meaning for example migrants, elites or Europe. Ulrike Lunacek pointed out, though, that populism is also a method of doing politics which simplifies things while emotionally touching people. As such, it is not bad in itself. For Ivan Krastev, the theoretical approach to populism has the tendency of shaping it vaguely: “You are not able to define it but when you see it you are going to recognise it.” Populism exists both on the right and left: if you think about the radical criticism of the establishment and the will to change the system, Greens were populist in the 70’s, according to Krastev.

Populism as a symptom of democratic renewal?

Thus, according to Ivan Krastev, the current way of debating populism is not sufficient and seems to be a defence of the elite and the system which should be reformed, though. Populism is a symptom of something bigger ahead: each time that there was a change in democracy in the 20th century, we talked about an increase of populism before. For Mr. Krastev a new political consensus, anti-liberal, is emerging in Europe.

The "threatened majority"

The two speakers pointed out that the shape of populism depends on national characteristics, history and political systems. But one common essence of populism is to play with the voters’ perception that they are losing power. Even if the party for which they vote governs, citizens are not satisfied: they feel they do not have any control over economic or politic elites. Ivan Krastev used the example of the EU Constitutional Treaty to illustrate this: how can people not have been resentful when governments found a way to implement the provisions of the treaty anyway, even if voters said no? This “threatened majority” (Ivan Krastev) is also concerned by inequality in mobility: it is easier to move capital than land, and elites have become highly mobile. Again, how can you ask the Greek people to make sacrifices when their leaders are under suspicion for moving their money out of the country, questions Krastev.

After discussions with the audience the speakers concluded the evening with the assertion that populist parties are more than only protest parties. There is political substance even though very heterogeneous one, among these parties. In the speakers’ view it is therefore, impossible to establish a proper European definition of populism extending to the content of populist politics. On the topic of how to deal with populist parties, Ulrike Lunacek agreed with the assumptions of GEF’s book that there is not a single clear-cut answer for other parties: neither governmental participation (accommodation) nor the “cordon sanitaire” (opposition) contribute to the de-radicalisation of these parties, opt-in could even have an opposite effect.  

The role of (social) media

The role of traditional and new media is also interesting to highlight in this respect. Recent studies show that internet and new social media allow people to be extreme without knowing that they are, as people tend to assemble in like-minded groups online, without being confronted with other’s social norms. Both speakers agreed that all of these developments will have certainly some consequences over the coming years for our political systems.  

GEF would like to thank the IWM and the Grüne Bildungswerkstatt for their support and all participants for their contributions.


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Date: 31 January 2013, 18:30h-20:00
Venue: Spittelauer Lände 3, 1090 Vienna, Austria
Language: English
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