How dangerous is populism?

Paul Mason observes that in dealing with populists, the European elite is clearly showing its death wish. After France’s primary elections, François Fillon (the “French Thatcher”) stands poised for a runoff with Marine Le Pen (the “French Mussolini”) in next year’s presidential election. A good metaphor for their situation is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, where the city authorities deny the existence of a plague—in our case, populism—and in so doing they create the conditions of its spreading. Moreover the polycultural world of the novel’s hotel lobby—Europe—is a fragile illusion, in which it only takes one piece to fall apart, for all the others to do too. A less bleak view comes from Judy Dempsey who, quoting a report from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, is relieved to learn that support for the EU after Brexit actually rose to an average of 62% in August 2016, up from 57% in March. The study also finds that a return to a Europe of nation-states is not an option, if any member state wants to survive the economic, social, and political ramifications of globalization. The EU remains popular for its Erasmus Project, open borders, and unhindered flows of trade and capitals.

The Economist notes that after Brexit and Trump’s election, Europeans are watching every coming election, from Austria to the Netherlands to France, for fear that they could become the next staging post in the long march to illiberalism. However, the problem is that populists are setting the European Union’s agenda even without winning elections. On trade, for example, where the populist assault on globalization has given the discussion fresh urgency. On migration, too, populist pressure has transformed a debate over how to manage refugee movements into an almost exclusive focus on keeping people away. Generally, there has been a tendency to avoid controversial decisions, particularly regarding fiscal and structural reforms. While this populist nudge need not always be dangerous, chasing their proposals may make voters wonder why they should fear the outfits that proposed such ideas in the first place. Grahame Thompson claims that the key aspect of populisms as political programmes is to be found not so much in what populist politicians proclaim, but rather in how they are going about reconfiguring the existing institutions of social and political life. They want to reform family, religious institutions, the media, political parties, and finally, and most dangerously, the rule of law.

A Neoliberal Future?

Some progress has been made on social values through the Commission’s Autumn Package, as Fintan Farrell and Sian Jones explain. We are still far from the paradigm shift needed, since Europe faces enormous challenges and a credibility gap in the eyes of its citizens. The EU has to change direction if it is to convince people that the the project is worth backing. The European Anti-Poverty Network will be looking for concrete signs that the new “social rights and standards” will be given equal weight to economic concerns in the EU policies, and particularly in the European Semester this year. Zsolt Darvas observes that the properly measured EU-wide coefficient of disposable income inequality (“Gini”) reveals that inequality is much lower among EU citizens than in other parts of the world, and actually fell in 1994-2008. However, findings also reveal that inequality is increasingly problematic at the local level, efforts to address income inequalities should then be be stepped up in a number of countries as well as at the EU level.

According to Philippe van Parijs, the most lucid description of the predicament of today’s European Union is found in Hayek’s “The economic conditions of interstate federalism” (1939), reprinted in his Individualism and Economic Order. Hayek cherished the disabling effect of the common market on the state’s ability to impose regulations. The new federal institution will not command the same power because it will be paralized by its larger economic differences and lack of common identity, and the associated ill-disposition to solidarity. Then again, if we exclude re-erecting thick national borders, with the economic losses and uncertainties that this would generate, there is only one real option left: we must build a genuine European polity that encompasses the European single market, instead of letting each national polity struggle with constraints imposed by its immersion in this market. This may seem a vain utopia now, but by envisioning and articulating it we lay the conditions to make this change possible in the future.


This Ideas Monitor is by Carlo Burelli and Alexander Damiano Ricci


Photo Credits CC Aftab Uzzaman 


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