Having been relegated to the sidelines of political debate, the rise of right-wing populist parties and movements in Europe has begun to attract more and deserved attention. For some time, this populism seemed to be concentrated in the adolescent democracies of central and eastern Europe. What’s more, several years ago these populists were in retreat: in 2006, Poland’s Law and Justice party was defeated by the centre-right in local elections, whilst in Hungarian parliamentary elections Fidesz was bested by the centre-left. In 2016, it is those centrist opponents of populism in eastern Europe which have collapsed and the populist parties which are practically unchallenged in their legislatures. At the same time, similar forces in well-established European democracies, including Austria, France and Germany, have also made worrying gains.
Why is the rise of populism such a problem? First and foremost this brand of populism threatens to exacerbate the problems which have led to the rise of populists in the first place. An ideal political candidate to respond to the influx of migrants into Europe, the economic tribulations of the eurozone, and the security threats posed by Russia to the east is unlikely to be someone with a xenophobic attitude towards migrants, a protectionist economic outlook, or a tendency to find Vladimir Putin a model political leader.
But there is a deeper problem, one which threatens the foundations of the European system. The EU is a democratic and liberal project, membership of which requires ‘guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union’, to quote the Copenhagen Criteria. It is not just a home for democracies, but a normative power in favour of spreading democracy, both by example and through the possibility of membership within the EU itself. In advocating illiberal alternatives to the EU’s liberal mission, authoritarian populists undermine this ambition, and pose a significant threat to the progress made in Europe since the ends of both the Second World War and the Cold War.
What is to be done? It is tempting to argue that the EU should flex its muscles and take a harder line against the populists. Currently the EU is engaged with Poland over PiS attempts to undermine the independence of the courts, and on June 1 the European Commission criticised the ‘systematic risk to the rule of law in Poland’. This was interpreted as a prelude to tougher action, and it would not be the first time the EU has intervened to oppose political extremism; in 2000 the EU officially reduced its relations with Austria, after the hard-right Freedom Party and its leader Jorg Haider became part of a coalition government.
But the ostracism of Austria was short-lived. Within months the sanctions had been lifted, in response both to Austrian protests and to accusations of bullying and hypocrisy from other EU members. Having received this black eye 16 years ago, it is unlikely that the EU will be quick to take the same course. If they did so, Poland’s government would be able to find allies in like-minded leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, whose consent would be required for a tougher line to be introduced by the EU as a whole. This might only serve to compound Europe’s problems by deepening disunity between governments, at a time when collective action is imperative to solve issues like the migrant crisis. Perhaps even more importantly, it could serve to alienate popular support for the EU at a time when more and more Europeans are in favour of British-style referenda, in countries including France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. As European Council President Donald Tusk recently argued, European politicians and institutions must recognise their failure ‘to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe do not share our Euro-enthusiasm’, Euro-enthusiasm which has in the minds of many people resulted in European integration happening too quickly, at the expense of their nation’s well-being and security.
What these words of Tusk acknowledge is that democracy depends on popular participation, not on the introduction of measures by fiat from above. European leaders would do well to look to the example of those democratic dissidents and popular movements which broke the power of dictatorial governments in the recent past, from Solidarity in Poland to the colour revolutionaries in Ukraine and Georgia. None of these movements could be described as unqualified successes. But what these movements showed was the appeal of democracy to huge numbers of people, using Europe and the EU as an exemplar for political progress. And whilst these movements did not fully succeed in achieving their aims, they created a space in which democratic reforms could be attempted.
The EU is powerful in many ways, but even where it acts as a model for other countries it lacks the means to mobilise people in democracy’s favour. It should not shrink entirely from its opposition to the illiberal policies of populists across Europe, but it must allow, and encourage, national politicians to take the initiative and make the case for European union on its own terms. Without generating strong support from below, the EU will become more alien and less relevant to the people of Europe, and the anti-democratic forces which have undermined European peace and prosperity in the past will only be empowered further.