According to a recent study by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, only one third of the millennials – those born since the early 1980s – in the United States and the Netherlands believe that it is absolutely essential to live in a democracy. Two thirds of the European millennials believe that a military coup could in theory be legitimate if the incumbent government was deemed incompetent or failing. These trends are worrying.
Western liberal democracies are in a vulnerable state. Simplistic populist rhetoric “us vs. them” with often-xenophobic undertones and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions can count on a receptive audience and a thriving social media environment. In many European countries, including core EU members such as France or Austria, far-right parties have moved beyond the fringe and became political forces to be reckoned with.
For years, this development has been helped by EU funding. European populist parties would not have been able to reach the heights of their current representation if it had not been for the money and political tools provided by the European Union – the very institution they are trying to destroy. Access to European funds is key to understanding the gestation and rise of the Eurosceptic populist forces. Last year alone, the Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD), led by Marine Le Pen’s Front National, was granted €1.55 million as part of the annual subsidies provided by the European Parliament to cover up to 85% of expenses related to the European political agenda of EU political parties. The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – led by the British Eurosceptic party, UKIP – received €1.4 million.
Although funding is certainly important, the real stage for far-right parties is the Council of the European Union – an institution that has become their loudspeaker. The Council has enabled many of these populist forces to make themselves influential actors in their respective countries’ national politics. It is from this strategic position at the heart of the European Union that these parties influence political agendas and become the real alternatives to power – indirect power. The textbook example of this would be the Eurosceptic party UKIP, which, without having ever won a single seat in the Westminster parliament, managed to drag the British Conservatives into calling the referendum on the European Union.
Yes, liberal democracies are fragile. Yes, considerable parts of European population including young people can imagine living in an authoritarian system. And yes, xenophobic parties have moved from their periphery very close to the political mainstream and have a major impact on everyday politics. Yet, to compare today’s populists with yesterday’s fascists is a stretch. Although the challenges for liberal democracies are real, there is also hope – hope that was also brought by the result of the recent elections in the Netherlands and France.
‘Populism in Europe: From Symptom to Alternative?’ – Study by a Team of Authors –
Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB).
(The Study can be downloaded here)