Europe divided: populism and the new political identities

Saturday 30 November, 12:0013:15, Under Fontänen/Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Sergelpassagen, Sergels torgBattle of Ideas Europe

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Across Europe, the ‘populist wave’ has thrown up surprise after surprise for mainstream politics. In the UK, the Brexit vote has threatened to split the two major parties. In Italy, the Five Star Movement and Lega Nord have outmuscled traditional parties to form a coalition government. The Sweden Democrats moved from non-entity to a driving force in Swedish politics in less than a decade. In France, the emergence and staying power of the gilets jaunes has taken mainstream politicians by complete surprise. But what do these populist movements reveal about potential new political formations and identities across the continent?

For many, the success of populism represents a hardening of attitudes to immigration and a turn to the reactionary right. Yet immigration is not the whole story of this populist upswell. The Brexit vote and other populist movements have been characterised as a reaction to supposedly unaccountable, technocratic elites as much as to immigration. On this reading, populism is more anti-elite than anti-immigrant.

What’s more, there has been a surprising focus on fuel taxes in populist movements. The gilets jaunes arose as a reaction to a proposed fuel tax to combat climate change, and a similar antipathy to such taxes saw huge online protests in Sweden in what was dubbed the ‘Fuel Uprising’. For some commentators, this reveals a new dividing line in European politics between those who live in cities – who tend to be richer, better-connected, and more conscious of environmental issues – and those living in villages and towns who depend on their cars for their lives and livelihoods. Perhaps other divisions, over attitudes to immigration or on social issues like LGBT rights, are also better understood through this geographic prism?

But as well as the origin of these new divisions, the intensity of animosity is also perhaps worth comment. While politics has always led to heated debates, it seems that political differences are increasingly capable of ending friendships or even romantic relationships. Arguably amplified by social media and online ‘echo chambers’, people seem more hostile to those with different political views and more eager to signal their supposedly superior moral and political values.

What are we to make of the populist movements across Europe? Can we make helpful generalisations about the continent as a whole? Are there indeed new dividing lines about geography, or are we better off understanding the divisions as driven by values? Is there even perhaps a renewed need to bring class into the equation? Should we be concerned by the tone these new divisions take and should we be worried about such polarisation? Or is it healthy to be able to identify a new ‘us and them’ division? What is the future for populism?