The future of Europe in an age of populism

Saturday 20 October, 10:3012:00, University of Zurich, 71 Rämistrasse, 8006 ZürichBattle of Ideas Europe


This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Zurich

‘We must build a kind of United States of Europe’, said Winston Churchill in a famous speech in Zurich in 1946. The speech was aimed widely at world leaders contemplating the future of the war-torn continent. ‘In this way only’, he went on to say, ‘will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living’.

While that vision of economic unity and continent-wide cooperation and coordination grew successively through the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and European Economic Community (EEC), many now question the dream of European countries united within a European Union. Coming hard on the heels of Britain’s vote for Brexit, the prospect of ‘Italexit’ casts a shadow over the future of the Euro and fears abound over the Sweden Democrats securing a referendum for ‘Swexit’. At the heart of this revolt is the willingness of voters to back ‘populist’ parties and candidates rather than what are often perceived by many as the distant elites of the traditional mainstream parties. Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it has not been immune from the trend with the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP/Swiss People’s Party) winning 29.4 per cent of the parliamentary seats in 2015.

Integral to discussion on the future of Europe has been the question of values. In Anglo-American discussions, European values are thought to be liberal and progressive, even ‘post-national’, leading steadily to greater integration into a new form of governance that balances business interests and social welfare in a more or less enlightened way. But the rise of populist parties suggests this vision is not so popular with European publics.

On the other hand, the values ascribed to populists are often viewed negatively. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines populism neutrally, as ‘support for the concerns of ordinary people’ and some point to left-wing or ‘good’ populism – like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain or Podemos in Spain – the wider sentiment amongst commentators and policymakers is that ‘bad populism’ has taken root. For critics, whether it is the Lega Nord in Italy or Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, populism is associated with racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration policies. Populists are written off as hateful, irrational right-wing politics guilty of sowing divisive seeds and scapegoating the most vulnerable.

What does the rise of populism mean for the future of Europe? Are populist movements merely ‘morbid symptoms’ of a dying political order, or the first signs of a democratic renewal? Are observers right to see worrying echoes of fascism and conclude that we need to redouble efforts to transcend nationalism through the EU? Or might we see twenty-first-century European populism as a legitimate reaction against the technocracy and elitism that is embodied by the EU? While far right movements in Hungary or Poland are sometimes dismissed as un-European (geography notwithstanding), do populist parties in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands present a more direct challenge to old assumptions about what comprise ‘European values’? Is it time to think afresh and think of a post-EU future?