Countering Euroscepticism & Populism

On 16 October I participated as a discussant to a training Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung organised for a group of young people from across Europe about ‘How to Counter Right-Wing Populism and Extremism in Europe’.

In a workshop, we first spend some time on what we mean with extremism and populism. We agreed that a distinction is needed between criticism and scepticism against the European project, where one can be anywhere on a scale from, on one end favouring full integration, or on the other side calling for an exit out of the EU. As for populism it’s a way of framing, more then a set of beliefs. Some questioned if most politicians do not use populist techniques in one way or another, and whether it is necessary a bad thing. Others asked if populism is just skilled communication to explain a complex issue in a clear and relatable way for the general public, or is it the intention behind the message (to win popularity and/or scapegoat or smear someone) that defines whether it is populist.

While politicians on both the extreme left and extreme right can be Eurosceptic, the ideology behind differ. Examples were given of Nigel Farage (UKIP), Marie Le Pen (Front National) and Alexis Tsipras (Syriza). European geography and history also determines different root causes. Some raised the concerns that some Eastern European countries turn to Russia for their Eurosceptic views. I shared the observation by friends at Council of Europe, that in some Eastern European countries and Russia in particular, citizens have experiences improved social and economic rights. At the same time they have less civil and political rights than their European neighbours in the West. As they feel more social stability and better conditions in terms of employment, housing and health care, they continue to support their government as they see no viable alternative.

Working for Social Platform should in theory mean that we are both relatable and close to people. In reality we struggle with communicating to people in disadvantaged and vulnerable situations, why we need the EU to fight inequalities, discrimination and violence.

While some citizens may know about benefits of the EU, such as passport-free borders, less roaming fees, cheaper flights, more consumer rights, medical assistance when travelling abroad, and more possibilities to study and work in another EU country, others don’t. Grabbe & Lehne interestingly put it: ‘EU appears distant, elitist and difficult to understand and many of the achievements of European integration benefits individuals and businesses that are already successful. The vulnerable parts of society see the EU as a threat to the remaining protective functions of the welfare state.’

Few know about protection against discrimination in employment, and criminal law against hate crime as EU achievements. Although, these were brought about more than a decade ago. Since, civil society has faced resistance from Member States to introduce more EU equality law and policies. In 2008 a proposal was introduced to protect against discrimination in relation to goods and services, covering all ground, which is still blocked. The main resistance has come from Germany that by principle object further EU legislation. One can question if the opposition by Member States against such a law mean that they are Eurosceptics?

Few also know about the EU’s different funds, such as the European Social Fund. Although it’s good intentions, civil society witness how several Member States has misused the money to build institutions for persons with disabilities instead of support their integration and independent living. Other examples show administrative barriers hinders funds to reach disadvantaged Roma children in need of education and trainings.

Daniel Kahneman describes in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ how populists convince people with emotional and simplified rhetoric rather than the rational, complex and facts-based reasoning that we – civil society – tend to provide. We therefore need to find ways of communicating better.  One way is by having more outspoken and charismatic pro-European role models, by for example encouraging diversity management so the EU institutions better reflect the diversity of its people. Another way is through the use of social media, education and trainings.

Many thanks to Sebastiano Putoto (moderator) and Théo from France, Zsofia from Hungary, Erik from Sweden, Daniel from Germany, and Paul from the UK for their inspiring contributions on how to counter right-wing populism and extremism.