The Populist Temptation - Why Populism is no Option for Green Politics in Europe

Populism is a growing movement. Democrats need to investigate on its characteristics to come up with counterstrategies.

Populists are a growing community fed first by the “euro-crisis” and later by the “immigration crisis”. Democrats need to investigate on the characteristics of populist policy making in order to bring up counterstrategies and prevent from succumbing to populist trends themselves.

The alienation of parts of the electorate from governing classes nourishes populism while the focus lies on identity politics instead of representing the interests of supporters. ‘We stand for the people’ quickly turns into ‘We alone stand for the people’, which is an excluding populism against diversity and pluralism, both core values of democratic systems. Hence populism is potentially undemocratic.

The British Brexit campaign is an example for populism operating almost independently from factual reality. At the same time, populists broach people’s legitimate worries such as the missing promised benefits of neo-liberalism which is far from generating only winners and has no compensation plan for those who are not riding the wave of the free market. Once social cohesion is at risk, cultural bewilderment which declines any foreign element, is about to spread.

Contradictions that may rise in left-wing and progressive politics can be illustrated with the TTIP campaign whose criticism on the project was justified but defensively from the very beginning. The campaign aimed to block the neoliberal project and thus defended the status quo. The vision of a sustainable and fair trade market had only scarcely been communicated. The presidential campaign in Austria evidences how this turned to the populists’ advantage: the candidate of the right-wing party FPÖ Norbert Hofer has demonstrated an anti-TTIP position on the background of a seemingly legitimate vision of national self-determination.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varufakis showed with his Europe manifesto and DiEM25 movement how closely left and right-wing populism is being forged. His criticism on the EU is justified in many ways but it ends up in a caricature of an interfering EU and takes refuge in some kind of national socialism.

Floating concepts and political programs allow broad alliances. In Spain, Podemos has gathered together all left-wing movements as well as the joint green movement in the elections in December 2015. The post-communist United Left followed during the elections of June 2016. However, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it seems that people in Spain started doubting about the pertinence of such arbitrary policy making. Despite its expansion, the alliance received fewer votes than in the year before.

Democratic parties must consider the citizens’ concerns seriously. They need to develop an inclusive vision and at the same time analyse the political practicability of their programs. Otherwise they are subject to being trapped in populist tendencies whereas once populism is launched it is difficult to shut it down again.
The challenges Europeans are facing are huge but easy to define: improvement of economical participation, green transformation, social inclusion, a modern migration and asylum policy, investment in education, innovation and infrastructure as well as a foresighted foreign and security policy. An EU wide debate would reintroduce political awareness and help generate structural reforms in order to restore its legitimacy. There’s no other way to secure Europe’s future.

The article was first published on 15th September 2016 in the German daily newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”.


Related literature:

Jan-Werner Müller, Was ist Populismus? [What is populism?], Berlin: edition suhrkamp, 2016

Georg Maißer, The Fight against TTIP: A Green Pyrrhic Victory? in: Green European Journal, Volume 12, Brussels: Summer 2016,

Dieter Grimm, Europa ja -  aber welches? Zur Verfassung der europäischen Demokratie [Yes to Europe - but which one? About the constitution of European democracy], München: C.H.Beck 2016