How the EU can defeat populism

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

The flood waters of populism may yet engulf Europe’s liberal democracies. The EU and its members haven’t fashioned convincing responses to the siren songs of populist parties, and now some EU governments are even singing them too.
Populism in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The term was coined in rural America in the later 19th century when farmers protested against predatory banks and unscrupulous capitalism. Today, though, the populists are politicians who promise simplistic solutions to complex problems ‒ notably immigration ‒ and inflame Euroscepticism by making the EU a whipping boy for a host of unrelated ills.
Europe needs to counter the new populism if its damage is not to become irreversible. Unity is European citizens’ chief defence against accelerating global pressures that are both economic and political; the EU’s survival depends on its members’ democratic institutions, and these are among political extremists’ main targets.
Europe’s populist parties don’t fit neatly into familiar Left-Right patterns. Their shared aim is to weaken and even destroy the institutions of Europe’s liberal order.

The EU must entrust its messages to tabloid journalists and TV news and documentary makers

What should be done, then, to fight back against populism that has so many different reasons and faces? Are the weapons that might discredit populism in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the same as those suited to withstanding Eurosceptism in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain?
The short answer is ‘yes’; people who flock to support populists do so emotionally, not rationally. Europe’s mainstream political parties, and the EU itself, therefore need to fight fire with fire and appeal to voters on a far less technocratic plane than at present.
The chief emotions that drive populism are disappointment, resentment and a sense of lost, or at any rate threatened, identity. Euro-enthusiasts can also operate on an emotional level. The European project has many areas of achievement that could be capitalised on to win back the hearts and minds of national electorates.
The EU institutions have to spearhead this campaign, even though the Eurocrats’ reserved and discreet professional culture is a formidable obstacle. The Commission and the European Parliament must tear up their communications methods and go down-market.
That doesn’t involve altering their priorities or values, but it does mean they should hire-in mass media expertise. The EU must entrust its messages to tabloid journalists and TV news and documentary makers. Above all, it must become a louder voice among social media bloggers and tweeters. That’s certainly the focus of most mainstream parties, and Brussels must follow suit.

Europe’s populist parties don’t fit neatly into familiar Left-Right patterns

The new army of specialists in mass communications that Brussels needs to recruit should have a simple guiding principle. This is to downplay the EU’s reliance on evidence-based arguments and go instead for the human dimension. That doesn’t mean abandoning or distorting facts, but to present these through human interest stories.
Instead of talking about, say, trade or environment policies, talk about jobs and quality of life. Compare Europe’s charms as the world’s chief tourist destination to the ravages of industrialisation in other continents. And spend EU cash on commercial advertising that competes for consumers’ attention.
Populists highlight problems, and so too should the EU. The weakness of the Eurocrats as they struggle to persuade public opinion of the EU’s benefits is that they push good news. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of politics because the best way to explain the EU’s achievements is first to emphasise the problems to be resolved.
The populists have been the foremost beneficiaries of the ‘Information Age’, because social media’s opening up of communications channels has revolutionised political debate. It is therefore vital that the EU and national mainstream voices should respond appropriately. That means overriding the upper stratum of EU officialdom that has long resisted the “vulgarisation” of its communications. Time is running out, and unless the populists are vanquished they will sooner or later destroy the European project

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