Populism, the three-headed monster


Picture of Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica
Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica

Deputy Speaker of the Latvian parliament, Trustee of Friends of Europe and 2017 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica is Latvian Parliamentary State Secretary for European Affairs and European Young Leader

Europe’s economy is firmly on track and the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker encourages us to leave the harbor and sail deep seas.

Although the financial crisis is behind us there are other monsters threatening the waters of the European Union – populism, a three-headed monster that has a passion for simplifications, twitterisation and isolationism. As Mr. Juncker says, “we now have a window of opportunity”, but it would be premature to say that the tide of populism has turned.

I would dare saying that populism and extreme nationalism are the biggest threats to the unity of the EU. Therefore, the dividing line is not between the East and the West, the North and the South, the “old” and the “new” Member States. The dividing line is between responsibility and populism in the politics. We cannot accept populism as a “new national”, as some might want to call it, we must remain vigilant so as not to let populism and extreme nationalism kill the European idea and project.

Populism means giving simple and easy answers to complicated questions

Populism typically sets up an opposition between a ruling elite and the common people, and the recent version has a strong nationalist strain. Most of all, populism means giving simple and easy answers to complicated questions – the kind of ideas that can be adequately expressed in a few tweets. It comes to my mind what Paul Valéry once said, namely, “everything that is simple is false, and everything that is not simple is impossible to use”. I would not like to contradict the distinguished poet, however, we should think about the second part of his sentence: is it really so that we are unable to talk about complicated issues and explain them?

What is even more dangerous about populism is that it enjoys consistent and generous support from external actors. Entities backed by or connected to the Russian government are skilfully using internet and social networks to spread disinformation and anti-European, anti-Western narratives. The use of coordinated robotrolling campaigns for that purpose on social networks (of which Latvia has recently become one of the most frequent targets), as recently documented by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, is just one example of such activities.

These efforts seek to undermine the European project, to destabilise European democracies and to weaken their resolve in standing up to Russia’s aggressive international behaviour – most notably, but not only in Ukraine. The fact that these narratives are in tune with those of some indigenous anti-European populist movements is rather obvious. Not just the ideological affinity but also, in some cases, financial links between Russia and some of the European far right movements are well documented.

While this is a cause for serious concern, our response to this challenge must remain firmly grounded in European values of democracy and freedom of speech. Attempts to manipulate the hearts and minds of Europeans must be exposed, but the way to deal with these attempts is to do our homework: make sure that our societies enjoy strong, independent and pluralistic media environments, make media literacy and critical thinking part of school curricula and as well as life-long learning. We must have the courage to stand up for the truth and defend our values and ideas in an open debate – also with the adversaries.

At the end of the day, withstanding the tide of populism and the extreme nationalism means addressing the discontents that feed it. There are a number of explanations for rising populism in Europe. One is that nationalism is a form of self-defence in the environment of raising inequalities, as put by the French thinker Bernard Sordet. This, indeed, is a challenge we need to address in Europe and in the world, in general. Although European societies are among the most equal in the world, significant disparities still exist. On average, the wealthiest 20 per cent of households earn five times as much as the poorest 20 per cent, according to the European Commission.

Withstanding the tide of populism and the extreme nationalism means addressing the discontents that feed it

Therefore, reducing socioeconomic disparities in the EU between countries and regions is a topical issue to address, not least in the context of the future of the EU finances, the integrity of the Single Market, and the ideas about fostering socioeconomic convergence in the eurozone.

We need to focus more on justice in our societies in order to counter the tide of the populism and extreme nationalism, and this should be done both on the national and the European level. More justice means reducing inequalities, seeing that everyone pays his/her fair share of taxes, ensuring that the rule of law (and not the rule of power) in our societies work.

Marcus Aurelius said that “injustice is not always associated with action, usually it is inaction”. Therefore, I would like to invite us all to join the efforts and work in order to fulfil the promise we all made in Rome in the beginning of this year. The more Europeans will see their national governments and the EU deliver equality and justice, the less space there will be for the populist movements and their backers.

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