megaphoneOn 9 October 2014, leading European politicians, civil society actors, business leaders and policy-makers gathered in Brussels for the annual State of Europe roundtable. Organised by our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe, participants were discussing the many challenges facing the EU, including the anti-establishment “wake-up call” delivered by elections to the European Parliament in May.

Early in the debate, the problem of falling trust in mainstream politics and the rise of “populism” was discussed. With Europe suffering high unemployment and weak growth, one participant suggested that necessary economic reforms were becoming more difficult to implement and quoted incoming EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

However, is it wrong to blame “populism” for Europe’s problems? We had a comment sent in by Wouter arguing that the real problem is that politicians aren’t listening to voters:

citizen_icon_180x180If the people vote for less immigrants [and] against more influence for Brussels, traditional parties will blame ‘populism’… I’d say let politicians regain respect for the people once more, or they should renounce democracy altogether.

One country that has experienced a recent upswing in the anti-establishment vote is Sweden. After polling 13% in national elections in September, the far-right Sweden Democrats party will now occupy 49 seats in the 349-seat parliament. Other parties refuse to work with them, but their growing electoral success suggests that the strategy of moderating their public image and distancing themselves from earlier associations with neo-Nazi groups is working.

During the State of Europe roundtable, we spoke to Carl Bildt, who served as Sweden’s Foreign Minister from 2006 until his party was ejected from government at the 2014 elections. We asked him to respond to the comment from Wouter:

We also spoke to the outgoing EU Justice Commissioner, Martine Reicherts. Responding to Wouter, she argued that the problem was that politicians too often made unrealistic promises to voters and inevitably disappointed them. In order to rebuild trust, she believes that politicians have to be honest and do what they say:

Finally, we put Wouter’s comment to the former Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti. In 2011, at the height of the Italian debt crisis, Monti replaced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to head a new technocratic government, something that mainstream political parties agreed was necessary to prevent economic meltdown but which was widely criticised by so-called “populists”.

Monti warned that it was easier to blame Europe’s problems on immigrants than it was to explain the challenges of globalization and the need to carry out economic reforms:

Should mainstream European politicians stop blaming “populism” for the EU’s economic woes? Are anti-establishment parties exploiting sluggish growth and high unemployment by blaming immigrants for everything? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Eric Pothier

51 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      I think politicians should be brave and stand up to politically correct enforcers in all parties. The assumption of racism and the accusation of it to stem debate on immigration or any other kind of ism they use to do this should be made illegal as it is out of control. This is leading to a deliberate move to end democracy. Nothing should be secret or banned from discussion.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Christian Weale
      FTR what narrative?

  1. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    It would help if they understood what populism was.

    Definition of ‘Populism’:

    A political doctrine that appeals to the interests and conceptions of the general people, especially contrasting those interests with the interests of the elite.

    Therefore if you against ‘Populism’ you are for ‘elitism’.

    The ‘populous’ of Europe & great Britain say no to the EU, the elite ignore them and say yes to the EU.

    The result is an ever widening gap between the elite & the people.

    It’s not rocket science.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Ivan Burrows
      Well said!

    • avatar
      bert van santen

      Agree for 100%

  2. avatar
    Jaume Roqueta

    The word Populism is used by people who considers other people stupid!… for me EPP is the most populist party… as it call itself European People Party… but shoud call themseves European Populist Party!…… If you refer to people who lies to the voters to gain power… you can refer them as liers… you will notices that most of the politicians are professional liers!.

  3. avatar
    Filipe Brás Almeida

    The word populism is used by those who consider populists to be politicians who overstep and ignore counter-intuitive policies, values and principles.

    Catering directly and appealing to the parochial and tribal interests of the many is a harbinger of irrational and damaging politics and it is a mockery of representative democracy.

    In fact, rational political discourse is what should rest between the dangers of populism and elitism.

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Filipe Brás Almeida
      NOT all tribes are equal.

  4. avatar
    James McManama

    Filipe – very well put! I completely agree, and others would do well to consider what you have written.

  5. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    Politicians should indeed listen to the so called populists BUT to understand where they are coming from, what has given them strength, how come people believe them, and what can be done about them.
    Ignoring them will not make them go away because they do cater to an audience of often desilusioned people. Desilusioned with the politicians. And these desilusioned people will not go away unless their gievances are addressed.

  6. avatar
    Jason Pi

    Billy and Reicherts answer well, while Monti should be behind bars for his “achievements”, let alone be allowed to give interviews.

  7. avatar
    Wolf Achim Wiegand

    Yes, I would suggest that the EU “listens” to the populists – but only LISTEN.

    Populists’ arguments focus around themes like anti-immigration, €-scepticism, or – as they put it – lack of room for national identity. Behind that hides fear that the European Union could become an uncontrollable bureaucratic monster that doesn’t care about traditions or individual rights. Populists instrumentalize that fear and give easy answers in order to finally achieve ultra-conservative and backwarded aims.

    So the answer is: yes, LISTEN to the populists, but DO NOT FOLLOW them.

    Make the EU more transparent, less bureaucratic and more caring about national or regional concerns. Adressing such desires would lead to better EU credibility and would silence populists. Doing so means the EU one day has not to listen to populists any more because their base of arguments has disappeared.

    • avatar
      Paul X

      “Behind that hides fear that the European Union could become an uncontrollable bureaucratic monster that doesn’t care about traditions or individual rights”

      Replace “could become” with “is” in your statement and there you have the reason for the rise in populism in a nut shell

  8. avatar
    ilcus Christian

    They are raising concerns which need to be adressed by mainstream political parties, certainly: (1) Inequality (2) Price Inflation(s) (3) Infrastructure development are three constants at the root caurse of the polarisation of the political landscape. There may be other reasons in particular settings, interacting with more affective components.

  9. avatar
    Nikolaos Sotirelis

    Populism is a misunderstood, double meaning term. At the extreme negative version, which anyway is an invention of the Elitists, populism is based on deliberate dishonesty.
    Moreover, the populist politician poses intentionally false dilemma, as “enemies or friends,” “rioter or peaceable”, “allogeneic or native”, in order to increase insecurity among the people, and to appears himself as protector and savior.
    So, such populists are either far right politicians or, funny but true, the elitists that are ruling EU.

  10. avatar

    Blaming crisis ain’t the real reason behind the ascension of populists. Blaming former EPP majority and their policy, their mistakes done under Merkel’s “management” in my opinion is. That’s no wonder why populists are gaining power nowadays. What would you expect coming after years of austerity ?

  11. avatar

    Let the people decide their future with direct democratic votes.
    Grüsse aus Zürich.

    • avatar
      bert van santen

      You`ll get the same result as the Scottish referendum.
      Clearly visible on Youtube the SKY NEWS pictures : the YES votes on the NO table.
      The EU politicians have one goal. The Union and coin must survive, at all costs.

    • avatar
      George Yiannitsiotis

      @Bert Van Santen: The Union and coin must survive, at all costs
      Are you ready to being deprived of the right to decide of your community/country?
      Are you ready to comply to the orders of an allien to your society Troica against the welfare and existence of your society?
      Are you ready to being deprived of the right to vote?
      Are you ready to being stript off the right to private property?

      Either you understand it or not, we have already been deprived of the above “to save the euro” as you wish. However, we are not willing to save it at all costs leaving the 4th Reich as the unique beneficiary of the “Union” and the “coin”!.-

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Absolutely no?

      Bit extreme methinks.

      Even a stopped clock is right at least once per day!

  12. avatar
    Pedro Redondeiro

    NOPE NEVER, POPULISTS=TROUBLE! However Europe’s politicians should start listening the PEOPLE!!! ;)

    • avatar
      Paul X

      Erm..I think if you care to look at the definition of populist (quoted from above) you will find your statement is a total contradiction

      Populist = “A political doctrine that appeals to the interests and conceptions of the general people”

    • avatar

      pesto,what exactly is the difference between a populist and someone who disagrees with relentless political integration of all nation states.
      What you see as democracy I see as arrogant dictatorship,
      What you see as Populism I see as the people’s of Europe exercising their right NOT to be dictated to.
      Please tell me when you expect politicians to actually START listening to the views of the people of Europe,I don’t see any signs of it happening now or for the last decade .
      Let me ask you this ,How long are you personally going to sit back ,do nothing and wait for he politicians to start listening ? Or do you think it might be a good idea to adopt some “populist ” views and force them to listen.
      One of these approaches requires that you do Nothing,one requires you to do something.
      Where are you in this ? Are you a do something man,or a do nothing kind of guy.
      I bet I can guess which you are .

  13. avatar
    EU reform- proactive

    The populace- dismissed, seen & called by the arrogant “2nd ESTATE” as “anti-establishment?

    Vox Populi Vox Dei!

  14. avatar

    Populists are a reaction to “something” and not a cause by itself. That “something” can differ from a country to another, some might have encounter massive immigration, others governments or politicians wrongdoings, but if we dig deep to the core of the issue, it’s economic crisis, poverty and austerity. Those three elements are the root of all evil. How to tackle them?, well let’s agree that it’s about the people we elect to represent our needs, it’s their job. Some found in “populists” rhetoric the “key” to solve all their problems. Let them be, but I wouldn’t give them and their loud voices too much attention. Nowadays is become quite easy to came up with a truly motivational, logic, nationalistic, political discourse based on assumptions or undocumented facts.

  15. avatar

    Well, I don’t know whether politicians should listen to the populist or not but I do think that politicians should listen to the voters. And I ask myself why it is seen as populism when anyone wants to discuss the rather pertinent question “What EU do we want”? I find that a perfectly reasonably question to ask.

    And could it be that the [not so] recent surge in anti-EU sentiment is a reaction to politics that we voters feel isn’t working?

    We don’t need a new EU narrative, we need a reformed EU and if that means “more EU” or “less EU” I can’t say but I can say that without even asking the question “what EU do we want” seriously and equally seriously listening to the answers, our politicians will certainly have a much higher wave of discontent to deal with.

  16. avatar
    Leena Merisaari

    Populists are for people not relying on main politicians. So, Europe’s politicians should start listen to the “populists” representing the frustration and displeasure of the voters.

  17. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    how can a neoliberal Democrat right now more than a fascist dictator of 60 years I have vote federalism classical European Stop corruption financial corporant leadership in the states of the European Union

  18. avatar
    Joakim Jacobsen

    I am really surprised about how ill-informed Mario Monti is about immigration, does he really think that the current immigration from outside of Europe in any way benefits the ordinary European? As far as I have seen all statistics show us the same, all of those Africans, Arabs, and Pakistanis and so on end up being a cost for our states. Nor is it very pleasant to become a minority in your own city, city-block and etc. I would very much like to hear some honest arguments for once.

    • avatar

      Most of them come through the UK, but most brits are quick to bash the EU for it.
      I just don’t get it…

    • avatar

      I think it’s far better to pay citizens monthly for every new born child rather than to pay monthly for every immigrant on the welfare! That way eu or the state pays only for the effect and no counter culture immigrants are bridged to eu

  19. avatar

    Don’t listen to crazy wing-nuts. This is the last thing the EU needs now.

  20. avatar
    Hans-Hermann Heyland

    Not listening to right, left, religious or other special interest fanatics is as dangerous as building politics on listening to them. Leadership means that a leader must take up the issue really driving the fanatic and resolve it within own political concepts. Only this makes followers no longer listening to the fanatic and does not mean to yield to racism, xenophobia and other such nonsense. Unfortunately, politics today is more about being present in the media and either perceived to be nice and acceptable to large voting groups by looking after their special interests or using the media’s need for producing headlines to sell their products by inciting, exploiting and promoting sectarian conflicts. Once elected, politicians try to stay in office or to keep their mandates by sticking to what they brought to where they are.
    There is no encouragement in particular by the media to take up issues at stake to put solutions together in a framework suitable for all. Those achieving this are a deadly danger to no negative news and respective headlines, thus in the end destroying the mass media business modell driven by stirring up issues and trouble. The EU institutions are more and more strongly misused in this context by newcomers to its services, lobbyists and national governments.

  21. avatar

    Who is a “populist”? In the good sense a “populist” is a politician who listens to the voice of his electorate, and that is actually democracy.

    In the bad sense a “populist” is a politician who promisis things to his elecorate which he will not honour when in power. Unfortunately, the EU governments are full of the latter type of populist. Just think about the no bailout agreement in the €uro-Agreement, or the promises that the EU will make us all more prosperous, or the EU as a peace project etc.

    To call politicians like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen “populists” is too early in both meanings of the word, because they simply didn’t have the chance yet to be at the helm of EU governments.

    • avatar

      Those against the EU are populists (because it is popular interest to get rid of the elitist undemocratic EU)

      Those for the EU are quislings (because they ignore their own country’s interest and subject it to the decisions of unelected foreign politicians)

      Why was it treason to sell out to foreign politicians in the early 1940s but not anymore? It it was treason then, it is treason now.

  22. avatar
    catherine benning

    Did any of you see this news on your TV or read about it as a headline in any of your newspapers? As a follow up to my previous post, the British people are being muffled. Far more than the Chinese in Hong Kong. The government we have presently is turning into a fascist regime and we must be rid of it next May.

    And PS who was the ‘police’ in this particular incident, why Asos, the same group who are attacking the our poor and disabled in the UK. And who is the controller of ASOS why it is an American company and the British tax supporters are paying through the nose to have them torture their own people.

    Wake up.

  23. avatar

    Please, don’t let the mob take over. Implement actual democracy now.

  24. avatar

    You forgot to ask Carlbildt about his contacts with Slobodan Milosevic and his whitewash of Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes in former Yugoslavia wars.

  25. avatar

    Since when has listening the citizens , who vote for politicians and pay their salaries been populist , this is what being a politician is all about , and forgetting this will lead to revolt and uprising my citizens at some point in time .
    Someone has to stop the erosion of democracy in the EU otherwise things could very messy and dangerous .

  26. avatar

    I think that eu needs to quickly find a way how to satisfy eu conservatism like USA has managed to. Because so far eu conservatism is about deconstructing eu and not reforming it or leadership.

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