Tackling populism: Building a European counternarrative


Years of widening inequality, economic hardship and stagnant social mobility have contributed to a populist backlash of destructive ferocity. As the liberal order watches inanely on – gawping with consternation and impotence – the question is: Should we really be surprised?

History has taught us that political crisis is to be expected after economic shock: The Long Depression of the early 1870s nearly saw the election of anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney as US president in 1878, whilst the 1929 Wall Street Crash helped precipitate the descent to fascism in Europe.

In similarly monolithic terms, it is often contended that populism 2016-style has its origins in the 2008 Great Recession and its eurozone offspring. In Greece, this explanation is, perhaps, accurate. However, for the rest of Europe, and indeed the US, the picture is more complex, with its roots extending deeper into time.

Poorly planned globalization, occurring from the 1980s onward, has impoverished small communities whose economies long relied on one or two old-world industries. The damage was caused not by globalization itself, as radical leftists contend, but by the form which it took, and also its speed. Globalization occurred too rapidly, was planned too loosely and involved the consensus of too few actors for it to be sustainable. As Western governments hurriedly moved to dismantle trades such as coal and steel, communities were deprived of the time required to reinvent themselves and diversify their economies. The result is a rural backlash led by populist upstarts who prey on citizens’ desperation to advance generally unrelated objectives. In Europe, these are of an increasingly nationalist and anti-EU character.

Enter the 89ers

As this populist tide sweeps the continent, new political battle lines are being drawn. The left-right divide is sliding into insignificance, with the real conflict now between those who believe in an open, free and global society and those who do not. This conflict will define Western politics for the next decade. In order for openness to prevail, a strong counternarrative is needed. Yet, so far, liberal pro-Europeans have failed emphatically to provide this. As the generation of Europe’s future, it is up to the 89ers (the generation of young Europeans, born 1980-2000, who grew up after the fall of communism) to step into the breach.

The European Union requires considerable – if not wholesale – reform for it to survive. Its institutions are weak and exhausted, with its member-states moving in different directions and at different speeds. Importantly, the EU is no longer able to provide the prosperity and security that was once its hallmark. However, if 2016 provided any optimism, it was the resounding support shown by young Europeans for the EU. Since many of our elders are disinclined to embrace the European spirit, the responsibility falls to the 89ers to deliver the ideas and actions that will regenerate it. It falls to the 89ers to assess where we have gone wrong and to right the mistakes of the past. It falls to the 89ers to build broad coalitions of pro-European citizens, on the left and on the right, in cities and in small communities. Ultimately, it falls to the 89ers to build a fresh new vision for the EU that transcends the ideological, educational and national cleavages of the past.

To make progress toward this, we must first be self-critical and honest. Addressing the underlying causes of populism 2016-style will require a healthy mix of realism and creativity – with consensus achieved through structured cross-border discussion.

Clearly, much time must be devoted to addressing the concerns about globalization that have been the lifeblood of the populist movements. But there are other areas that must also be dealt with. The EU must show it can mitigate the threat of terrorism and other threats of an external nature. It must demonstrate improved management of the migration crisis, as well as the effective delivery of a social policy that improves the livelihoods of its most vulnerable citizens.

As this year comes to a close, we are faced with questions of historic significance. How we respond will define a period: Do we want a society that is open, tolerant, international and forward-looking? That promotes solidarity, connectivity and opportunity? Or will we allow ourselves to be held hostage by demagogues whose solution to every problem is less immigration and higher walls? Perhaps never has a policy debate been more timely.

* Michalis Cottakis is a political scientist and president of the 1989 Generation Initiative at the London School of Economics.