As a political, economic, social and cultural phenomenon, populism has perhaps been one of the most transcendental for the development of Western societies in the second half of the 20th century. It is closely linked to another phenomenon, emerged in the 19th century, but which had its most serious consequences with the two world wars: nationalism. Both have found spokespersons in a European region that is approaching complex parliamentary elections during what is perceived as the decline of its multilateral system.
Before referring to the specific European case, it is necessary to provide brief definitions of both concepts.
The three central elements of populism, that have been raised by Torcuato S. di Tella, are:
A political elite that says it wants to end the statu quo;
A mass of followers, who feel part of a kind of revolution;
An emotional state or an ideology that generates a collective enthusiasm and favors (at least in appearance) the communication between leaders and followers.
We can understand nationalism, in its most basic conception, as a political principle in which national unity coincides with political one. This has been raised by Ernest Gellner, who has also stated that the violation of this principle generates a “nationalist feeling” of anger. It is this feeling, rather than a thoughtful analysis, that leads to mobilization to recover the lost unity (whether real or imagined).
Two united concepts
In the current context, populism and nationalism are united. Traditionally, leftist populism, although it makes appeals to the homeland, does not show such a strong link with the ideas of hard nationalism. On the other hand, the extreme right-wing parties in Europe, (whether they recognize themselves as such or not), show signs of the grievance of the violated nationalist principle and they do it constantly.
Some of the key components of this nationalist populism are, in the first place, the isolationist proposals against the migratory crisis unleashed by the “Arab spring” (2010-2013) and, above all, the Syrian civil war (2011 to present) that began as part of the same process. The most obvious manifestation of this position has been the rejection of the Global Pact on Migration of 2018.
Secondly, a Euroscepticism that denounces the loss of national sovereignty over the alleged bureaucratic abuses of Brussels. At this point, Matteo Salvini, vice president of the Council of Ministers and Interior Minister of Italy, as well as leader of the nationalist Northern League party, has raised, in a meeting with the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (of the Law and Justice party), his desire for Europe to have its own “spring”. From it a new order for the EU, focused on the rescue of traditional values and the rejection of common policies on defense and migration, would arise (in theory).
Third, and perhaps the most important element, is the definition of the nation itself as opposed to an “other”, an enemy. This enemy, in the current context, is represented in two ways: the external one, Islam, and the internal one, the anti-patriotic forces that seek to break the national unity.
Appeal to the nation
To defend ideals that are considered threatened, populist politicians make a constant appeal to the nation, that substratum that apparently would have remained in a state of permanent deception by the traditional political parties, or completely out of politics.
An example of this is the overused concept of “silent majorities”, of which Richard Nixon was proud to represent in 1969. A current example of this is the tendency to self-attribute the representation of such ethereal ensembles as the “voice of the people”, in the case of Marine Le Pen, or the “living Spain”, for Vox.
As has happened in Latin America in the last five years, Europe could be facing its own change of political cycle, with the strong resurgence of nationalist political proposals with a clear populist component from Spain to Hungary, moving away from the social democratic tradition.
Establishing a parallel to what happened in the American continent (traditionally with left-wing populisms), contemporary European populism can not be explained – only – as the consequence of the dependency relationship of the peripheral regions toward the central ones. Although in the cases of Hungary and Poland a certain peripheral character could be adduced with respect to the industrial and financial powers within the European Union, for the cases of France and the United Kingdom, this is not possible (Spain and Italy remain in an intermediate position).
Nonetheless, it is necessary to consider the integration problems suffered by the most economically neglected regions within Europe. More than dependency problems, we could speak of the marginalization of certain regions, both from an economic, as well as a political and cultural point of view.
Going back to the Latin American case, we can link the current situation to the one Gino Germani referred in 1965, when he presented the contradictions within representative democracies in Latin America, in which coexisted some areas, social groups and cultural features considered “backward” along with other so-called “advanced”.
This delay, as we mentioned, it’s related with the integration problems within the EU, but not only in relation to economic circuits. Another important aspect is the lack of integration of public services at the regional level, as pointed out by the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion (ESPON). Both elements, added to the high rates of unemployment in France, Italy and Spain, have helped to establish the favourable climate for the electoral success of nationalist populism in some regions.
In the next European elections there will be representatives of parties and groups that seek the promotion of common policies, and others that wish to return to the autonomy of the nation-state against the political community constituted by the EU.
The problem does not lie in the existence of different political options for the development of each country and the region, but in the fact that many of these are based on demonizing the current political system, and also, the minorities and vulnerable groups that find shelter in their legal system and democratic ideals. The continuity and permanence of arguments that had already reached their peak during the first half of the 20th century, with disastrous consequences, is especially worrisome.