The Rise of Populism in Europe: we the people or them the mob?

Saturday 31 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Student Union

Recent crises across Europe, from the expenses scandal in the UK to the ex-PM of Hungary admitting lying to the electorate, not to mention the ongoing antics of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, have further discredited traditional political institutions. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has cast doubt on the establishment’s ability to manage the economy. Low turnout in the recent European elections further confirms that the European people are disenchanted with old-style politics. Although the elections were formally a victory for the centre-right across Europe, the real story is a swing away from mainstream parties, especially the Socialists, and perhaps towards sundry fringe parties. Prior to the election, elite fears focused on a potential breakthrough for far-right parties, a concern seemingly confirmed by the gains for the BNP in the UK and Jobbik in Hungary, as well as others in Holland, Italy and Austria. But popular revolts against the political class go beyond votes for neo-fascists. The rise of marginal parties, from Greens to the Pirate Party in Sweden, hints at a broader, free-floating anti-elite feeling that was also apparent in the ‘No’ votes to the EU Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty in France, Holland and Ireland

Many observers worry that while this sentiment can result in harmless support for independent celebrity candidates, it can also lead to something far more dangerous. The resulting suspicion of ‘populism’ even raises doubts about democracy per se, something seen most starkly in the EU’s telling the Irish people to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty. Given the xenophobic character of some of the parties gaining popularity, is there something genuinely problematic about emerging forms of anti-elitism, and should we be concerned about the lack of clear political programmes coming from fringe parties and charismatic independents? Or are cries of populism no more than an elitist reaction against anything outside the discredited mainstream, born of our rulers’ fears for their own legitimacy? Does ‘populism’ have any positive political content? Is Left and Right giving way to Us and Them? And does this point to a reinvigoration of democracy or its attenuation? Is the new populism the new alternative?

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David Aaronovitch
columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories; chair, Index on Censorship

Dr Chris Bickerton
associate professor of international relations, Sciences Po, Paris; author, European Integration: from nation states to member states; co-editor, The Current Moment

Dr David Runciman
professor of politics, Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), Cambridge University; author, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present

Dr Daniel Smilov
programme director, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Bulgaria; visiting professor, Central European University, Hungary

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Produced by
Dr Chris Bickerton associate professor of international relations, Sciences Po, Paris; author, European Integration: from nation states to member states; co-editor, The Current Moment
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