Populism or protest?

Wednesday 12 November, 19.30 until 21.00, Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren, Leopoldstraat 6, 1000 Brussels, Belgium International Satellite Events 2014

Free and unticketed. Places can be reserved via www.deburen.eu

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A subject that often comes up in Brussels is the infamous ‘democratic deficit’: what should be done to make Europe more democratic? But on the other hand, when democracy goes against the EU - as in the European elections in May – some then conclude that too much democracy is a bad thing. The victory of the Eurosceptic parties like UKIP, Front National and the Danish People’s Party was swiftly reinterpreted by Brussels as a victory for protest politics instead - as anti-Cameron or anti-Hollande votes, not anti-Juncker votes. In the UK, for example, the reaction of leading Conservative politicians was to take the votes as delivering a message to the ruling party, but that these ‘lender voters’ would return to them in 2015’s General Election.

Another interpretation of the European election votes back in May was to see them as expressing voters’ anger and disillusionment with mainstream politics; some went so far as to describe the vote as a ‘howl’ of rage. Neither reaction takes these populist votes as particularly serious or as representing a major change in the political landscape. Some go as far as Germany’s Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel in dismissing these voters as ‘stupid’. If not, then there are plenty of accusations of xenophobia, racism and backwoods nationalism. By contrast, of course, the European Union is portrayed as subtle and sophisticated: responsible and enlightened compared to the morally reprehensible populist movements.

Is this a fair picture? After all, the Eurosceptic parties – from the PVV to SYRIZA – are not all right-wing. Arguably they do have a feeling in common though: of being ‘left behind’ or manipulated by distant political elites. They may even represent something positive in the sense of expressing a certain aspiration for solidarity and for some respect as moral equals. If these votes are cast out of a desire to highlight a growing gulf between Us and Them then is that not something more than a mere rejection of the status quo? Or can we even tell that, given the low voter turnout rates? If Cameron in the UK and Hollande in France move towards a more anti-EU approach, will that take the wind of the populist parties? Or will it reinforce the perception of an out-of-touch elite that cannot find a way to connect with the public? If we are to have a real European democracy - as EU officials claim they do - is it not high time we take the EU-sceptical voters seriously, instead of dismissing it as unwanted and ‘populist’?

Kathleen van Brempt
MEP, Party of European Socialists; former Flemish government Minister for Mobility, Social Economy and Equal Opportunities

Koen de Voegt
co-chairman, Pirate Parties International

Drs Merijn Oudenampsen
sociologist and political scientist, Tilburg University; editor, Power to the People

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

Peter Whittle
culture spokesman, UKIP; director, New Culture Forum

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Xander Stroo programme officer, Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren
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