Politicians argued that the liberal forces across Europe should not imitate the populists, even though their simple messages reach out to a growing number of disenchanted voters across the continent.
MEP Cecilia Wikström of the Swedish Liberal People’s Party said that instead of copying the populists, the European liberals should address the economy.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’
Referring to the catch phrase from Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992, Wikström said that her own party had for eight years been led by one main political “mantra”: to present people, from all generations and walks of life, with new and credible “chances for their lives”.
Arguing for the need to share best practices, she said that what the Swedish liberals presented to the electorate was quite different from the proposals of the Socialists, who in her terms wanted to control all aspects of peoples’ lives.
The problem however, she said, was that with the economic crisis, people had lost trust.
“A head full of fears has no dreams," said Wikström. "The lack of trust, the fear is our main enemy that we must combat. Citizens are facing real problems, and we as politicians must take these problems seriously, and not address them by giving another stereotype, another caricature. If you are talking about integration, address jobs, housing, schooling, and don’t put the blame on somebody, without addressing this somebody.”
Without naming the eurosceptic British press, Wikström strongly criticised those who take aim at “Brussels”.
Brussels bashing, new racism
“One solution to populism is to stop blaming Brussels. Be specific in your criticism. Who are you blaming and for what? If you are blaming the Commission, or one commissioner, blame this institution, blame this person, but don’t blame Brussels! Brussels is a city! It is ridiculous to put the blame on Brussels,” she said amid laughs.
Wikström humorously referred to stereotypes generally accepted by the European audience, which she said were racist. It is quite common these days to read or hear on TV about “the lazy Greeks”, but it would not be acceptable to refer in the same way to Tanzanians or Egyptians without being accused of racism and provoking a scandal, she said.
“How come that we today accept all this labelling on each other, how come that we don’t rise up when Geert Wilders in the Netherlands comes with a website where people can complain about their new Polish neighbours,” she said.
The Swedish MEP also said that a feature of populism was to blame someone else on sensitive issues such as minorities and immigration.
“Isn’t it horrible what the French are doing to the Roma. But we are completely clean. But we are not. This persecution is happening everywhere in Europe today, even in Sweden”, she said.
Isolating or integrating the populists?
Jan-Kees Wiebenga, a former Dutch MEP and vice president of the European Parliament (1999-2001), said the financial crisis was not the cause of rising populism.
In the Netherlands, the first time a populist party entered parliament was in 2002, long before the economic crisis, with the Lijst Pim Fortuyn, or LPF. He also mentioned Belgium and the Vlaams Blok, which in 2004 had arguably become the single most popular Flemish party in the country.
Wiebenga, member of the VVD party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, said the core question was whether to isolate the populist parties, or make them co-responsible - together with the people who voted for them - for their policies. He gave as an example the Vlaams Blok, the predecessor of the Vlaams Belang, which was isolated from the rest of the Belgian political class. But he said it took a very long time before this party “went down” and lost influence.
By contrast, Wiebenga stressed that Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom in the Netherlands had a coalition agreement with the previous Rutte government. The same was true for the Danish People’s Party, which also participated in coalition governments.
“I would say, in fighting populism, the liberal answer could be that we should not copy or imitate these populist viewpoints. On the contrary, the liberals should, stick to a tradition of moderation and tolerance, and actively point at the values of the European civilization in the multi-polar world,” Wiebenga said.
US political marketing as a model
Not everyone in the audience appeared convinced, however.
Mindaugas Lapinskas, vice chair of the Lithuanian Liberal Movement, made ironic remarks that the previous speakers were looking to him like traders of desktop computers discussing how to raise to the challenge of smartphones.
“That doesn’t solve the problem. I think we are burying ourselves while discussing such a high-brow political issue. The success of populist parties is not so much in their deeds, in what they are doing, as in their rhetoric, in their marketing, in the way they present simple in simple terms solutions to complicated problems. And this brings me to the US situation, where there is a Tea Party which is kind of populist, but where mainstream politicians are able to phrase the solutions in a clear and simple way. As long we are not accepting this, and assume that the customers will buy our destop computers instead of smartphones, we will lose,” he said.
“You are a populist,” the moderator of the discussion, Gulio Ercolessi, from the European Liberal Forum, said amid laughs.