Leaders from the European Peoples Party (EPP) meeting in Madrid on Thursday (22 October) warned that populism was a “disease” spreading “like a cancer” in the EU.
This “demagogic approach”, according to Antonis Samaras, former prime minister of Greece, could have disastrous consequences for democracy.
Samaras participated in the panel “Democracy under Assault: The Threat of Populism for Modern Societies” held during the EPP congress, together with Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, Angelino Alfano, Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Pablo Casado, Spanish MP with the Partido Popular (PP), and Mikulas Dzurinda, President of the EPP think-tank (Martens Centre) and former prime minister of Slovakia.
Discussions focused on populist parties like leftist and anti-system Podemos in Spain, National Front (FN) in France, Golden Dawn in Greece and the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle), founded by controversial Italian comedian Beppe Grillo.
Demagogy as common denominator
“Populism is not an ideology, its common denominator is demagogy. They have a simplistic way to see reality: they divide the society between the villains, their opponents, and the rest of people”, Samaras said.
In a public endorsement of Spain´s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, ahead of national elections to be held on December 20, Samaras expressed his hope for a sound victory for the PP, warning: “we should avoid that Spain becomes victim of the same illusion – explicitly referring to Podemos.
Another topic for debate was the link between populism and the economy, and the “false promises” populist parties, right or left-wing, often make. “People want to know what´s best for their parents’ pensions. They are worried about practical issues. But the answer from populism is, Casado insisted, was “dreams and false illusions”.
Financial crisis and populism
Populism, Alfano commented, is fuelled by financial crises. “The financial crisis in the EU has served to boost populism all over Europe. It has sparked social unrest and increased mistrust with politicians, and with the EU”, Alfano stated.
As participants in the panel said, populist parties share the same narrative: a worrying attempt at redefining democracy for their own interests. “They are back to communist times. They are old-fashioned. They speak on behalf of the people, but they promise them the moon”, Casado said.
Populist parties put in danger economic reforms and recovery in Europe, because they are “Nay-sayers”who rarely offer workable proposals, the centre-right panelists claimed.
In that context, the EPP called to strengthen the resilience of democratic institutions by offering reasonable solutions and credibility – the only way to defeat populism and keep a sound financial recovery in the EU, participants in the debate said.
“They make promises like tsunamis, but never deliver”, Samaras noted. But it is one thing is to make promises, and a very different issue to be in the government and take “responsible decisions”, Alfano stated.
Populism, a catalyst for change?
Norway´s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, mentioned a “positive” side of populism: “they are correctives”. “Populism can trigger a process of change”, she added. In her view, populist parties are growing in Europe because politicians too often do not do their job properly: “we didn´t build enough trust. We shouldn´t worry that much about [the] economy, and focus our attention more on citizens”, Solberg insisted.
However, she acknowledged that the sound economic situation in Norway allowed the Scandinavian country to re-focus on social policies and be better prepared to tackle the challenge of populism than southern and central European countries.