The drift to illiberal Pop-Nat – populist nationalist – politics in Europe continues. Across the Atlantic Donald Trump exemplifies Pop-Nat politics. There is no sign that the grip of Orban-Kaczynski style politics is weakening. They represent the soft EU version of Putin-Erdogan political control. Elections are held. A market economy exists. People can travel and publish.
But the Pop-Nat political class slowly dissolves the separation of powers and seeks to influence or reduce judicial and media independence. Journalists who challenge the Pop-Nat leaders are punished. In Turkey, opposition editors face prison sentences. In Poland, 141 journalists have lost their jobs. The Pop-Nat states are defined by enemies – the US and the West for Putin; secular Ataturk traditions for Erdogan; liberal European values for Kaczynski. Religion has returned to centre-stage. Erdogan is re-islamising Turkey after the long reign of secular Ataturkism. Putin is seen regularly in Orthodox cathedrals while Kaczysnki preaches Catholic rules and essays a return to banning the Polish woman’s right to choose.
The Pop-Nats in western Europe also focus on religion with an obsession about Muslims as their ancestors obsessed about Jews earlier in the last century. They dislike foreigners across the board. Green Pop-Nats distrust science with the vehemence of the Vatican condemning Galileo.
In Krakow, at a recent British-Polish Council meeting sponsored by Chatham House, Polish spokespersons spoke of national concern over the arrival of ‘immigrants’ in Poland. They meant refugees from Iraq, Syria and Libya. In Britain, the term ‘immigrant’ when used by Ukip or Migration Watch or the former head of the Commission of Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, means Poles and other EU citizens.
Pop-Nats in the Front National in France or Alternative für Deutschland in Germany have elevated the issue of Islam, immigration or mass movement of people above that of the Euro or even the EU. The issue has cost the career of the first major head of government, Austria’s Chancellor Werner Feyman, and almost resulted in the election of a President of Austria from a party rooted in a Nazi sympathizing past.
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Pop-Nats have more resonance on the right of politics but there are Pop-Nats of the left like the Podemos-Isquierda Unida coalition in Spain as well as the Syriza party in Greece. The traditional 20th century democratic left parties like Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), Britain’s Labour Party, Greece’s Pasok, or Spain’s PSOE are all much reduced in terms of voter support or hopes of forming a government. In France, ten per cent of French Socialist Party deputies recently signed a motion of censure against their own government. All French governing parties have had moment of rebellion but this is the first time in the 5th Republic that there was so much support for a censure motion from Socialist deputies which could have led to the government falling.
The democratic left has been almost entirely eliminated from the politics of the new ex-communist EU member states. Communist parties rebaptised themselves as social democratic in the 1990s led by a carefully selected elite of young leaders educated in the West. They performed a useful function in easing the transformation to market economics and led the process of joining the EU and Nato. But new rich and middle class managerial business and professional classes now have no interest in sustaining democratic left parties. Instead Pop-Nat leaders like Orban, Kaczynski and Robert Fico in Slovakia have emerged to become the alternative vector of political mobilisation and government.
A key reference point for Pop-Nat politics is often hostility to the European Union. The EU is an easy target. It makes laws which impact on everyone but without the existence of a European demos, and are based on compromise and lowest common denominator decisions which cannot satisfy enthusiasts while deeply irritating opponents. The failure of traditional national political leaders to defend the decisions they take within a Brussels framework and instead their habit of decrying and criticising an EU policy or law they themselves voted for validates the anti-EU rhetoric of Pop-Nats.
Blaming the EU and making it a whipping boy has become cheap and easy politics but the main beneficiaries are those who ratchet up the demagogy of anti-Brussels populism.
The principal political mechanism of the Pop-Nats is the call for referendum as the main way of deciding political questions. These become populist plebiscites that move decisions away from parliamentary deliberation to loud headlines in tabloids. Winning or losing referendums may not be the real object but rather the Pop-Nats seek to entrench 21st century plebiscites as substitutes for the traditional development of government based on historic compromises between competing ideological positions and real-time policies.
The move to on-line and social media as the new means of political communication encourages Pop-Nat politics as does the new generation of television and radio political interrogators who have exchanged a mission to explain for a mission to treat all full-time mainstream politicians – especially those who actually govern – as liars and cheats corrupted by ambition and limitless desire for power.
The new era of Pop-Nat politics is now entrenched. It tends towards authoritarianism as in Turkey or Hungary and is causing the slow disappearance of the traditional left in West Europe. It decries liberal and human rights politics. Pop-Nat politics has long existed in Latin America and some Asian political life, notably most recently in India. Its American expression is of course Donald Trump. The era of deliberative political discourse and mass party organisation that began with the European Enlightenment is now surely but slowly coming to an end – there and elsewhere.
Denis MacShane was a Labour MP (1994-2012) and served as UK minister of Europe. He writes regularly on European politics and Brexit.
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