by Neil Smart Costantino

The world’s political tension levels are at an all-time high at the moment, with the unexpected victories of Brexit and Donald Trump setting off alarms. The challenge we face now is to identify what led to these results and ensuring that similar outcomes are not repeated in the ever-so sensitive German and French elections, amongst others.

Populism – Where Are We Now?

Following a series of events which have rocked the very core of the European Union, populism around the continent has been on an alarming rise. The Charlie Hebdo attacks way back in the first few days of 2015 started raising questions on how secure our societies really are. The attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 were the epitome of all terror attacks committed in recent years. The side effect of these events has led to an unfortunate situation around the European Union.

Many politicians, with elections looming are starting to ride on the wave of popular sentiment being expressed by the public at large. It is inevitable that people start asking questions when they see terrifying events happening around the corner or in neighbouring countries. The first question that surely comes to mind will almost definitely be: “Is my country next?”. The reality is that, as wrong as it may be, people automatically link terror attacks to Islam.

Notwithstanding the fact that groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) have actually claimed the responsibility for most of the attacks, this does not mean that people coming from a particular background, religion or ethnicity fall under the same category as the people committing these attacks.

Populist leaders are using this state of fear shown by their citizens and exploiting it to their own advantage. In fact, the arguments made eleven times out of ten by populist parties revolve around one issues – migration. Many countries are growing frustrated being part of the European Union, and that is what essentially is threatening the future of the European project.

Nationalism is growing and it is now in the hands of the leading countries such as Germany and France to rally the people of Europe together and re-ignite the spark that is being lost between the people and the European Union.

Successful Populist Campaigns

If one had to summarise 2016 in two words, it would have to be Brexit and Trump. The campaigns run by the respective camps were perceived by many as a “joke”. That is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons why both were eventually successful.

The approach taken by populist activists, in this case the Leave Campaign and Donald Trump, was taken for granted to be defeated eventually – but they certainly did not. This is one of the strong points of populism: with people considering it self-evident that these camps eventually lose their strength, it alleviates a hefty amount of pressure from the political party or candidate in question, and shifts (while multiplying it) to the shoulders of the other part.

Stop for a minute and think – did Donald Trump have one thing to lose? Okay, he could have suffered the “shame” of not being elected, but he did not. Instead, he pursued what he believed was the right thing, and what many people essentially did too. That is the main strength of populist campaigns – answering the right questions that the people are asking.

On the other hand, centrist parties tend to take a more diplomatic approach towards what they really believe in, which normally leads to making enemies along the way. It has to be kept in mind that you can answer the questions that the people are asking without resorting to populist ideologies.

The Trump camp associated terrorism with migration – an outright lie they promoted among the general public. However, what he was saying was providing a solution, however wrong it may be, to the worries that the people were experiencing day in day out when going to work, or sending their children to school. The Brexit campaign is another fresh wound at the hands of populism.

The same was true of the Leave campaign, again answering the questions that the Britons were frustrated with, such as state of the National Health Service and migration, both topics that were on top of the agenda championed by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

The Dutch Silver Lining

As they say, every cloud has its silver lining, and for the believers of the European Project, that silver lining come in the shape of Austria and more recently, the Netherlands. Following Brexit and Trump, the world certainly learned that anything can happen if the right strings are pulled at the right time. The stakes in the Dutch elections were never as high, not simply for the Dutch – but for the future of Europe as a unity of nations.

The task faced by Mark Rutte in early 2017 was a rather tough one against a party led by the far-right Geert Wilders. Many believed that a win for Wilders would have meant Strike II for the EU, with German and French elections right round the corner.

In such a scenario, the strategy undertaken by the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) had to be on point and capable of a quick adaptation in an ever-changing environment – all of this while the polls were not so encouraging. Very intelligently, Rutte used what he called “the Right Kind of Populism” to his advantage to win the Dutch elections.

He emphasised the issues that mattered to the people, on what made a difference in every day lives. People were made aware of the aftermath of Brexit and did not want the same to be repeated in their country.

The ability to spread an optimistic message while remaining tough on more sensitive issues is a must. The Rutte campaign did retain its optimism and that is vital in the fight against populism – you need to highlight the things that people have, rather on what they are afraid to lose.

Future in the balance

At the beginning of 2016, many did not ever conceive of an EU without the United Kingdom. Today, we are looking at the possibility of having an EU without France and Germany, arguable two of the biggest players of the union. As scary as that may sound, it may well and truly become reality if more centrist parties do not take the right approach in their respective campaigns. Marine Le Pen has an alarmingly high approval rate, while extremist parties in Germany continue to make a noise. Angela Merkel is a role model for fighting populist parties.

Many new leaders of this generation are disregarding the values which make us who we are and the European project what it really is. Angela Merkel is the exact opposite. Politicians are not there to ride a wave of populist approval and go with the flow – the real leaders are the ones who influence the flow and take the tough decisions when it is necessary to take them.

Strategically speaking this speaks volumes on how trustworthy a politician really is. The infamous decision taken by Angela Merkel to open her country’s borders had left her with some dwindling approval ratings. An admirable fact is that even two years later, during the EPP Congress in Malta, she emphasised on how proud she is for taking a decision in favour of humane values and not in favour of approval ratings. Essentially, that is what wins you elections and trust of the people. Understanding the concerns of the people and delivering a strong message filled with optimism and hope – nothing more than what each human being deserves.

25 May 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 68