An Apology of Populism (1): What is a “Populist” in Today’s Europe?

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My name is Sebastiano I’m a 24 years old student in Macroeconomics and co-founder of TRAM:E (Theory, Reflection, Action, Movement: Europe). Born Italian, raised Belgian, French, German. Migrant by nature. Boundaries, borders… not my thing. Polyglot.

A good few weeks have gone by since May 25th. The elections are over and all related frenzy has waned in the general electorate, though the same can’t be said for many “EU bubble” enthusiasts (myself included). The European Council nominated on Friday – as “requested” by the Parliament – Jean-Claude Juncker as the official candidate to the European Commission’s Presidency, thus avoiding political suicide. The moment has come, then, for some considerations on the future of Europe.

“Populism” has made the front-page of every newspaper in the course of this campaign, in which it served as an umbrella term for all those parties and movements, on the Right and on the Left, sceptical of the direction EU integration is taking – though none has dared call the BritishTories, the most sceptical of all, “populists”. Populism, in its proper meaning, stands for any person, organisation or ideology “claiming to represent the common people”. Whichever dictionary you may choose to check the definition, most others – and most courses in political science – will agree with it. What this definition entails is the absolute belief in the rights, wisdom and virtues of the common people, the “average” men and women. That the people are unquestionably right and the élites are forever wrong, the us, the people vs. them, power-that-be opposition, is what the populist message has been about since long before the Great Recession.

A more correct term to describe the so-called populists would indeed be the good old fashioned concept of “Eurosceptics”, or variations on it. This would allow us to assess how far these parties’ critiques towards the current state of the European Union go: the Tories and their group in the European Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists, are opposed to a Political Union of the federalist kind, not to European integration as such (they’ve been, traditionally, very much in favour of the Single Market); parties on the Left that sit with Gauche Unie Européenne/Nordic Green Left are opposed to what they deem a “neoliberal” Europe, but not to the idea of the Union per se; lastly, most parties furthest to the Right – ranging from UKIP (Europe of Freedom and Democracy), to the Italian Lega Nord and the French Front National (European Alliance for Freedom, not formed) and going as far as Greek Chrysí Avgí (Golden Dawn) and Hungarian Jobbik (Non-attached) – downright want to close borders to migration and go back to national currencies.

Without getting into too much detail, Euroscepticism is traditionally divided into two different schools of thought, “hard” and “soft” Euroscepticism. The difference lies in the extent to which adherents reject European integration and in their reasons for doing so: in the classical categorisation, hard Euroscepticism opposes being a member of the European Union or the existence of it as a matter of principle; soft Euroscepticism, on the other hand, is the opposition to specific EU policies and to a Federal Europe. Accordingly, UKIP would qualify as a hard Eurosceptic party, while the Tories would come out as soft Eurosceptics. The French National Front’s ‘withdrawalism’ would put it in the hard Eurosceptic camp; the Italian Northern League switched from soft Euroscepticism to hard Euroscepticism thanks to its newly elected secretary, Matteo Salvini, who launched the #NoEuro campaign. And so on and so forth.

In this classification, however, a major aspect of European integration is overlooked: the Schuman Declaration of 1950. Drafted by Jean Monnet and read by Robert Schuman, both French, it stated that the “pooling of coal and steel production … will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims”. Far from a mere economic agreement, the evident intent of pooling basic production of coal and steel was “the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace”. Monnet and Schuman were functionalists – the current approach to European integration, supporting gradual and painless draining of national sovereignty – while Altiero Spinelli was a federalist, as he supported the drafting of a European Constitution from the start. Between the two approaches to European unification there were differences, but the ultimate goal of the “Founding Fathers” was the same: a European Federation.

Euroscepticism should be judged precisely on this, on how much it is opposed to the original European project. The first and foremost objective of this sixty-years-long process was and is a European Federation: not to defend against a common enemy, but to foster world peace by fostering European peace. Any party or movement doubtful – sceptical – of the goodness of this project, is definitively Eurosceptic. Good morning, Mr Cameron. (to be continued)

Sebastiano Putoto is a guest on this blog.

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