Although the shape and form of the phenomena have varied among the continent from marginal critics of the political establishment to a main political strategy for ruling parties, Europe has faced a general rise of nationalism and populism throughout the last decade. The urgency of this rise was perfectly grasped at a conference organized by the Alfred Mozer Stichting, European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Institute for Democracy and Social Processes (IDSP). The conference was held on November 24th and 25th in Kiev and welcomed progressive politicians from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as well as from the European Union. A various range of academics from accross Europe completed the list of participants.
The conference had two main aims: grasping one of the most powerful features of populism, namely the wide range of regional, ideological and practical shapes it can take, and discussing a response that European social democrats could have to nationalism and populism. When it comes to the former, in dealing with this threefold explanation, vice-president of the European Forum Jan Marinus Wiersma emphasized four regional categories of populism. Between populism in the old EU states, the post-accession countries, the pre-accession countries and the post-Soviet states exist some fundamental regional differences, which make it hard to apply a general pan-European or social democratic strategy against it. Here lies a big responsibility for the regional social democratic parties.
Moreover, although the title of the conference may suggest otherwise, populism does not necessarily only appeal to right-wing or nationalist ideology. Populism is ideologically flexible and can appeal to very concrete as well as abstract ideological demands. As was explained during the academic introduction, only at a region-independent level there are at least ten various definitions of populism. Finally, when grasping populism, attention should be paid to the relation between the substance and the form of populism. Monitoring and challenging populism is in the first place a matter of substance. Social democrats should look more seriously and self-reflexively at the questions populists ask. Offering voters a realistic answer to the unrealizable promises of populists may affect populism end strengthen social democracy in a different and more permanent way than by taking over the strategies of populism.
A social democratic response
The distinction between form and substance overlaps with the second aim of the conference. How should social democratic parties throughout Europe respond to the rise of populism and nationalism? Whereas grasping the wide range of populism tended to be a very fruitful, interactive and cumulative process, it appeared to be more difficult to find concrete means and measures for challenging this broad threat. By means of three working groups, some concrete general measures were found by the participants. Returning to the social demands of the people, putting minority-rights and gender higher on the political agenda and finding a balance between national and global interests give only an indication of the measures.
A detailed report with the specific contributions of the participants will follow soon.