The Rise of Europe’s Antipopulists

Civis Mundi Digitaal #46

door Caroline de Gruyter

“Blijf bij ons! Blijf bij ons!” It’s not often that you hear a crowd of Germans calling out in Dutch. Certainly not smiling, middle-class Germans with children, waving blue-and-gold EU flags on a Sunday afternoon on a Berlin square. But there they were, on February 26, on the steps of the city’s concert hall: between 1,000 and 2,000 Germans calling “Blijf bij ons!” (“Stay with us!”), a message that they didn’t want the Netherlands to leave the EU. “If the Dutch quit, it would pierce our hearts,” said one of the demonstrators, Christoph Klopp. He told a reporter that since these gatherings had started last winter, they had roughly doubled in size every Sunday.

Something new is happening in several European countries: slowly but surely, citizens are taking to the streets or the Internet, or both, in an attempt to counter the antiglobalist, Euroskeptic, and anti-immigrant messages of far-right populists and nationalists. This activity isn’t taking place in a political void. In recent months, right-wing populists have failed to win three European elections in a row: first, in Austria; then, in the Netherlands; and finally, in the first round of the French presidential election on April 23, when a pro-European centrist, Emmanuel Macron, beat the far-right Marine Le Pen.

As pro-European groups gather momentum, the question is whether they will be able to reinvigorate the public debate, introduce much-needed reforms in their countries and the EU, and make the compromises necessary to advance integration.


A positive vision for Europe

Pulse of Europe, the gathering that Klopp attends in Berlin every week, promotes a positive and open vision for Europe that aims to give a voice to “the majority of people [who] believe in the fundamental idea of the European Union.” Since a Frankfurt couple started Pulse of Europe in January 2017, the meetings have spread to over 100 cities in Germany, Belgium, France, Portugal, and other EU member states. By mid-April, the movement was present in thirteen countries in Europe and had almost 90,000 likes on Facebook.

This civil activism, run by volunteers, is not confined to EU countries. In early 2016, Swiss students from Fribourg University set up a progressive liberal movement, Operation Libero, to fight populist demands for borders and tighter rules on immigration and Islam. The students have chalked up remarkable successes already, twice defeating the far Right in sensitive nationwide referenda.

This experience has inspired other Europeans to set up open and cosmopolitan campaigns, too. Some of them come to little or nothing, others flourish. Some focus on specific issues, others have broader political aims. But all seek to give a voice to citizens who feel that the European project is under threat from calls for EU powers to be renationalized or for member states to exit the union. In the Netherlands, several citizen groups that support the EU have become active over recent months. In the UK, the organizers of last year’s Hug a Brit initiative, which encouraged Europeans to embrace Brits and urged them to vote to stay in the EU in the UK’s June 2016 referendum, plan to set up a new pan-European project to promote European togetherness.

Some politicians have discovered that countering populism with a positive, cosmopolitan approach has electoral potential. Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor who was elected Austrian president in December 2016, relied heavily on grassroots supporters. France’s Macron, who doesn’t belong to an established political party (although he has served as a minister in a Socialist government), also enjoys support across the board.

Like Van der Bellen was, Macron is a convinced European who faces a Euroskeptic populist as his main opponent. “For those who want Europe to be open and forward looking, Macron is the only choice,” said Jean-Louis Bourlanges, formerly a French centrist member of the European Parliament, in an interview. The rest of the political class, he said, is made up of either anti-European nationalists or “Euro-lukewarmists” who don’t contradict the nationalists too much for fear of losing votes. “Until Macron appeared on the scene, nobody really answered the populists.”


From Swiss referenda . . .

The assessment that it is time to answer the populists and stand up for the EU and its democracies is the main driver of many initiatives popping up across Europe. But the first push, interestingly, came from a non-EU country: Switzerland. This is one of the most globalized nations in the world. It is also a country where the populist backlash against globalization started earlier than in most surrounding states.

The far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has been the biggest party in the national parliament since the mid-1990s. In 2014, the SVP narrowly won a referendum calling for the reinstatement of quotas for immigrants. Just 50.3 percent voted in favor; the turnout was 56 percent, which is high by Swiss standards. But the result landed Switzerland in political trouble with the EU. The Swiss participate in the EU single market and must accept freedom of movement and market regulations from Brussels. The quotas violated all bilateral agreements between Bern and Brussels. “My friends and I watched this referendum and its aftermath in disbelief,” said Flavia Kleiner, a student from Fribourg, in an interview. “We asked ourselves: Where has our open, tolerant Switzerland gone? Is nobody going to stand up for it anymore? The campaign was completely dominated by the SVP. You hardly heard any other arguments.”

Then, another controversial referendum was announced for February 2016. This time, the SVP proposed automatically expelling all foreigners convicted of a crime. A few months before, Kleiner met with strategists from the mainstream parties to offer students’ help in opposing the plan. All who were present agreed that automatic expulsions would violate international laws, which require a judge to hear each expulsion case. But then one party official said, “We have run out of money. We’ll let this referendum pass.” Another, of a different party, argued they could not possibly win this referendum: “Do you want us to defend criminal foreigners?!” So it went on. In the end, Kleiner stood up and said, “I’m the youngest in this room, and the least experienced. But I’m disgusted. I don’t want to live in a country that does these things. This is not my Switzerland. If you won’t fight, we will do it.”

And so Operation Libero was born. The students had no money. But they had time and computers. It was hard work. They started trolling on the Internet, just like the SVP. Suddenly, there were people countering rants against foreigners, Muslims, and the so-called leftish establishment. The students participated in as many debates as possible. They struck up street conversations everywhere and wrote articles for newspapers.

People took notice. Kleiner was soon invited onto television for a debate. Her young, fresh appearance and positive message contrasted favorably with the older, gray-suited SVP politician who was her opponent. “When we started the campaign,” Kleiner said, “polls predicted a comfortable win for the SVP, around 65 percent. This was six weeks before the referendum. After we got involved, support for the SVP went down steadily. Ours went up.”

In the end, the students won. It was a convincing victory: 58.9 percent of voters rejected the proposal in the referendum. When the result was announced, one government minister hugged Kleiner on stage and thanked the students. A photo of cheering students—with Kleiner smiling from ear to ear—went viral.

Operation Libero doesn’t mobilize for every issue the Swiss vote on. “You have to choose your targets well,” Kleiner said. “It is not enough to have a good argument and talk to the like-minded. You need to convince people on the street. You have to get your hands dirty, using the tricks that the other side uses. They have trolls? You need trolls, too. They have the front page of free tabloids like 20Minuten? You get there faster.”

Simple slogans and fast interactions online, she said, are extremely important. But how do you explain in clear, understandable language that according to international law, a judge needs to be involved in expulsions of criminal foreigners, and why this is important? The students talked about this for some time. In the end, they decided to use the phrase that “it is bad to take the judge out of expulsion decisions.” One day, Kleiner overheard two women in a café debating the issue with exactly these words. She had used them in a television debate days earlier. Then Kleiner knew the point had come across and victory was within reach.

In February 2017, the students became active again. This time, they were supporting a referendum proposal aimed at easing the procedures for third-generation immigrants to become Swiss. This was a sensitive issue. But again, the students turned public opinion around—this time with the help of other organizations and movements. They produced a video about two young women, Vania and Vanja: friends and lookalikes who were born and grew up together in the same Swiss village. But one could vote, and the other could not, because her parents were Swiss born but her grandparents were not. Posters of Vania and Vanja were put up all over Switzerland. The caption read, “There’s no difference. We’re both Swiss. Period.” Over 60 percent of voters agreed and voted to simplify the citizenship procedures.


. . . To Dutch elections

When a Dutch newspaper published an article about Operation Libero in early 2016, the response was huge. Readers wanted to know whether the paper was aware of similar initiatives in the Netherlands. It took a year until, in the heat of the Dutch parliamentary election campaign, in February 2017, seven friends in Amsterdam decided to try to copy the Swiss students. Polls indicated that the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) could become the biggest party in the Dutch parliament. The Netherlands’ center-right liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte, had moved farther to the Right by publishing an ad telling immigrants to “act normally” or leave the country. One of the initiators of Operatie Libero Nederland, artist Esther Polak, said in an interview that she and her friends decided one evening that “we have to do something. So many people don’t agree with this, we have to give them a voice.”

Someone mentioned the Swiss students. They contacted Kleiner, whose main advice to the Amsterdammers was to put forward another narrative, but never to insult or isolate the populists. “Engage them in discussions,” Kleiner said. The website of Operatie Libero Nederland, launched three weeks before the March 15 election, states the movement’s goal: “Counter the populists with facts.”

In the end, the far Right failed to win the Dutch election. But it is doubtful that Libero turned the electoral tables. It was late in the day: a week before the vote, the organizers were still looking for Europe specialists willing to volunteer. Yet they were not the only ones who thought politicians like the PVV’s Geert Wilders and Rutte had crossed a line and that polarization had to be stopped. In the last few weeks before the vote, several similar initiatives saw the light of day.

One was No Nexit, which opposed a possible Dutch exit from the EU, an idea the PVV was toying with. The two siblings who founded the movement were alarmed by the fact that a tiny minority—Wilders’s party commanded around one-sixth of the vote in the polls—had managed to put a Dutch EU exit on the agenda. A majority of Dutch people want to remain in the EU. Based on 20 consecutive Eurobarometer polls, the Notre Europe Institute put the Dutch squarely in the Europhile category. But since the Brexit vote in the UK, Wilders and other ultra-right-wing politicians bring the topic up constantly. No Nexit wants to make young voters aware of the consequences of a Dutch exit and keep the Netherlands in the EU. “We were politically lazy before,” Polak said. “The time had clearly come to get out of our bubble.”


Fear of exclusion

The fact that these groups, amateurish or not, sprang up means that the main claims of populist parties are finally being challenged. Populists, whether in Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, or elsewhere, have many local flavors, said Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University who wrote a powerful essay called “What Is Populism?” in 2016. But all have one thing in common: they claim that they, and only they, represent the people. Those who don’t agree are seen as not being part of the people. They are considered traitors and must be excluded.

“The antipluralist attitude is where the danger to democracy lies,” Müller said. “We’ve seen several attacks on the judiciary, the parliament, and other democratic institutions in the UK, France, and the Netherlands.” According to Müller, the best opposition to populists is for others to make clear that they are part of the people, too. “I am surprised how seldom this argument is used. In many countries, populists only score 20 or 30 percent, not more. . . . Sorry, that is not ‘the people.’”

This realization that exclusion may be looming partly motivates many new activists. With a large abstention rate, a populist minority could become a majority. The Swiss SVP won its immigration quotas this way. Brexit was determined by only a small number of voters. “Most people are so overwhelmed by these dark times with attacks and crises that they just tune out of politics, do yoga, and focus on themselves,” said Katharina Moser, a young Austrian who organizes European projects with the aim of fostering a European spirit. One of her projects, Route 28, brings people in Vienna to the homes of citizens from other EU member states.

The refugee crisis and the populist backlash that followed have transformed the political landscape in Austria. For decades, the main political fight was between left- and right-wing parties. “Now, increasingly, it is a fight between those who want an open society and those who want it closed,” Moser said in an interview. “The latter are more vocal and capture the headlines.”

The biggest Austrian political party is the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which holds around 30 percent of the vote in the polls. As in France and the Netherlands, mainstream parties in Austria are partly taking on the FPÖ’s discourse. Many like to see Van der Bellen’s 2016 presidential victory as a turning point. Maybe it was. But Moser shares a large Viennese office building with about 400 others. Most of them are open-minded artists or entrepreneurs who don’t like nationalism, let alone the prospect of an Austrian EU exit. “Still,” she said, “out of those 400, I am the only one who’s dealing with Europe.”

Moser draws some inspiration from Vincent-Immanuel Herr and Martin Speer, two young Germans who foster intercultural exchange between Europeans by tearing down barriers and borders instead of creating them. One of Herr and Speer’s pet projects is FreeInterrail, a free European rail voucher for every European who turns eighteen. The European Commission and the European Parliament are currently discussing implementation of the scheme. But it took this duo several years to get politicians to embrace their project.

When it comes to Pulse of Europe, it took just a few weeks. By the third or fourth meeting, both the mayor of Frankfurt and his deputy had enthusiastically endorsed the movement’s message. Now, national politicians have done the same. Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised the group in his first speech as German president in March. “It has taken everybody by storm, including us,” said one of the organizers, Frankfurt lawyer Stephanie Hartung, in an interview. “Our demonstration on January 15 was the first I’ve ever been to in my life. But it felt like the right thing to do. Many people feel this way.”

The idea for the demonstrations came from a colleague of Hartung’s, Daniel Röder, and his wife, Sabina. They sent friends and colleagues an e-mail asking who wanted to join. The initiative started with just eight people. “Newspapers and TV shows were full of negative stories about Europe [and] refugees,” said Hartung. “The nationalist far Right, which has maybe 10 percent of the vote, dominated every debate. But we knew many Germans didn’t agree. We feel a historical responsibility for Europe. We don’t want it to fall apart. We wanted to show that.”

Citizens often take to the streets nowadays, and not only in Europe. They feel they are not sufficiently heard by politicians. In early 2017, Romanians protested against their government condoning corruption. In Poland in 2016, huge crowds demonstrated against a strict anti-abortion bill. In many cities worldwide, citizens have tried to correct government policies. What is different about the Pulse of Europe meetings is that the tens of thousands of Germans who assemble every Sunday are not against something—they are for something. They intend to show that 2017, a year of elections all over Europe, is full not only of risks but also of chances. Pulse of Europe is a manifestation of people who refuse to be fatalistic but demand a European perspective. “It is refreshing to see people with a positive message,” said someone who attended a Sunday meeting in Freiburg. “You come home smiling.”


Where next for pro-European activism?

Will this activism last, and if so, what will it lead to? Polak admits she doesn’t know. “It would be nice if some young people would join, and gradually take over. When you have a job and a family, it is really heavy.” Hartung, who works for Pulse of Europe until 2:00 a.m., agrees. “We are overwhelmed. But the immense resonance of our meetings has political meaning, so we will definitely continue. We can change the political debate. . . . There is so much to do.”

Maybe the emergence of pro-European political forces was only a matter of time. European issues have moved into national debates in recent years. Dutch citizens know more about Greece than before, because of the eurozone crisis. Spaniards and Portuguese are better informed about German politics than ever. The populists managed to capture this European debate first, quickly dominating (or monopolizing) the political scene in several countries. This was an unbalanced situation, argued Frankfurt political scientist Sandra Eckert in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: it had to be corrected. Eckert thinks this trend will not go away: in a way, this is part of European democracy growing up.

Only time will tell if she is right. After Van der Bellen’s 2016 victory in Austria and Wilders’s failure to win the 2017 Dutch election, pro-European activists feel they have reason for optimism. Many consider Macron’s first-round presidential election victory a strong boost to morale, too. But demonstrating on a Sunday is one thing; emerging as a major political force is quite another. If they manage to do so, will pro-European groups be able to be smart politicians?

Several Green parties in Europe grew out of civil-society movements; the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) started out as a group of Euroskeptic professors. The problem for the new cosmopolitan, pro-European groups is that mainstream parties, which have been responsible for EU policies for decades, are supposed to carry the European message already—but are not doing their job. It is therefore more likely that the activists will influence existing parties or embolden politicians to run on a more pro-European ticket than before and follow the examples of Macron and Van der Bellen. Both have shown that the reemergence of the pro-European voice can, if well managed, be a force to be reckoned with.

* Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad based in Vienna.