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How the Political Center in Europe Found its Voice Again

One stormy evening, during his campaign to become president of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen calmly stood on a podium somewhere in Vienna and tried to answer the question of what is wrong with the European Union.

"The problem is not that there is too much Europe, as you often hear. The problem is the opposite: there is not enough Europe. Every member state must approve every decision in Brussels. Since politicians are elected nationally, they withold approval if it doesn’t suit them – even if it is clearly better for Europe. No one defends the European interest. Imagine Austria, if every Bundesland would have to approve national decisions: I guarantee you, all nine of them would think only of their own interest and the next local elections, no one would defend the Austrian interest. It would be a recipe for incapacity and powerlessness. This is Europe, not with 9 but with 28 [members]."

The passage is worth quoting at length, because what Mr. Van der Bellen did was remarkable. This was the year of the British vote for Brexit, the disastrous Dutch referendum against the EU-Ukraine association agreement, and Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. The whole world seemed convinced that populism with a strong illiberal streak was invading the West. Many politicians feared that a tidal wave of citizen protest could overturn an international order based on free-market principles, tamed by democracy, the rule of law, and western values. Out of fear of being swept away by such public anger these politicians themselves started attacking globalization, bankers, and foreigners. They suddenly embraced fences, protectionism, and strong new notions of Heimat. Some saw parallels with the years preceding the first World War, or even the second. After all, these eras were also characterized by rapid technological inventions, financial speculation, and political frustration. Now and then, many citizens felt they had lost control over their own lives and destinies. And they turned against globalization – even if they themselves had put this into motion in earlier decades, and had long profited from it. They became Eurosceptic and wanted their sovereignty and old currency back. Many observers would say that the main protagonists of the new populist upsurge in Europe were Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Karl-Heinz Strache, Nigel Farage, Frauke Petry, and other leaders of far-right parties and movements.

Alexander Van der Bellen positioned himself solidly in the now almost deserted political middle.

But no. Here was Alexander Van der Bellen, a former economy professor in his seventies. He had been Austria’s Green party leader for a while, but in reality he was more a pragmatic, left-leaning liberal who had gotten bored with Green dogmas. Van der Bellen’s main opponent was the number two of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – FPÖ), set up by former Nazis but now marketed for a more mainstream clientele. The battle for his election was no longer between the left and the right. It was between those who advocated open societies, and those who wanted them closed. Many European politicians from the center were echoing slightly faded versions of far-right slogans already. In Austria, this happened too.

The problem with populism is not only the populists themselves, but also the fact that hardly anyone answers back. In Europe, last year there seemed only one political narrative left: the populist narrative.

As Seymour Martin Lipset wrote in his 1959 classic Political Man; The Social Bases of Politics, fascism never comes from the far-right or far-left, but from the political center. It glorifies the state, but its hatred of syndicates, big business, and socialist thinking has deep liberal roots. With Austria’s main political parties happily forming regional coalitions with the far-right (the first European party that has an official cooperation accord with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia), Van der Bellen decided to stand for his convictions. He positioned himself solidly in the now almost deserted political middle. This is why he won the elections in December: by defending the status quo, by explaining that Europe is not doomed at all, and by reminding everyone that if there are problems it is better to solve them than demolish the entire fundament on which Europe’s post-war wealth and stability have been firmly anchored for over 70 years.

Van der Bellen tried to give Europe’s liberal democracy back its narrative. He talked about its successes, but tried to be honest about its failures, too. He constantly reminded people that there are more realistic solutions and perspectives on offer than the fairytales cooked up by the far right. In no time, volunteers flocked to his campaign. Many had never been politically active before. Many had no sympathy for Greens or cosmopolitan intellectuals like him either. What united them was a deep belief in democracy, the rule of law, and simple decency (during the campaign the far right had called Van der Bellen a cancer patient; a senile; a spy; and a communist). They also shared an acute fear that the far-right would take over. They went canvassing for him into the smallest mountainous villages.

2016 may have been the year of the populists. But this winter and spring some tables have turned.

This short article happens to focus on an Austrian man who became president because he countered the populists. But this story is, of course, a pars pro toto story: in other European countries citizens and politicians are also finding ways to counter the populists. In Switzerland a group of students called Operation Libero is winning referendum after referendum from the populists. Pro-Europeans have started to gather in squares in over 100 cities on Sunday afternoons. In France, Emmanuel Macron won the presidency by countering the gloom and fatalism that fuels the populist vote. He showed citizens, just like Van der Bellen, that there is a constructive and positive way out of modern problems.

It is not so much disadvantaged citizens who help populists to power – the proverbial “losers of globalization” – but rather citizens who fear losing what they have. Their concerns are real. Jobs do disappear. Multinationals can be too dominant. Public housing is going to refugees, making other groups feel disadvantaged. Politicians should take this seriously by offering intelligent, workable solutions, instead of fairytales. We know now that this can be done. 2016 may have been the year of the populists. But this winter and spring some tables have turned. Van der Bellen won, the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD) is weakened, Wilders scored a disappointing 13 percent, Macron became the president of France. Now comes the crucial phase of implementation, which will be difficult – but at least the political energy is back in the center. Last year, all seminars about Europe were called “The End of Europe” or “The Disintegration of Europe.” Now they carry more open titles: “The Future of Europe,” or “Europe, How Many Speeds?” It looks like 2017 has the potential to become the year in which the antipopulists strike back.

Caroline de Gruyter
Caroline de Gruyter

Caroline de Gruyter is Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, based in Vienna, and a regular contributor of Carnegie Europe.

Foreword There have been numerous significant developments for TPQ since 2022. Our recent rebranding as Transatlantic Policy Quarterly not only reflects our expanded focus on international issues with broad implications for European and American politics, but also incorporates a new vision for the future. Our most recent issues focused on various aspects of the broader challenges and...