Say “populist” in France and you think of Marine Le Pen, say it in England and think of Nigel Farage, say it in Italy and Beppe Grillo comes to mind. But what exactly does it mean to be a populist in Europe, and what does it mean to be an anti-populist? Let’s stay away from words play, semantics and cheap philosophy. Being a populist means “using false and general sentences about an issue, a fact or a person just in order to please the mass and gather political consensus”. This is it.
We can refer to this concept by means of other “labels” but the core issue does not change. In recent months this word, populist, has become very widely used in politics, both in Italy and across Europe. There are two possible reasons: either the number of populists is rising or those who accuse someone of being a populist just to shut him up are – or both.
Let’s be honest: the populists – or whatever they want to be called – do exist. These politicians who cunningly speak to people’s hearts to attract them, a very efficient technique in times of crisis. On the other hand, it must be said that the “anti-populists” do exist as well; politicians who label their opponents as “populist” without any explanation, a politically correct way of saying “shut up”.
We find both these types of politicians in Europe. Among them are the French Marine Le Pen and the English Nigel Farage, who are accustomed to using the worst common places in order to denounce what they consider wrong in the EU, in doing so collecting rather political consensus – both of them with success, according the last electoral polls. On the other side of the political spectrum, some EU-supporters just accuse them of being “populist” supporting their accusation with no reasoning. The problem is that behind every populistic statement there is some truth. Mr Farage is partially right in saying that the current EU way of functioning is not totally democratic. Even Le Pen is not completely wrong in accusing the current national immigration policies of being inadequate in managing the migrant waves. Without any doubt, these statements are said violently and for a personal political goal, but dismissing them as merely populistic is not enough.
In order to effectively respond to these accusations – partisan but partially true – it is necessary to be constructive. Does Mr Farage say that the EU is undemocratic? He should be told that blowing up the EU as a whole is not the solution, however we need – amidst other measure – a more powerful European Parliament, more say for the national parliaments, the direct election of the President of the European Commission and a deeper political union before going ahead with a stronger monetary and economic integration. Is Madam Le Pen unhappy with the migrants? She should be told that closing all the European borders is not going to solve any problem, however a common European immigration policy is more than required together with a closest and pacific cooperation with the North African countries.
Let’s pass to Italy. Accusing Mr Beppe Grillo, leader of the 5 Stars Movement, of populism is not useful/ ineffective. First of all because he is able to use this accusation as an advantage, second because – although some may not like it – he is often right. He should be advised that although some of his accusations towards the EU are comprehensible and partially right, launching a “crusade” against Brussels is not a good idea as we are not in a war and we never want to be again. He is right in saying the Europe must be changed, but we have to look ahead and not in the past. Improving the European democracy, enhancing the European values, giving more importance to citizens is absolutely possible but only through serious work and commitment, putting citizens again in the heart of Europe. It is true, Europe must be changed, but the road Le Pen and Farage point at leads nowhere. Which option does Grillo want to take?