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    Attempted assassination of Slovak prime minister follows country’s slide into political polarization

    The assassination attempt against Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has been widely condemned by world leaders as an attack on democracy.

    In Slovakia, the violent act similarly saw a unified response from the country’s deeply divided political leaders. But how long this lasts is uncertain. Just as outgoing Slovakian president – and Fico rival – Zuzana Caputova called for an end to the “vicious circle of hatred and mutual accusations,” Fico allies lambasted the country’s media and opposition for whipping up tensions.

    As an expert on politics in central Europe, I have been interested in how liberal social movements in Slovakia have reacted to the rise of populist rhetoric and policy that Fico exemplified. This research has laid bare not only the increasing move to the right of once center and center-right politicians, but also how this has helped create a polarized political environment.

    Who is Robert Fico?

    Robert Fico has long been a controversial figure in Slovakia, a central Eastern European country of about 5.4 million people and a member of the European Union.

    A former member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Fico and his colleagues founded the Party SMER, or “Direction,” in the late 1990s as a leftist party that was critical of Slovakia’s right-wing government at the time. The party also maintained an anti-corruption message and used this to gain popularity in the early 2000s, becoming one of the most dominant parties in Slovak politics.

    Fico first became prime minister in 2006. But it is since returning to power in 2012 that he has been seen as a polarizing figure in Slovak politics.

    In 2018, Fico was forced to resign following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in their apartment just outside of Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital.

    Prior to his murder, Kuciak alleged that SMER was engaged in corruption involving the Italian Mafia and the embezzlement of EU funds. In 2020, five people, one of whom had links to political figures, were charged with the murders.

    Fico has denied these corruption charges. Yet the murders and accusations of corruption led to mass protests against the government and continue to resonate today.

    Polarized politics

    Despite Fico’s resignation over the issue, the country continued to be politically polarized.

    In 2019, Čaputová of the party Progressive Slovakia was elected as the first female president. But a year later, Slovakia saw the election of the most conservative parliament in modern Slovak history.

    This pitted Caputova’s liberal agenda against the right-wing parties in government.

    Right-wing parties have allied with the Catholic Church and conservative organizations to attack gender equality measures and LGBTQ+ rights and place restrictions on reproductive rights.

    The focus on culture war issues has been accompanied by a coarsening of the political debate in Slovakia.

    Hateful rhetoric is commonly used in political campaigns to oppose women’s rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. This rhetoric has contributed to further polarization.

    Security personnel apprehend a suspected gunman after the shooting of Robert Fico.
    RTVS/AFP via Getty Images

    And even before the attack on Fico, there was evidence that the heightened rhetoric was developing into politically motivated violence. In 2022, two members of the LGBTQ+ community were murdered at a bar in Bratislava by a known supporter of the far right.

    Nevertheless, Fico continued to rely on populist rhetoric opposing civil liberties in his 2023 election campaign.

    By then, he had returned to the spotlight by opposing public health measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was followed by his widely publicized opposition to sending military aid to Ukraine after Russia’s 2022 invasion. At a time when some of Slovakia’s closest allies, such as Poland and Czechia, wholeheartedly supported Ukraine’s efforts against Russian aggression, Fico ran on a campaign of supporting Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin’s politics against the West.

    This messaging proved popular and allowed him to return to power in 2023, with his populist party winning 23% of the vote and becoming the largest party in a right-wing coalition government.

    An attack on democracy

    Since returning to power, Fico has shown no desire to dial down the culture wars that have split Slovakian society. Rather, his primary focus has been on abolishing and restructuring government agencies and entities that have been critical of his policies.

    In February 2024, he moved to shut down Slovakia’s anti-corruption body and abolish the special prosecutor’s office that investigates corruption – a decision that not only drew rebuke from the European Union but also brought Slovaks back out into the streets in protest.

    He has also made moves to shut down Slovak Television and Radio, or STVR, and replace it with a state-run TV channel.

    Taken together, Fico’s efforts to curb civil liberties and repress opposition have been seen as part of a process to transform Slovakia into an illiberal democracy, much in the mold of Orban’s Hungary.

    There is much yet to learn about the motivations and circumstances surrounding the assassination attempt on Fico. But officials have said that it was “politically motivated,” linking it to his divisive policies.

    Any display of political violence is, as world leaders have noted, an attempt to undermine democracy. In Slovakia, where political polarization is high, these divisive politics have been shown to, unfortunately, lead to violent outcomes. More

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    Europe is still in short-term crisis mode over Ukraine and lacks a vision for its post-war identity

    Some believe that the war in Ukraine has fundamentally changed Europe, giving birth to a different kind of European order. That is, it appears to be driving structural shifts in the way Europe is run and organised that extend well beyond the immediate imperative of helping Ukraine fight the war. European integration is deepening in some areas, like defence and security, and the EU looks set to extend its geographical borders to take in new members.

    Reflecting this, EU leaders, politicians and writers typically compare the 2022 invasion with the inflection points of 1945 and 1989. Each of these put in place new organisations and rules that redefined European cooperation, politics, economics and security. The end of the cold war in 1989 was a catalyst for deeper European integration and opened the way to bringing many eastern European states into the EU.

    Yet, the current process of re-ordering remains tentative. The EU collectively, and European governments individually, have agreed a significant amount of policy adjustment. In particular, governments have increased defence spending and the EU has launched dozens of new security initiatives. How far this constitutes a shift in the European order remains uncertain, however.

    Many of the policy changes underway might be judged as welcome, necessary, and overdue so that Europe can adapt judiciously to the strategic imperatives of a more corrosive and fractious era. But the changes so far have been ad-hoc and expedient, bereft of any clear framework for structuring a new, post-war European order. They do not, in themselves, constitute a coherent or deeply rooted vision for a stronger and strategically adept Europe. Yet, this is what’s needed to address the challenges that the tragedy in Ukraine will leave in its wake.

    European leaders meet in Brussels.
    EPA/Olivier Hoslet

    Some changes do point towards possible shifts in the European order. European borders are being redrawn to bring in new member states. After years of keeping Ukraine, Modlova and Georgia outside, the EU has concluded that it is strategically important to begin accession talks with these states. The EU has strengthened its commitments to democratic norms as the Russian invasion has made the threat of authoritarian power more painfully tangible. It has also accelerated many aspects of its climate transition policies in response to the conflict, which has demonstrated the urgency of weaning Europe off strategically costly hydrocarbon dependencies.

    Yet governments and EU institutions remain in short-term crisis mode. The flurry of EU policy change has yet to translate into a clear overarching strategy for a redesign of the European order. For now, the idea that the war has “changed everything” in Europe looks like an unwarranted exaggeration.

    A ‘geoliberal’ Europe

    Despite multiple reform proposals, the basic institutional shape of the EU remains untouched. Countries currently hoping to join the EU are being kept waiting in drawn out, technocratic processes despite the dangers they face from Russia.

    Governments have bolted increased defence spending onto existing EU policies in response to the war without clarifying how these relate to the union’s supposed core liberal and peace-oriented principles. European leaders now ritually boast that the EU has become a toughened geopolitical power because of its response to Ukraine, but this does not seem to extend to having a position on engagements in places like the Sahel or the conflict in Gaza.

    If anything, the war’s cruel continuation may actually be weakening the foundations and core principles of European order in some senses. It presents challenges of such immediacy that it has forced individual governments into defensive measures that reflect their own immediate, individual interests. But these potentially militate against coordination between nations.

    For now, the EU appears stuck in an “in-between” period. Many of the union’s old organising principles, like the notion of its blurred internal borders, are no longer fit for purpose but governments lack the necessary political conviction to usher in a clearly defined new order.

    EU leaders need to move towards what might be termed a geoliberal Europe. As mapped out in my new book, this would reflect geopolitical reality but also the liberal and democratic values that are supposed to define Europe and supposedly sit at the heart of the war’s rationale. This would take Europe out of crisis mode and enable it to map out a new, post-war approach to order. While this is lacking, the day-to-day debates about whether the EU is “doing enough” to help Ukraine will lack the necessary strategic orientation and anchoring. More

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    The French identify as Europeans – and yet are also notoriously Eurosceptic

    In less than two months, more than 400 million people will be eligible to vote in the European elections. If the record turnout of 2019 elections is anything to go by, many will be seizing their voting rights, allowing policy-makers to take the pulse of the continent’s politics as the far right continues to spread.

    In the meantime, research can help us gauge Europeans’ feelings toward the European Union. A political scientist at Sciences Po Grenoble, I pored over the available data to find out what exactly my fellow citizens thought of the bloc.

    The French’s growing suspicion toward Europe

    If there is one takeaway from the 2023 Eurobarometer, it’s that the French no longer trust the Union. In the spring of 2023, only 34% had confidence in the EU, compared with 47% of Europeans. 48% say they are very pessimistic about the future of the Union, the highest percentage of the 27-country bloc. The French are also the most likely to rate the Union’s economy as poor (52% compared with an average 44% in Europe). Only 35% consider the €800 billion European economic recovery plan, NextGenerationEU, to be efficient, while 38% see it as inefficient. That said, 69% also judge the national economy as poor, and 46% feel that their living standards have got worse over the last 12 months. We can therefore explain these unfavourable figures both on the grounds of the French’s particular mistrust of Europe, but also of a rising general pessimism toward public institutions and policies.

    Fair-weather friends

    It’s worth going back in time to understand how the French got here. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating an economic market and customs union between the six founding countries of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Until the early 1990s, French public opinion backed the agreement, which was intended to prevent war between Europeans and build peace by accelerating the economic growth and development of the allied countries.

    Such optimism was helped by the fact that European integration was still in its infancy. Although France’s political elites greatly contributed to the fledging Union, it was not a major political issue. Public opinion left it to the elites, who first built a common agricultural policy and then developed initiatives in many other areas. Until the late 1980s, academics described this attitude as a “permissive consensus”.

    During the 1970s, between 52% and 68% of French people questioned in the Eurobarometer surveys believed France’s membership of the European Union to be “a good thing”. Such strong support continued to rise in the early 1980s, reaching its peak in the autumn of 1987 (74%), when the Commission was chaired by one of the bloc’s founding fathers, Jacques Delors, and the Single European Act was adopted to boost the integration of member countries.

    We have also been able to show that support for European integration was slightly stronger in times of economic prosperity and slightly weaker in times of economic crisis. European aspirations develop when the economy is doing well, both in France and in other countries. On the other hand, as soon as economies enter into choppy waters, there is a temptation for the nation states to withdraw. In short, citizens did not look up to the Union as a fix to the economy’s ups and downs. The situation may well have changed since then, after the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine showed that the Union can come to the rescue.

    A turning point in the 1990s

    Following on from the Single European Act, in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty puts European integration into practice across 17 areas policy areas. It carves out the principle of a future common currency as well as more integrated foreign and security policy. European citizenship is also introduced. Observers expected the treaty to be ratified fairly easily. But this was not the case. In June 1992, the treaty is approved in the French referendum by a very thin margin: with a relatively low abstention rate of 31.3% of registered voters, only 51% of French people vote yes, after an intense campaign in which the yes side lost a lot of ground, the referendum becoming in part a choice for or against President François Mitterrand. 60% of the working classes rejected it, while managers were largely in favour. This social divide is fairly constant, showing that the Union makes more sense to elites than to the working classes.

    In the 1990s, the European question becomes increasingly politicised, as Euroscepticism took root. The majority of French people do not want France to leave the EU. However, they are sceptical of its policies and its mode of operation, with decisions that necessarily take a long time to adopt and a Brussels technocracy that exasperates many of the professionals who have to submit to it. Confidence in the European Union is often in the minority in half-yearly Eurobarometer surveys.

    In 2004, the Union agrees to take in eight Eastern European countries, plus Cyprus and Malta. To adapt the bloc’s rules to this major change, the European Commission, parliament and heads of state negotiate a new treaty for the Constitution for Europe – a term that brings to mind the founding of a state.

    The French’s European heart – and critical mind toward the EU

    A new referendum is held in 2005 to ratify it. To many observers’ astonishment, the “No” wins at 54.7%, with only 30.7% of voters abstaining. The pre-election polls had given the “Yes” side a majority of at least 60% of the vote. Like in 1992, the campaign whipped up many fears. Some on the left argued the text would bring in deregulation and called for a far more social Europe, while a (small) section of the right criticised the loss of national sovereignty and the possible entry of Turkey into the Union. The results showed the gap between the electorate and a political class that is very broadly in favour of stronger European institutions, since more than 90% of French MPs had approved the text a few months earlier.

    Since then, while the French remain attached to the existence of the EU, they are often very negative about the policies put in place. In 2019, 65% said that the Union was not working effectively. In the latest Eurobarometer, in autumn 2023, 55% said they were attached to the EU and 62% felt they were European citizens. 38% have a positive image of the EU (28% have a negative image) and 36% are unable to say where they stand, showing that the bloc’s image is still rather blurry among citizens. The distinction between a generally pro-European feeling of belonging and a much more critical perception of European policy still defines the French’s relationship with the EU. Only 45% are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU, and only 35% say they trust it, against 55% who don’t.

    However, there is a paradox: between 60 and 77% of the French say they are in favour of common public policies on defence and security, energy, common trade policy, migration, health and a common foreign policy. The demand for Europe is strong, but the policies being pursued are not satisfactory, and many would like to see national sovereignty better preserved. In 2022, 58% of French people felt that “Our country’s decision-making powers must be strengthened, even if this means limiting those of Europe”. More

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    A far-right political group is gaining popularity in Germany – but so, too, are protests against it

    Hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting across cities in Germany since early 2024, standing up against the Alternative for Germany party, a relatively new, far-right, nationalist party that is known as the AfD.

    What has driven so many Germans to suddenly protest against a small, extremist political party?

    The protesters in Germany are directly responding to the AfD’s radical policy positions and the fact that it is currently in second place in the polls for the upcoming federal election, which will take place on or before Oct. 26, 2025.

    While the AfD did not win any parliament seats in its first federal election in 2013, the group’s popularity has been rising. The AfD held about 13% of the seats in parliament from 2017 through 2021 and was the third-largest party in parliament. Since 2021, it has held about 11% of the seats.

    After the next federal election, the AfD could become the second-largest party. While this limited power would not let it enact any extreme policies that could potentially reduce freedom and respect for civil liberties in Germany, the AfD could use its position in parliament to disrupt the policymaking process, criticize establishment parties and attract new voters for future elections.

    What is the AfD and why is it so controversial?

    Several politicians and journalists formed the AfD in direct response to the Eurozone crisis of the 2010s.

    That crisis was triggered by several European governments in the European Union, including Greece, Portugal and Ireland, that developed large budget deficits.

    The European Union’s 27 member countries promise to be fiscally responsible. Otherwise, poor public management in one country could trigger an economic crisis throughout the entire European Union.

    This is what happened during the Eurozone crisis. Poor public management in some member-states led to a European-wide crisis.

    To mitigate the crisis, other European governments had to bail out other governments. The AfD’s founding members were outraged that Germany, as a leading member of the European Union, would become in part responsible for financially rescuing them.

    Over time, the AfD has not only become increasingly skeptical of the European Union, but it has also become very clearly anti-immigration. Compared to other countries in Europe, Germany has a relatively large immigrant population. As of March 2023, about 23% of the people who live in Germany either are immigrants or their parents are or were. Germany is also the largest host country for refugees in Europe.

    The true extent of AfD’s anti-immigration policies came to light in January 2024, when a German investigative news report revealed that high-ranking AfD members attended a secret meeting with neo-Nazi activists to discuss a “master plan.”

    According to this plan, the German government would deport immigrants en masse to their countries of origin. This plan also included deporting non-German-born citizens of Germany.

    The meeting was especially controversial because a few members of the Christian Democratic Union, one of Germany’s long-standing conservative parties, were also in attendance.

    Once the investigative report became public, the AfD publicly distanced itself from the meeting and the plan.

    Yet, it has been hard for the party leaders to convince the public that they do not support the supposed mass deportation policy, in part because high-ranking AfD members have suggested such policies in the past.

    Markus Frohmaier, a leader of the AfD political group in Germany, speaks to party members at a conference on Feb. 24, 2024.
    Christoph Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

    Germans’ response to the AfD

    Once news of the mass deportation meeting circulated in mid-January, hundreds of thousands of people throughout Germany began to protest against the AfD and its anti-immigration policies.

    Many of the protesters are also protesting to defend democracy and human rights in Germany.

    Protesters have compared the AfD’s growing prominence to that of the Nazi party. They have been carrying signs that say the “AfD is so 1933,” “No Nazis” and “Deport the AfD Now.”

    They believe the only way to prevent the rise of a far-right party again in Germany is to protest the far-right movement before it becomes too popular.

    Symbolically, the protesters are protesting under the slogan “We are the firewall” to illustrate how they are protecting Germany from the rise of far-right nationalists once again.

    Some are also pushing for the German government to ban the AfD. Yet, while Germany has laws against extremist groups that were developed after World War II, it is unclear whether such laws should be used to ban the party, as some observers caution that banning the AfD might backfire and make it more popular.

    Demonstrators in Hamburg protest right-wing extremism and the AfD on Feb. 25, 2024.
    Hami Roshan/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

    What the AfD can still accomplish

    While the AfD is currently posing an electoral threat to more mainstream parties in Germany, it is unlikely that it will take control over the German government any time soon.

    Germany is a multiparty system; no single party can control German politics at any given time. Parties must share power when governing the country.

    It is unlikely that any of the current establishment parties will work with the AfD to govern Germany, primarily because the AfD supports policies that are so far removed from what typical German parties would find acceptable.

    Additionally, the Christian Democratic Union is currently the most popular party, according to opinion polls. CDU members have previously emphasized that they will not cooperate with the AfD in any circumstance.

    And other establishment parties and politicians have also distanced themselves from the AfD.

    Yet, while the AfD may not be able to make sweeping policy changes in the short run, it does pose an electoral threat to the establishment parties in Germany. As such, other German parties may start to alter their own policy platforms to appease some potential AfD voters.

    The Christian Democratic Union is already proposing to send asylum seekers to other countries while their applications are being processed. However, their ability to make this policy change is unlikely, as it would require changes to European Union law.

    In the long run, if the AfD is able to continue to grow in popularity at the local level, this may help it grow its voter base and become more successful in federal elections.

    The AfD is more popular in states in eastern Germany, especially among voters who feel disenchanted with the reunification of communist East Germany and West Germany in 1990, and disenchanted with the drawbacks of Germany being a leading member of the European Union.

    Some people fear that if the AfD continues to grow, it could undermine democracy in Germany, much like far-right populist parties have recently done in other democracies in Europe and in the rest of the world.

    And as democracy continues to decline in Europe and globally, protections for civil liberties and political rights will continue to decline as well. More

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    The word ‘populism’ is a gift to the far right – four reasons why we should stop using it

    From the storming of the US Capitol on the January 6 2021, to the similar uprising in Brazil in 2023, far-right politicians are infringing on democratic ideals across the world. If we are serious about meeting the challenge they pose, we must stop treating them as legitimate, democratic actors and instead see them as the threat they really are.

    A very big part of this effort is also quite a simple step. We must stop referring to far-right politics as “populist”.

    In recent years, serious research on populism has reached somewhat of a consensus which makes it clear that it is secondary, at best, in defining any kind of politics. The two main schools of thought broadly disagree on whether populism is a thin ideology which involves a moralistic element (by pitting a “pure” people against “corrupt” elite) or whether it is simply a discourse that constructs a people as being against an elite, without any further specificity attached to those two groups.

    Crucially, though, both agree that the populist element of any given movement comes second to politics and ideology. Parties of the left and right may both use populist rhetoric, but this tells us little about how they actually govern.

    But populism has nevertheless become a buzzword. Countless academics have jumped on the bandwagon in search of funding and citations, often failing to do due diligence to the literature on the topic.

    Number of articles containing the words ‘populist’, ‘populism’ or ‘populists’ on Web of Science

    A surge in academic papers referring to populism.
    Aurelien Mondon/Alex Yates, CC BY

    Beyond poor academic practice, the careless use of the word has also had a deleterious impact on wider public discourse. These four consequences should hopefully convince you to stop using the word “populist” to describe someone who is actually just a rightwing extremist.

    1. It masks the threat posed by the far right

    It should not come as a surprise that many far-right politicians, from France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, have embraced the term “populism”. Even when it is used by their opponents as an insult, far-right politicians prefer the term to more accurate, but also more stigmatising terms, such as “extremist” or “racist”.

    This could be witnessed, for example, in the Guardian’s 2019 six-month-long series on “the new populism”. More often than not, the word populism was used in this series to describe far more sinister politics than the simple opposition between the elite and the people. Political personalities such as Steve Bannon are far better described as far or extreme right. These terms are not only more precise, but make the threat they pose far clearer than the murky “populism”.

    2. It exaggerates the strength of the far right

    When we use the term “populist”, we often create a semantic link between the word and “the people”. So when we allow the far right to be described as populist, we are incorrectly implying that they are tapping into what the people want or that they speak for the “silent majority” – something Nigel Farage and others love to claim.

    Far-right parties and politicians are mounting election campaigns all over the world in 2024. Join us in London at 6pm on March 6 for a salon style discussion with experts on how seriously we should take the threat, what these parties mean for our democracies – and what action we can take. Register for your place at this free public session here. There will be food, drinks and, best of all, the opportunity to connect with interesting people.

    The myth is further entrenched by the perception that the rise of “populism” is the result of choices made by people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder – whether they are defined as the “white working class”, the “left behind” or the “losers of globalisation”. This ignores analysis which shows that much of the support for reactionary politics comes predominantly from affluent groups.

    Being allowed to claim to speak on behalf of the voiceless is particularly useful at a time of widespread distrust in mainstream politics, so we shouldn’t be surprised that far-right politicians like to be called populists. It allows them to falsely posit themselves as the alternative to the status quo.

    3. It legitimises far-right politics

    By being erroneously tied to “the people” via the word “populism”, far-right demands are mistaken for democratic demands. It is therefore now common to see mainstream parties absorbing the politics of the far right on the flawed assumption that these ideas are “what the people want”.

    The rights of minoritised communities such as migrants, asylum seekers, racialised people, LGBTQ+ communities, women and/or disabled people have all been under various levels of threat by mainstream elite actors, whether through policy, political campaigning or news coverage. Often, the people threatening these rights benefit from the pretence that they are simply responding to public opinion. Supposedly “centre-right” governments are, therefore, given carte blanche to adopt draconian immigration policies. After all, it is in the name of “the people”.

    4. It blocks democratic progress by distracting us

    Populist hype is generally accompanied by a rise of anti-populist discourse, which portrays “populism” as an existential threat to liberal democracy. Thinly concealed behind this pejorative use of the term “populism” is at best a distrust, if not outright antipathy, towards “the people”.

    By blaming “the people” for the problems in our democracies, elites are absolved from having to interrogate their own role in facilitating the crisis. They can also use the very real threat posed by the far right to justify the need to support the status quo by warning “we are bad – but they are worse”.

    What is to be done?

    Reducing the far right to a “populist” threat allows the mainstream off the hook. When combating the far right, we must be honest about the decisions that have led us to this reactionary moment. If the mainstream does not take responsibility, it has no chance of defeating the monster that it has helped to create. This applies particularly to those who have a privileged access to shaping public discourse such as the media, politicians and academics to a lesser extent.

    Read more:
    Look to the mainstream to explain the rise of the far right

    The first step on this journey is using terms correctly. Calling the far right “populist” keeps us in our inertia. To activate the appropriate sense of urgency needed to defeat these trends, we must be honest about the kind of politics that we see in front of us. If the far right proudly wears the badge of “populism”, we must ask how it helps them. They know it grants them legitimacy. Why, then, should we play into the hands of extremists whose loathing of democracy has been repeatedly demonstrated? More

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    EU issues increasingly shaping national elections, research reveals, though left-right divide remains crucial

    The Treaty of Lisbon celebrates its 15th anniversary on 13 December. Looking back, experts agree that it played a big part in structuring the EU as we know it. It reinforced the role of Commission President, to be elected by the European Parliament and share power with a newly created President of the European Council, the body that brings together EU heads of government.

    So, the treaty strengthened both the Commission and the Council, effectively creating a dual executive for the EU. Following the treaty changes, the EU faced a succession of crises, including the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the COVID pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine. These have reinforced the centrality of both institutions for EU decision-making.

    This dual nature of the EU executive is a reminder that EU accountability vis-a-vis its citizens is also dual. . The Commission, now elected by the Parliament signals the importance of the latter body for citizens’ ability determine EU policy. The renewed importance of the Council, as the intergovernmental executive body of the EU, underpins the role national elections play in holding the EU accountable.

    Yet, when debates on the degree of democracy in the EU are held, or when institutional innovations are considered to increase the proximity between citizens and the EU, the focus tends to lie exclusively on the European Parliament (EP) elections, while national channels of accountability as a source of EU democratization tend to be disregarded. In order to counter that trend, our book examines the EU’s national accountability channels, providing a detailed analysis of how the EU is debated in national media and parliaments.

    North and South under the microscope

    The research focuses on six countries – Belgium, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain from 2002-2021. Combining founding members of the EU with more recent entrants, these countries also differ in economic performance both before and after the Eurozone crisis.

    The book notes an increasing importance of EU in the media and parliamentary debates. In terms of how they engage with the EU, these two arenas have inherently different logics. The media has a negativity bias. Therefore, as the media coverage of the EU issues grows, so does the negative tone toward it. In parliaments, the larger parties control debates, and they tend to act strategically. So, in countries such as Spain and Ireland with no eurosceptic party in Parliament, the EU is discussed to a greater extent by the larger parties. On the contrary, in countries where there is an eurosceptic party in parliament, the larger parties tend to discuss the EU less. This is probably to prevent the eurosceptic parties from gaining more visibility.

    Both media and parliaments tend to focus on EU policies rather than notions of European belonging and identity. These findings are common to all countries, and suggest that both arenas are contributing to enable citizens to form opinions on EU policies rather than questioning EU membership.

    Yet, differences do emerge between countries on how EU policies are debated. Namely, in Ireland, Spain and Portugal, EU policies are mostly discussed in the context of their effect on national policies. But in Germany, EU policies are discussed in a broader context.

    So, the EU is being discussed mostly in terms of its policies. Citizens are therefore being provided with information about the EU which can then be used when making vote choices in legislative elections.

    But is this occurring? Does Europe really matter in national elections? Our research, using different methods (experiments and observational data), finds that this is indeed the case. If the EU matters, how does it compare to other factors which tend to explain vote choice? Despite the increasing importance of European factors, we found that traditional national left-right issues remain more significant defining factors of vote choice.

    But we found that the more EU policies were mentioned in the media, the more they impact how people vote. Regarding parliamentary debates, we find that the more eurosceptic parties discuss the EU in parliaments, the greater the importance that EU attitudes will have among these parties’ voters choice.

    Therefore, our book establishes firmly the degree to which national governments are now selected across Europe partly on the basis of their stances on the EU. The national media environments, national parliamentary debates and legislative elections are not only important to legitimise governments at the national level, but also at the EU level.

    The role that heads of government play in the European Council is not disconnected from voters choices back home when legislative elections are held. When discussing the quality of democracy with the EU and how it can be improved, it is necessary to take into account not only the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council, but also the quality of the national media, national parliaments and legislative elections. More

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    Look to the mainstream to explain the rise of the far right

    Javier Milei in Argentina. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. These are the two latest “populist shocks” – the tip of the “populist wave” that comes crashing against the weakened defences of liberal democracies.

    At the same time, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage benefits from the same “funwashing” on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here! as Pauline Hanson, leader of the most successful extreme right party in Australia in recent years, did when she was invited on Dancing with the Stars just a moment after her political career plummeted.

    The contradiction in addressing the rise of far-right politics in public discourse could not be starker. And yet, it goes far deeper.

    It should be obvious to anyone concerned about these politics and the threat they pose to democracy and certain communities, that humanising their leaders through fun reality TV shows or coverage of their hobbies rather than politics only serves to normalise them.

    What is less obvious and yet just as damaging is the hyped coverage of the threat. Milei and Wilders are not “shocks”. The resurgence of reactionary politics is entirely predictable and has been traced for a long time. Yet every victory or rise is analysed as new and unexpected rather than part of a longer, wider process in which we are all implicated.

    The same goes for “populism”. All serious research on the matter points to the populist nature of these parties being secondary at best, compared to their far-right qualities. Yet, whether in the media or academia, populism is generally used carelessly as a key defining feature.

    Using “populist” instead of more accurate but also stigmatising terms such as “far-right” or “racist” acts as a key legitimiser of far-right politics. It lends these parties and politicians a veneer of democratic support through the etymological link to the people and erases their deeply elitist nature – what my co-author Aaron Winter and I have termed “reactionary democracy”.

    What this points to is that the processes of mainstreaming and normalisation of far-right politics have much to do with the mainstream itself, if not more than with the far right. Indeed, there can be no mainstreaming without the mainstream accepting such ideas in its fold.

    In this case, the mainstreaming process has involved platforming, hyping and legitimising far-right ideas while seemingly opposing them and denying responsibility in the process.

    While it would be naive to believe that the mainstream media tell us what to think, it is equally naive to ignore that it plays a key role regarding what we think about. As I argued in a recent article on the issue of “immigration as a major concern”, this concern only exists when respondents think of their country as a whole. It disappears when they think about their own day-to-day lives.

    This points to the mediated nature of our understanding of wider society which is essential if we are to think of the world beyond our immediate surrounding. Yet while essential, it relies on the need for trusted sources of information who decide what is worth priming and how to frame it.

    Javier Milei, president-elect of Argentina.

    It is this very responsibility that much of our media has currently given up on or pretend they do not hold, as if their editorial choices were random occurrences.

    This could not have been clearer than when the Guardian launched a lengthy series on “the new populism” in 2018, headlining its opening editorial with: “Why is populism suddenly all the rage? In 1998, about 300 Guardian articles mentioned populism. In 2016, 2,000 did. What happened?”. At no point did any of the articles in the series reflect upon the simple fact that the decisions of Guardian editors may have played a role in the increased use of the term.

    A top-down process

    Meanwhile, blame is diverted onto conveniently “silent majorities” of “left-behind” or a fantasised “white working class”.

    We too often view the far right as an outsider – something separate from ourselves and distinct from our norms and mainstream. This ignores deeply entrenched structural inequalities and forms of oppression core to our societies. This is something I noted in a recent article, that the absence of race and whiteness in academic discussion of such politics is striking.

    My analysis of the titles and abstracts of over 2,500 academic articles in the field over the past five years showed that academics choose to frame their research away from such issues. Instead, we witness either a euphemisation or exceptionalisation of far-right politics, through a focus on topics such as elections and immigration rather than the wider structures at play.

    This therefore leaves us with the need to reckon with the crucial role the mainstream plays in mainstreaming. Elite actors with privileged access to shaping public discourse through the media, politics and academia are not sitting within the ramparts of a mainstream fortress of good and justice besieged by growing waves of populism.

    They are participating in an arena where power is deeply unevenly distributed, where the structural inequalities the far right wants to strengthen are also often core to our systems and where the rights of minoritised communities are precarious and unfulfilled. They have therefore a particular responsibility towards democracy and cannot blame the situation we all find ourselves in on others – whether it be the far right, fantasised silent majorities or minoritised communities.

    Sitting on the fence is not an option for anyone who plays a role in shaping public discourse. This means self-reflection and self-criticism must be central to our ethos.

    We cannot pretend to stand against the far right while referring to its politics as “legitimate concerns”. We must stand unequivocally by and be in service of every one of the communities at the sharp end of oppression. More

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    Nostalgia in politics: pan-European study sheds light on how (and why) parties appeal to the past in their election campaigns

    Have you ever felt nostalgic when thinking about the past? Then you are not alone. According to survey research, around two-thirds of the European public feel nostalgic.

    Nostalgia is defined as a predominantly positive emotion associated with recalling memories of important events, usually experienced with people who are close to us. And these feelings may not be limited to personal experiences: in politics, nostalgia may refer to a longing for a more prosperous past or lost cultural traditions.

    Take the Italian far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), which currently leads the country’s coalition government. The party’s 2022 manifesto contained numerous nostalgic references.

    One standout claim was that the “natural resources and artistic heritage of the nation are an inheritance to be guarded and enhanced”. Another was that “the elderly represent our history: a heritage of experiences, skills, talents that have helped to the birth and growth of our nation”.

    Such statements draw upon a shared pride in the nation’s past to knit together a compelling narrative.

    Increasingly, there is evidence that nostalgic feelings can affect our political views. Recent studies on the Netherlands and Turkey support these findings.

    Nostalgic citizens are less satisfied with the government and more likely to vote for radical right parties. In a new publication, we examined the extent to which political parties capitalise on nostalgic rhetoric in their campaigns by analysing 1,650 election manifestos published by parties across 24 European democracies between 1946 and 2018.

    Election manifestos, by definition, mostly contain promises for the future. They are a list of pledges a party promises to implement should it be part of a future government. But we also discovered that on average, about 10% of a party manifesto is dedicated to discussing the past.

    Central and Eastern Europe: nostalgia reigns

    We found that parties in central and eastern Europe and southern Europe are more nostalgic than those in northern and western Europe. The average manifesto in central and eastern Europe included 44 nostalgic sentences per 1,000 sentences, while in western and northern Europe, the average manifesto contains fewer than half that.

    The graph considers parties with parliamentary representation after at least two elections between 1990 and 2018. Red vertical lines show the average level of nostalgic rhetoric in each geographical region. The coding of party families relies on the Manifesto Project.
    Stefan Müller and Sven-Oliver Proksch

    It’s also notable that many of the most nostalgic parties across the continent are classified as nationalist by researchers at the Manifesto Project. Examples of highly nostalgic nationalist parties include All for Latvia, the Estonian People’s Union, Golden Dawn in Greece, Sweden Democrats and the French National Rally (formerly the National Front).

    That said, although nationalists are most prone to nostalgia, nostalgic rhetoric is evident across the political spectrum and was found in eight out of ten manifestos in some form or another.

    Read more:
    Contested memory in Giorgia Meloni’s Italy: how her far-right party is waging a subtle campaign to commemorate fascist figures

    It also appears to be cultural conservatism rather than economic conservatism that makes a party more likely to use nostalgia. Nostalgic rhetoric addresses cultural issues much more frequently than economic topics.

    This is revealing about nostalgia as a device. Parties seem to strategically employ nostalgic references and choose to focus on either the past, present or future when talking about a given topic depending on the wider political context.

    Other research shows that parties tend to frame education, economic and environmental policy with a future-related focus, while security, immigration and defence policy are more often referred to with an emphasis on the past.

    Why it matters

    There is nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, but the use of nostalgia in political campaigning is, by definition, strategic. And its prevalence in the documents we examined suggests parties clearly see it as a useful tool.

    Meloni at the 206th anniversary of the Foundation of the Penitentiary Police Corps in Rome.

    But a focus on the past should not replace a critical evaluation of a party’s plans for the future. A nostalgic sentiment, such as “our historic market towns, cathedral cities, and unspoiled countryside are the envy of the world”, is not an electoral pledge.

    Its use could therefore be seen as a device to obfuscate when a party lacks concrete solutions or proposals for the future of the nation they seek to govern. Given our propensity towards nostalgia, it could also be used as a narrative device that might provide cover for parties seeking to introduce potentially controversial policies.

    Research on policies such as gun control, immigration and social justice show voters can be swayed in directions they might not normally take if they are presented with nostalgic messaging at the same time.

    If socially conservative parties have identified it as a powerful rhetorical device, perhaps socially progressive parties could find a way to use it for more positive reasons as well. Since a significant portion of society has nostalgic feelings, such messages are unlikely to disappear from political discourse anytime soon. More