‘Dangerous, populist forces’ working with EU countries, seminar warned

Event on the future of European democracy hears concern in advance of elections

Tom Arnold said the centre ground in European politics was under threat from rising populism which desperately wanted to win. File photograph: Frank Miller

Tom Arnold said the centre ground in European politics was under threat from rising populism which desperately wanted to win. File photograph: Frank Miller

 

There are “ dangerous”, populist forces working within EU countries to manipulate voters in much the same way that populism was whipped up in support of Donald Trump and Brexit, a seminar on European democracy has heard.

Tom Arnold former director general of the Institute for International and European Affairs warned the rise of populism across the world could be a 30-year phenomenon.

Mr Arnold and the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan were guest speakers on Friday at a seminar in Dublin, “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box, democracy and the EU”, organised by the independent think tank TASC, which focuses on addressing inequality and sustaining democracy.

Quoting from the sports commentator Eamon Dunphy, Mr Arnold suggested that the winning teams in Brexit and the US election “won because they wanted it more” and were prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

Mr Arnold said the centre ground in European politics was under threat from rising populism which desperately wanted to win.

He said the outcome of the European elections this year could see a different alignment of political forces as populist candidates could be returned within existing left, right and centre groupings.

“Protecting democracy is a key political challenge of our time,” he said.

Mr Arnold referred to an article in the Financial Times, written by journalist, Gideon Rachman which was titled: ‘The Trump era could last 30 years’.

The trust of the article was that “in the two years since Brexit and Trump a global populist movement has gathered momentum”.

Three factors

He said three factors are relevant: economics, identity politics/ culture, and immigration - a possibly a fourth social media. Referring to economics he said many had been left behind, many felt they were losing their identity and many were being told immigration was the problem.

Referring to Brexit he said: “The referendum result, therefore, represented a reckoning with places that had never recovered from the shock of de-industrialization and Thatcherism, as well as groups who had not reconciled to the social liberalism of modern Britain”.

Referring to the future he said holding the political centre - “and reflecting its diversity - from the extremes of left and right” – is crucial for a healthy democracy. It is also an important political objective which needs to be worked on. He said civil participation such as the Citizen’s Convention in Ireland and youth parliaments in Europe encouraged participation.

However, the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he believed the populist movement may have peaked because it was clear to see it had nothing to offer but disarray like that created by Brexit.

Mr Ryan said participatory democracy needed to combat a number of things. Inter-generational theft represented by one generation enriching itself with property while their children could not have certainty, was an example he said.

Another area people needed to address was the value put on carers, as opposed to “the assumption that the market that will solve everything”. He said the Greens were growing in Europe because of the message that “every place was important. Every person was important”.