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The populists can be beaten. Here's how

The nativist right can be defeated with the right approach. 

European populists are telling the truth: established politicians act as an elite occupied largely with self-interest. People across the West, especially the middle class, deserve tax cuts and higher wages. Governments have to take action and spend money to secure a safe Europe. And there is an indispensable need for a reformed European Union with increased participation by citizens and greater democratic de facto accountability.

But populists are themselves part of the established political class they claim to be fighting against. Higher wages will not be achieved through scrapping the Schengen Treaty but through strengthening the European market. Neither would the end of the Schengen agreement make Europe safer. What we need is rather a real common European foreign policy, a common effort to secure our borders, a common solution for migration – internally and from the outside - as well as a European Security Agency. We also need greater European integration, not a step back to nationalistic ideas and false protectionist promises. Simultaneously, we need a revival of true subsidiarity and real political participation on the local level, where people can engage and shape their environment and lives.

Right and left-wing populists, as well as what we call ‘centrists’ - may they be liberals, social democrats or conservatives - all look at the same pressing challenges of our time: security on our continent, the growth of prosperity for all and an enhancement of democracy. But centrists and populists offer different solutions. Whereas the latter provide easy answers in short sentences and catchy punchlines, centrists are used to proposing longer-term solutions, explained using technicalities that are much less suited for the quick communication of the digital era. All this, accompanied by the stress on political systems caused by external shocks such as economic crises and the great influx of refugees and migrants, has resulted in the rise of populists all across Europe. They dominate the news with their simple messages. Their ability to frame complex matters in ways that appeal to the ‘little guy’ is impressive, and their power to mobilise is an important factor in their success. Populists intelligently use people’s fear of more economic or social crises, and employ technological means to target voters disappointed by the so-called political elites.

In recent years, civil societies and established parties have tried to defend themselves against accusations of elitism and a failure to represent ‘the true will of the people’. As populists seek to define who is included in ‘the people’ and who is not, they present a clear target – one that is easy to identify and use as a uniting factor. Centrists have been continually defending themselves and therefore have been unable to get on the front foot in the political arena. They have been unable to shape the framing and agenda of a political debate they quasi-monopolised for many decades.

So how can centrists regain momentum and strike back? They have for far too long acted as observers. This is a decisive year in European politics, with upcoming elections in at least two central European states (France and Germany). It is the moment to stand up and be counted. In our opinion, the fightback has to be based on three principles.

Target non-voters with a positive narrative

Looking to France we see a new candidate who can beat Marine Le Pen in the presidential race. After the conservative former prime minister, Francois Fillon, got into trouble via the smells-like-corruption employment of his wife, many pro-European centrists have placed their faith in Emmanuel Macron. The former French finance minister, who is portrayed as a social liberal, is running a pro-European campaign and has positioned himself as the candidate of his own civic movement, ‘En Marche!’. Though educated at the prestigious ENA, he wants to be perceived as one of ‘the people’ and not part of France’s establishment. His policies not only focus on strengthening the European Union, but also address the problematic development of France’s rural areas, the need for more individual freedom and a plan to use digitalisation as a vehicle for economic growth. Economically, Macron argues for a ‘new growth model’ which is based on fiscal discipline and more flexibility on working hours and pay. Simply put, he stands for everything the Front National is not. What unites him and Le Pen is their strategy of targeting current non-voters. Macron addresses the people who are disappointed by the political system, but, unlike Le Pen, provides them with a positive vision of France and Europe. In doing this he of course sets himself on a direct collision course with Front National, but this is pure calculation: confrontation creates interest. Macron sees this battle of ideas as a way of regaining people’s interest in politics. He provides the positive picture of the future, Le Pen the negative one. He progressively polarises, as we may call it.

And this is what centrists have to do. They must adopt strong stances to establish clear-cut distinctions. Citizens, especially non-voters, need to be politicised again. Tough debates help people form opinions.

Directly attack populists

For years now in Germany, the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been a headache for the political establishment. Angela Merkel is stuck between her own CDU’s rational social conservatism and the CSU’s political irrationality. She still navigates with an appearance of dignity and ease that is astonishing, however the polls show her support declining. Her coalition partner in government, the Social Democrats, have long started preparing for the autumn elections and just a few weeks ago nominated Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament, as their candidate to replace her before the year is over. Schulz, who is known for his strong stance against right-wing parties in the European Parliament, does what has been absent from the political discourse of centrists for so long: instead of ignoring the populists he directly confronts them. He is clearly driven by the idea that the best defence is a good offence.

Make online communication a top priority

Technology and social media play a big part in populist success. As can be seen in the Trump election campaign as well as in the Brexit campaign in the UK, digital activity played a vital strategic role. Both campaigns were supported by Cambridge Analytica, an organisation that targets voters via Facebook through the use of psychometric profiles harvested from personal social media profiles. This enables campaigns to deliberately trigger an individual’s emotions. European populist parties also strongly focus on technology and social media platforms. Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist from the Netherlands, almost never gives interviews and largely avoids public appearances, but his extensive use of Twitter, where he has more than 700,000 followers, and Facebook, with more than 175,000 supporters, enables him to communicate his messages directly to potential voters. Marine Le Pen also focuses on online communication: the Front National has professionalised its online appearance and built a digital team which enables it to not only target voters but also to shape the online discourse that dominates France. This is not just down to Le Pen’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, each of which has more than one million Followers, but also to an army of commentators that masterminds and directs the discussions on social media and the comment sections of online newspapers. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has its own online TV station as well as relying on related online news networks, enabling the party to provide its supporters with unfiltered information, and handy and easy arguments against any opposition.

Centrist parties can no longer ignore the priority of innovative and energetic online communication. For far too long their belief in traditional media has dominated their communication strategy. By not taking social media seriously enough, they have paved the way for populists to establish massive online power. They need to act accordingly and shift internal resources and capabilities to their digital teams. They need to extend their communication strategies through a strong focus on their online activities and teams which are able to compete with populists’ online appearances. A battle cannot be won without fighting with the right weapons on the right battlefield.
Only through actively engaging in the battle of ideas with populists, by directly attacking extreme positions and redefining the battleground, can centrists regain their earlier dominance. So while 2016 was the year said by many to herald the decline of liberal democracy, 2017 could be the year of its revival. It is not too late to bring back hope to European politics.

Lukas Lausen has been an assistant in the Danish government’s department for EU-coordination, and an ex-aide to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and secretary general of NATO. Nicolas Stuehlinger is a founding member of NEOS, Austria’s new pro-European political party. Both currently study at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.