AEGEE’s Response to Populism
From February 23rd till February 27th, AEGEE’s annual European Planning Meeting has taken place, this time in the beautiful city of Zagreb. The event consisted of two parts: a thematic conference on the topic of ‘Populism and Anti-European Agitation’ and an internal planning event, during which we discussed and developed our plans for the upcoming year in relation to our thematic priorities: Equal Rights, Civic Education, Youth Development and European Citizenship.
The thematic conference dealt with questions such as: what is populism? What does the alleged ‘rise of populism’ signal, what are its root causes, and what impact does it have on European societies and democracies? Are populism and anti-European agitation connected to each other? What is the role of the media in the ‘rise of populism’? And, finally, how should we respond to populism? With more than 200 young people gathered from all around Europe, a good number of interesting speakers, and a truly dedicated team of local organisers and content managers, the event promised to be great.
The thematic conference was kicked off on Friday by Claudia Chwalisz, author of Signal, by means of a keynote speech on the question of populism. Considering that ‘populism’ is a highly slippery and yet continuously used political notion, Chwalisz’s speech provided the participants with a crucial basic understanding of this concept The Populist.
Moreover, she discussed the drivers of ‘populism’ – cultural changes, economic insecurity and political disaffection. Highlighting especially the latter, she finished her speech by suggesting ways to respond to populism. The rise of populism, together with a bunch of political scientific data, should lead us to doubt whether the 200-year old system of electoral democracy suffices in our time. The Ancient Greek practice of sortition – random selection of citizens – can be an extra democratic tool to be used to upgrade our democracy.
The conference continued with a panel discussion on ‘Populism in Europe’, discussing the implications of populism for the European project. There were contributions from four speakers: Marie-Hélène Caillol (President of LEAP and AAFB), Marko Grdosic (Chair of the Advisory Council on Youth of the Council of Europe), Ivan Burazin (Secretary General of European Democrat Students), Gordan Bosanac (Centre for Peace Studies). All speakers highlighted different perspectives on the topic. Caillol emphasized the urgency of the matter, explaining that there is a 6-month window of opportunity for citizens and civil society to stand up for the Europe they believe in. Grdosic pointed out that the Brexit referendum put the young against the old, emphasizing the importance of civic education in preventing and countering the (further) rise of populism.
Burazin argued that the current political climate mirrors the security dilemma: populists leveling up their rhetorics, while the mainstream elite increasingly portrays populism as a threat to democracy. Lastly, Bosanac pointed at the increasing threat of the extreme right combined with religious fundamentalism. Even though there was considerable consensus on the threat that populism poses to the European project and to ‘European’ values, there was no consensus on who the ‘good Europeans’ are to counter this threat.
During the afternoon, there were a series of parallel workshops on a wide variety of topics connected to populism, ranging from the role of the media and the question of migration and integration to the method of political anticipation and the case of populism in Croatia in comparative perspective. The first day ended with a British Parliamentary Debate. Four teams of 2 debaters each debated the following motion: this House believes that national referendums should be forbidden in representative democracies. The central question discussed was whether referendums were merely a populist tool that increasingly divides rather than engages citizens. After all the debaters gave their best in their 5-minute speeches, the audience was asked to join the discussion. Moreover, all participants were asked to show their opinion on the motion, both before and after the debate, and interestingly enough there was a considerable number of people who changed their view from ‘against’ to ‘in favor’.
On Saturday, the conference continued with a second round of parallel workshops. The topics dealt with ranged from climate change denial and a case study on the Dutch EU-Ukraine referendum to the sociological and psychological explanations of populism and the potential of cities and inter-city cooperation when it comes to developing a positive counter-narrative. The thematic conference was ended with a closing discussion during which participants presented the outcomes and findings of the different workshops, and discussed how we, as AEGEE, should respond to the rise of populism and anti-European agitation. It was argued that we should be self-critical when it comes to the level of inclusiveness of our organisation, and work towards opening up more. Furthermore, it was pointed out that the anti-European sentiments are the most audible and visible at the moment, which makes it increasingly important for those who believe in the European project and in European values to stand up and speak up more.
The remaining one and a half days of the event were devoted towards working out specific objectives for action in relation to the thematic priorities of our organisation – Equal Rights, Civic Education, Youth Development and European Citizenship – while also addressing the necessary organisational improvements in order to back up our plans. Many of the the planning sessions’ brainstorms and action plans followed quite naturally on the thematic conference discussions held earlier. Consequently, it should enable us to take the crucial step from thinking and discussing about societal and political challenges to taking direct action to protect and further build on the Europe we believe in. This is how we respond to populism – one step at a time.