On 13 and 14 April 2019 more than 30 Liberals from many European countries met in Vienna to discuss liberal answers to nationalism and populism. Since its early beginnings Europe is facing the most dramatic challenges, caused by the uprise of nationalistic and populistic movements and parties. As Europe is based on its Member States, the politics of the Member States are relevant as well. Across Europe right-wing populism and nationalism is on the rise.
As we are convinced that the liberal answers can serve as a basis for an open society that wins over populism and extremism the subtitle of the event was “The Liberal vision for the future of Europe”. And we agreed that one common strategy is to ensure dignity for all, as David Leonhardt puts it in his article “Dignity for All - Making the case for a new guiding economic principle” (New York Times, March 12, 2019). He refers to an article from Gene Sperling in the journal “Democracy”, in which the latter defines what “economic dignity” is: “(That people) can care for family, pursue potential and purpose without ever feeling that you have been given up on, and participate in our economy with a degree of fairness and respect” (Democracy, Spring 2019, http://tiny.cc/npea5y). One of the major reasons of the rise of the right-wing movements and parties is the fear of losing economic dignity. Liberals answers must be constructed around those issues.
In his opening speech, Ronald Pohoryles pointed out that, besides this common principle, liberal strategies must bear in mind that by definition nationalist and populist propaganda vary according to the national circumstances. Whilst some are openly antisemitic, some concentrate on anti-Islamism, while others mobilize generally against minorities. Some are traditionalists, others are modernists. In other words, right-wing populism is protean in character. This explains why right-wing parties are distributed across three different groups within the European Parliament. Hence, liberal answers against right-wing populism need therefore to be flexible – not denying existing problems, but forcefully showing liberal alternatives.
The opening speech was followed by 4 case studies that answered on two questions: What is the current situation in the respective countries and what are possible liberal answers?
Annet Bösz of Liberálisok elaborated on the Hungarian case, which is quite alarming: the government took control not only over the political agenda in a quite disturbing way but controls the media as well. The liberal answer has to be quite strict, however the means are limited. Michael G. Meyer, ALDE individual member from Germany, referred to the split between Eastern and Western Germany that still exists despite the unification some decades ago. The FDP has to forcefully react and seems to have learned this lesson. Chris Hildebrandt, ALDE individual member from Austria, compared the situation in contemporary Austria with the situation 2000-2006, when Austria was the first EU Member State that has included the extreme right into its government. However, the liberals are much stronger than in the early 2000s. For the liberals in Austria it is important to understand that the right-wing points at real problems but give the wrong answers. It is the task of the Austrian liberals to counter the politics of fear with a politic of hope. Robert Schliessler, after describing the Dutch situation referred to the situation that in the Netherlands two different ALDE Member parties found different strategies to cope with the right-wing. He advanced arguments why this is a quite successful strategy. Finally, Anja Fabiani, an individual member from Slovenia, summarized the panel by a presentation she named “The subtle storm of Pop-Extremism”. In her presentation she made quite clear that the very sly propaganda of the right-wing has to be understood properly to find the right answers to the populist challenge.
The next session was dedicated to the practicalities of liberal strategies: Friedhelm Frischenschlager, the grand-seigneur of Austrian liberalism was, after shortly describing the success factors of the right-wing reminding us about what liberalism means in theory and practice. Tibor Zachar was elaborating on the issue of transnational collaboration: why, and if so how, should the West closely collaborate with the East – a forceful plaidoyer that explains quite clearly the importance of the transnational activities of ALDE Individual Members and its steering committee.
The final session was dedicated to concrete strategies. George Weiss, CEO of the Dutch NGO “La Benevolencija” gave us examples of how to counter hate. The NGO started in Sarajevo as a neutral organisation that distributed food and medicine to both sides and organised convoys for the supply. Thereafter the NGO was active in a reconciliation campaign in Rwanda and finally returned to Europe where, inter alia, they develop tools that enables groups who are targeted by hate to respond. Finally, Chris Hildebrandt together with Tibor Zachar and Robert Schliessler organised a communication training with the participants.
Why was the meeting called “Visegrád II”? The workshop was the second in a row, after the first event in Visegrád in December 2018. The Visegrád Group was established on 15th February 1991 at a meeting that brought together Václav Havel, President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Lech Wałêsa, President of the Republic of Poland, and József Antall, Prime Minister of the Republic of Hungary. The aim of the three presidents was to establish a cooperative structure to assist their strivings towards European integration following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Almost thirty years later, the Visegrád group and process has been transformed – alas by way of democratic elections – into its opposite. As liberals we want to regain the original Visegrád idea that was not only important for the Eastern European countries, but a symbol for the whole of the European Union. The European Union as a point of reference for a free, a democratic, and a liberal polity and society. And we will not leave this symbol for the nationalists, populists and extremists to abuse it. And we will continue to fight like liberals.
Reported by Ronald J Pohoryles, coordinator, ALDE Individual Members Austria.