In Austria, populism is nothing new. But how can liberals fight back, without imitating the populists’ game? Our strength as liberals lies in the ability to look beyond short-term thinking and find real solutions that unite Europe, writes NEOS leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger.
This op-ed was originally published in ALDE Party's Liberal Bulletin in December 2023.
With the European elections coming closer, the populist threat has become the talk of the town, or better, the Union. This is a development that doesn’t come as a surprise, one must admit. It is during times of uncertainty, conflict, economic hardship and environmental catastrophe that people have been drawn towards the political extremes, time and time again. The multimillion-euro question is how we can counter this rising populism and extremism. A question that engages scholars and politicians alike, and fills entire libraries.
The decades-long Austrian experience with populism shows one thing clearly: populists are not defeated, but instead strengthened by those who attempt to imitate their game. Spurred by the fear of losing voters, conservative parties easily fall into the populist trap. Desperate to remain in power, they present policies labelled as centrist that have no place in the political centre.
While imitating the populists’ game is not an option, withdrawing from the public debate isn’t either. Democracy dies in darkness. As liberals, we must not shy away from seeking confrontation. Unsurprisingly, a look at populist party programmes across the continent shows that populists are excellent fire alarms but terrible fire fighters. They exceed at showcasing all the challenges our societies are grappling with, but fail to find real solutions.
Our strength as liberals lies in the ability to look beyond. While the Kickls, the Le Pens and the Orbáns of Europe aim to fortify national borders, liberals unite in Europe’s best interest. In doing so, we must not get tired of showing Europe’s citizens that a strong European Union is the biggest guarantee for peace and prosperity on our continent.