European protests, populism, right-wing trends – and the role of cultural diplomacy in all of that

On 9 April 2018 I was pleased to participate in a roundtable “Cultural Diplomacy in Times of Political Ferment” organized by Dr. Mai´a Cross at Northeastern University. As my fellow panelists could draw on their rich empirical experience as diplomats, I was invited to provide the background on political protests in Europe and the critical analysis on the role of cultural diplomacy in all of that. See my main talking points below.

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When we review the recent protests in Europe, we see a variety of reasons for public discontent. We have to understand the diversity of those motivations, in order to assess the role of cultural diplomacy in the different scenarios.

  • Early 2018 in Slovakia, we saw the biggest protests since 1989 with 50.000 people (of a population of 5,5 million) demanding the resignation of their government after the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner. The motive was obvious: stop cronyism, nepotism, and corruption. Even after prime minister Fico resigned, the protests continued, as people did not feel taken seriously with Fico just re-instating a puppet-government on his behalf.
  • In January, 50.000 citizens took to the streets in Romaniato protest proposed laws that will make it harder to prosecute crime and high level corruption. This was just the latest of a long serious of protests that had started already in 2017, first with 25.000, later of up to 300.000 people protesting the new government and the state of corruption in their country. Again, the public protests were considered as the largest within Romania since 1989.
  • A similar series of protests we saw happening in Polandduring the past two years, although in a totally different context. In December 2015, protests erupted in over 20 cities against constitutional court changes proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PIS), followed by more than 24.000 protesters joining the protests of women against the government´s abortion law plans. In December 2016 a pro-government rally in commemoration of the 2010 plan crash and 35thanniversary of the imposition of martial law was met by major anti-government protests people showing their discontent with Poland sliding towards authoritarianism and with increased government control of public news channels and state prosecution practices. More shock and disbelief did cause the “white supremacist rally” in Warsaw in November 2017, where 60.000 participants supported from right-wing forces in Slovakia, Hungary and Spain demanded that “Europe will be white”.
  • Those are just a few examples, next to ongoing public demonstrations in Hungary, France, and also the UK.

So what do those protests have in common (or not) with the 1968 movement?

1968 was very much protesting against state control, against oppressing of individuality against conservativism, and against pure liberal capitalism. Students and works together managed to relate to popular struggles and to inspire one general movement that would change French politics and society. The French economy was doing well at this time, but there were many societal restrictions.

The protests in France so far are mostly against the proposed policies, but they are not necessarily against the quality of French democracy.

And in this regard the protests in France are different from the other public protests that we saw happening in Europe during the past years. But those protests share some commonalities with the 1968 movements: they are against corruption and how the states are run; they are about fairness in society; for social justice and protection; and they are against a neo-capitalist trend also taking over politics: “survival of the fittest” should not become the main credo of politics;

But some of the current protests also stand in stark contrast to the 1968 movement: 1968 stands for more colorful and open societies. Some of the current protests want exactly the opposite. They want to revise the multi-cultural trends in some European societies, and want to give back control to “the natives”. It is a lot about othering – them against us.

But also within those protest movements there is a distinction, as the research by Cas Mudde points out. Mudde proposes to distinguish between populismin Europe and nativism. Nativism is against a multi-cultural society and raising the fear against immigrants. It underlies most right-wing politics. Populism, on the other hand, is against the establishment. It is about the “pure people against the corrupt elite” and promotes the false sense of hope of “taking back control”. Populism is not “not necessarily antidemocratic, it is essentially illiberal in its disregard for minority rights, pluralism, and the rule of law”, writes Mudde here. Populism is not only restricted to single parties, but mainstream parties get drawn into this way of thinking too. Populism does not care about finding a middle ground in society, but it very often pretends that the “will of the people” expressed in supporting one particular party should “take it all”. Right-wing anti-migrant rhethoric is often populist, but not all populism is nativist.

It is fascinating, that there is a strong common causality between the current protests rooted in populism and nativism, and the 1968 developments. As Mudde analyses here: “Although the threats to security and economic stability that have rattled Europe in the past few years may have spurred the current populist surge, they did not create it. Its origins lie further back in the structural shifts in European society and politics that began in the 1960s. During those years, deindustrialization and a steep decline in religious observance weakened the supported enjoyed by established center-left and center-right parties, which had been large dependent on working class and religious voters. IN the quarter century that followed a gradual realignment in European politics saw voters throw their support to old parties that had become virtually non-ideological or new parties defined by relatively narrow ideological stances”.

The challenge of European democracy nowadays is not that people feel represented by right-wing or populist parties that they voted for, but that they do not have any trust anymore in the party system or media. A recent Eurobarometer poll asked Europeans if they think that their voice counts in the EU. in 2017 50% of respondents said that they do not agree that their voice counts. The same pool finds that 61% of respondents in the EU28 say that they do not trust the media(in contrast to 34% that do).

So what we see is that compared to 1968 we see similar underlying causes: people do not feel represented by the established democratic means. In Eastern Europe this results in a series of protests, in Western Europe this strengthens the right-wing and populist vote. Both is a threat to liberal democracy (read Jan Zielonka´s new book on the topic: Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat).

So what does all of this new mean for cultural diplomacy? What role can cultural diplomacy play in safeguarding liberal democracy in Europe?In my view there are 3 points to consider.

  1. We learn about ourselves when we engage with the other. Intellectually that is what studying is about; personally you do so when you travel or go and live in another country. But for the majority of people this is not a possibility: they do not study, they do not go and live in another country. And here cultural diplomacy can provide a useful tool because it brings “the other” to you and helps to question your own identity, conceptions and practices. It helps people to question “what is normal”.
  2. Cultural diplomacy creates links and it encourages cooperation on subnational level; it supports and stabilizes public involvement.
  3. Cultural diplomacy offers a different way of being involved. It offers to engage in political discussion without having to be political. And in this way it encourages a wider participation, also among people that do not want to be involved in politics

So to sum up:

1968 provides us a useful lens to put current protests into perspective. There are similiarties, but also crucial differences. 1968 was about opening up, creating a different kind of society. Many of the current populist and right-wing developments in Europe aim to achieve exactly the oppositve. At the same time we see that the cause for this “unrest” is part of a wider trend of societal and political change that already started in the 1960s: citizens are discontent with the way their interests are represented; they do not trust parties, they do not trust the political establishment, and they do not trust the media. In order to re-gain this trust, cultural diplomacy can provide a essential and necessary tool.




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