Josep Borrell: Populisms in Latin America and Europe

Josep Borrell
Lecture at the Festival de la Economia
Trento 30 May 2014

The key difference between populism in Latin America and Europe, apart from the fact that the right-wing kind has been the norm until recently in our continent, is the fact that the left-wing populism has actually ruled countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Uruguay. Populists in European governments have been more exceptional, although Haider’s far right in Austria was part at some point of a coalition government and today Orban’s populism rules Hungary.



The left-wing populism is growing particularly in Southern Europe, and in Spain, parties like Podemos (We Can) has won more than a million votes and 5 seats in their first appearance before the voters. This party is lead by a charismatic journalist who openly takes inspiration from Latin American left wing populists. In Italy, a comedian like Beppe Grillo, shares with Spanish Podemos a rejection of the “Caste”, and a distaste for European integration. In this respect, Podemos and the 5 Star Movement are not so different from the French National Front.

EU institutions and policies have become a preferred target for all kinds of populists, and the moderates parties that have traditionally supported regional integration suffer from it. The EU post-national ideal and freedom of movement is despised by right wing populists. The lack of social dimension and support for free trade and capital movements with the rest of the world alienates both strains of populism, as well as its perceived lack of democratic legitimacy.

Paradoxically, despite social-democratic and Eurocommunist aspirations (political Europe as a counter-weight to the market), the politicization of integration (through a dense, rigid institutional apparatus) consolidated and solidified the liberalisation of Europe. In a sense, as Cramme aptly notices, “half-way federalization has brought the worst of both worlds to the fore”.

Thus, the traditional post-War parties in support of European integration are not seen as problem solvers, particularly in the complex institutional structure of the EU. The EU, as argues Simon Hix , “is perhaps more consensus-oriented in its design than any other political system in the history of modern government”.

For a policy to be adopted it requires (depending on the sector and institution) strong majorities or unanimity, which lead the member States or the national parties either to build grand coalitions or to abandon their policies.

Negotiation, the endless processes of compromise and wheeling and dealing, and the increased weight of technocratic solutions largely neutralise ideological fractures and the left-right cleavage. Europe reduces the political repertoire of party formations especially major parties with a governmental vocation. It tends to inhibit programmatic innovation whilst programmatic convergence and the weakening of cleavages find an extremely fertile terrain.

The “Europe” factor hinders genuine policy and governmental alternatives not only at the European level but also at national level. Consequently, the new European environment is conducive to the weakening of the ideological differences of contemporary moderate parties. They are not in a position to produce a grand vision, a new major narrative, an alternative perspective to the present and the future, even though such an alternative would probably be in their electoral interest.

By contrast and paradoxically, radical populist parties, Left or Right, have greater tactical flexibility today, and to some extent, greater strategic flexibility than the mainstream parties. And there are many similarities between the populisms of the Left and of the Right. The harsh criticism of globalization and finance capitalism, of the EU, of the downgrading of national parliaments and democracy, are just some of them. Attribution of central significance to the cleavage establishment/ people is another point of convergence between the Far Right and the Far Left. But the differences are just as great, if not greater.

Today’s Radical Left has for the most part embraced the themes and mottos of the 1960s New Left (feminism, ecology, minorities’ rights, multiculturalism, immigration etc.), issues and preoccupations that share little common terrain with right-wing populism. In terms of economic policy its discourse bears increasing resemblance to that of the old Keynesian Social Democracy.

Ideas, solutions…

The crisis of the representation of the social model existed well before the rise of populism; globalization and the end of Keynesianism during the 1970s accelerated this trend. The new populist forces only had to creep into the breach which was already there.

In particular, the rise of populism in Europe has coincided with the loss of vitality of the traditional left. Social democrats in particular, since the 1980s onwards, abandoned their classic ideology in favor of the free market and globalization. As Cuperus claims, social democracy has come to represent the educated, highly mobile middle class more than manual workers. As a result, they represent the winners of integration, whether it is Europeanization or globalization, while open borders for both workers and products are no good for the non-elites.

Thus, social democracy can regain ground among its traditional electorate emphasizing a viable alternative to Neoliberal Globalization, in particular ending support for free trade unless social and environmental standards are met by emerging economies, and repudiating privatizations. Some degree of protectionism in EU is needed to re-industrialize the continent and reduce unemployment, and social democrats can support it.

A full federal political union in Europe, with a fully politicized Commission and a reduced role for the European Council is needed to counterbalance market liberalization and develop the social dimension of the project. In particular, the EU will become popular among citizens if they see benefits such as the obligation to set up a minimum wage in each country, unemployment benefits, non-contributive pensions, etc. In this sense, the EC Commission should at least complement the competitiveness and austerity rhetoric with one promoting higher social standards within the EU.

This is a natural agenda Social Democrats. This also means that the European Socialist Party must consider whether to support further the deepening of the single market on the condition of this being matched by progress on the political and social union.

Also, European social democrats can learn from populists in order to communicate their message better and create a dynamic of political conflict instead of a consensus one with the European Popular Party. As said before, the blurring of ideological differences at the European level and the lack of programmatic innovation in mainstream parties helps populists. Moreover European socialists depend excessively of professional politicians, which are typically risk-adverse personalities who follow the party line strictly, a rather unappealing kind of public persona.

Lastly, populism in Europe also exploits the average citizen lack of knowledge of how the EU works, simplifying the reality or making outright false claims. Hence EU institutions become a caricature. Those parties committed with European integration should agree to mainstream European civics education in all Member States.


Acerca de Eva Ramón

Directora Centro de Documentación Europea Vocal Instituto Robert Schuman de Estudios Europeos Universidad Francisco de Vitoria Integrante del Comité Técnico del Archivo Digital España-Unión Europea Consultora freelance