Looking beyond Populism: Identity Politics in the European Union

Matthias Waechter, University of Freiburg

Over the course of the past year populism has gained a successful foothold in national politics right across European member states. In the search for a strategy with which the European Union can fight populism, identity politics may prove to be a successful counterweight. Populism may in fact provide an opportunity for the EU to move away from its rhetorical strategies of the past towards a new narrative which reaches out and touches people emotionally.

Most observers would agree that 2016 was a tough year, if not an annus horibilis for European integration which saw the first ever Member State decide to leave the EU, based on a referendum. Furthermore, euro-sceptic parties have received an untold amount of support in Member States such as Germany and Austria. Many journalists and academic analysts detect a link between the faltering public support for European integration and an allegedly rising phenomenon in democratic politics: populism. As soon as protest movements which defy the rules of the political game arise, as soon as political parties fiercely oppose European integration and its constraints, as soon as charismatic leader figures appeal to the feelings of the people, they are labelled as populists. Whereas political movements ranging from France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos, Italy’s Cinque Stelle Movimento and Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) serve as European examples for the rise of populism, it is Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic who allegedly embodies the essence of populism.

Are they all populists?

Two essential questions on populism remain unsolved: Firstly, the audience is often left without a clear definition of what the term actually means. What criteria must a politician or a movement fulfil to be classified as populist – Is it the appeal to the people against the elites? Is it mainly a political style, characterized by a demagogic attitude? Is it a simplifying discourse proposing easy solutions to complex problems? Is it the posture of the leader claiming to represent the feelings of the masses? Against this broad use of the term, the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller came up with an operational and discerning definition: For him, a populist claims to be the only legitimate representative of the true people.

According to Müller, the populist thus delegitimizes any opposition, by claiming the monopoly on representing the people’s real feelings and interests.

Thus, following this definition, populism contests the essence of a pluralistic democratic society: respect for the opinions and values of the opponent. Müller’s approach helps us to distinguish between popular movements and populists, between anti-elitist discourses and populist discourses: For him, Alternative für Deutschland, Front National and Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs are clearly populist political currents, whereas Syriza and Podemos, who respect the rules of a pluralistic society, don’t comply with this definition.[1] Other authors take a broader approach to populism:

For the French intellectual Pierre Rosanvallon, populism can be understood as a disease of democracy, caused by its own imperfections, its incompleteness, its disappointments.

According to him, populism simplifies the message of democracy, by emphasizing the necessity of direct expression of popular sovereignty, by contesting the legitimacy of institutional checks and balances and by criticizing the forms of representation practised in our political systems. Reflecting Müller’s reasoning, Rosanvallon argues that populism wants to remove the distance between the people and their representatives in power, between society and the different branches of government. Finally, according to Rosanvallon, populism claims that the cohesion of a society is not guaranteed by the quality of social interaction but by the homogeneity of its members and their collective identity. This conception of society leads populists to abhor diversity and to stigmatize immigrants as a menace to social cohesion.[2]

Taking into consideration Müller and Rosanvallon’s approaches, we can understand why the European Union has become a scapegoat for populists and why moderate politicians find it difficult to defend the benefits of integration in a public arena increasingly dominated by populist discourse. The European Union epitomises political complexity, the importance of institutional checks and balances, the limits of direct expression of popular sovereignty and the dissolution of national identities in a collective framework.

Populism as the cause or symptom for European disenchantment?

The second question of note regarding populism concerns its relation to stagnant public support for European integration:

Is populism a symptom of the crisis of European integration, or is the rise of populism the cause for citizens to become increasingly disenchanted with the EU?

If one takes populism as a cause, rather than an expression of waning EU support, one could argue that democracies in general, not only in Europe, are undergoing vast transformations, with new forms of political engagement, mobilisation and opinion-making arising. Seen from this angle, public support for the EU is the victim of a general trend in modern democracies which makes it increasingly difficult for politicians to convince voters using rational arguments in an arena constantly agitated by 24-hours-news and instant messaging on social media.

Entering an era of ‘post-truth politics’

Under these auspices, many analysts have announced the arrival of an age of ‘post-truth politics’.[3] Recently elected word of the year 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries, the expression indicates a style of political communication which is not concerned with the factual correctness of the information transmitted which appeals exclusively to the emotions of the citizens.[4] Allegedly both the Brexit campaign as well as Donald Trump’s bid for presidency were intensely shaped by ‘post-truth politics’ with false information circulating widely on social networks and voters believing in lies publicly conveyed by opinion leaders. The tendency of social media users to form clusters with like-minded people reinforces their staunch belief even in false news and makes them increasingly impervious to information likely to disprove their convictions. However, the circulation of false information and the appeal to emotions are not in and as of themselves new phenomena in democratic politics. Conspiracy theories and threat scenarios devoid of any truth have been used in a time prior to social media to stir the emotions of the electorate. Nevertheless the idea of an age of ‘post-truth politics’ can help us explain the difficulty of finding widespread support for European integration among citizens in member states nowadays: the EU doesn’t seem to sufficiently appeal to the emotions of the citizens and thus becomes an easy victim of false allegations, as the Brexit debate demonstrated.

The power of emotions in politics

In a recent article for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the historian Ute Frevert, internationally known as an expert on the history of emotions, argued that the EU suffers from an ‘emotional deficit’. The nation states, she points out, were ultimately successful in their relentless efforts to turn parochial provincials into committed, emotionally involved citizens through education, mobility, military service, through enemy images and through warfare. The European integration process on the contrary has kept a low profile as far as emotionalised narratives, symbols, and myths are concerned. However, the story of European Unification, Frevert suggests, is not lacking in defining moments which could be presented in such a way that citizens feel emotionally affected and build up a greater level of connection to the EU. The passionate courage of young European federalists who tore down borders right after the end of World War II; the reunification of Western and Eastern Europe under one common institutional roof; the introduction of a common currency, which became a symbol of a collective European identity just as the Deutschmark served as a symbol for a post-war West Germany, stripped of its historical identity. Not enough has been done to present European integration as an emotionally seductive project. There is no museum of European integration history, nor do politicians make a discursive effort to positively convey the message of peace-making and cooperation amongst previously war-torn nations.[5]

Challenges for an EU identity politics

According to Frevert it is not too late to launch a campaign which will transform the EU into an emotionally attractive project. However, one should be aware that such an effort will run counter to the prevailing trend in many European countries to restore one’s own national narratives and sovereignty. At the end of the 20th century the obsolescence of the nation state, the obliteration of national identities and the arrival of a ‘post-national constellation’ were announced prematurely at a time when the benefits of globalisation and regional integration seemed to largely outweigh their drawbacks.[6]

The more globalisation proceeds, the more competences are transferred to the European level, the stronger citizens seem to cling to the immaterial treasures of their nation states.

In virtually all EU member states we are confronted with the desire to recover and to cherish the individual country’s national culture, language, and heritage which distinguish the country from others and make it allegedly unique.[7] It is important to note that this rhetoric is not solely produced by populists and right-wing nationalists but also stems from mainstream politicians, historians, intellectuals and artists.

France and a nationally orientated narrative of identity

The year the Lisbon Treaty came into force French president Nicolas Sarkozy started a grand debate on national identity and called for his fellow citizens to restore their pride in being French. Whilst campaigning in Autumn 2016 for the nomination as a moderate right candidate for presidency, he celebrated French history as a ‘national novel’, urging immigrants to assimilate by accepting – as soon as they acquire French citizenship – ‘the Gauls as their ancestors.’[8] Sarkozy proved to be the most outspoken advocate of a general political trend. In the run-up to the presidential elections, candidates on the right as well as on the left stressed the importance of French history in the classroom, stressing that children should learn to view it as a source of pride. François Fillon, the moderate right candidate, promised to terminate school programmes which encourage children to view French history critically.[9] Politicians like Emmanuel Macron and Ségolène Royal celebrated Joan of Arc as a national hero in the hope of countering her appropriation by the Front National. However no candidate stressed the necessity of teaching pupils the history of European unification in order to educate future generations and encourage them to become active European citizens.


The nation state and the restoration of its frail cohesion remain the focus of political discourse. As far as identity is concerned, the nation state and the European Union have become competitors who both want to acquire the loyalty of their citizens. In this competition, the EU clearly is the weaker party because it does not have any deep rooted powerful narratives at its disposal which could stir the enthusiasm of its citizens.

As far as emotionally charged mythology is concerned, Jean Monnet is no Joan of Arc and the Maastricht treaty is no storming of the Bastille.

If the EU wants to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the Europeans, it needs to engage in identity politics – be it for the simple reason that the nation states will not stop pursuing their own identity politics agenda.

Dr Matthias Waechter is lecturer for history at the University of Freiburg.


[1] Jan-Werner Müller, What is populism? Philadelphia 2016. French version: Qu’est-ce que le populisme? Définir enfin la menace, Paris 2016.

[2] For a concise version of Pierre Rosanvallon’s ideas on populism see his article: Penser le populisme, La vie des idées, 27 September 2011. http://www.laviedesidees.fr/Penser-le-populisme.html

[3] Cf.: „The Post-Truth World: Yes, I would lie to you“, in: The Economist, 10 September 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21706498-dishonesty-politics-nothing-new-manner-which-some-politicians-now-lie-andr

[4] Alison Flood, „Post-Truth“ elected word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, The Guardian, 16 November 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/15/post-truth-named-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries

[5] Ute Frevert, Zu unserem Glück vereint?, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 November 2016. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/zerfaellt-europa/zerfaellt-europa-18-zu-unserem-glueck-vereint-14494485.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2

[6] Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Die postnationale Konstellation, Frankfurt/M. 1998.

[7] For a more detailed account see: Matthias Waechter, Mythos, Version: 1,0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 11.2.2010. http://docupedia.de/zg/mythos

[8] „Pour Nicolas Sarkozy, nos ancêtres étaient des Gaulois mais aussi ‚les tirailleurs musulmans'“, Le Monde, 24 September 2016. http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2016/09/24/pour-nicolas-sarkozy-nos-ancetres-etaient-les-gaulois-mais-aussi-les-tirailleurs-musulmans_5002989_4854003.html

[9] Julien Absalon, Primaire de droite : qu’est-ce que le „récit national“ voulu par Fillon? rtl.fr, 22 November 2016. http://www.rtl.fr/actu/politique/primaire-de-la-droite-qu-est-ce-que-le-recit-national-voulu-par-fillon-7785898064