Countering Populism Roundtable: Civil Society as a Countercheck to Populism?

A targeted dialogue discussing concrete measures to strengthen democracy, civil society, and participation

The third countering populism roundtable took place in May 2017 and focussed on the question of how civil society can best counter populism.

With Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election, liberal democratic Europe has escaped its potential demise. But in order to fight back right-wing populism in the longer term, we urgently need to address both its underlying issues and develop more sustainable counter strategies. One key question that needs to be addressed in this regard is what civil society can do and how it can be supported to counter – and, ideally prevent – right-wing populist sentiments?

To debate this issue, Das Progressive Zentrum and the Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe organised an international roundtable with European experts. The overarching goal of the roundtable was for participants to come together in a targeted dialogue to discuss concrete measures to strengthen democracy, civil society, and participation. We were honoured to hear insights from the following distinguished speakers from five European countries:

  • Carlo Ruzza, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Trento
  • Juliana Wahlgren, Senior Advocacy and Network Development Officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR)
  • Gary Schaal, Professor of Politics at Helmut Schmidt University, Hamburg
  • Silvia Nicola,Civic Educator and Trainer at Europe 360 Degrees, Kreisau-Initiative
  • René Cuperus, Director of International Relations at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation
  • Manuel Gonçalves Gil, Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum

Following welcoming remarks from Tobias Dürr, Chairman and Co-Founder of Das Progressive Zentrum, and Anne Rolvering, Director of the Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe, the roundtable commenced with a discussion focussing on how to build European networks against right-wing populist hate and racism. Juliana Wahlgren, Senior Advocacy and Network Development Officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), spoke on how the rise of right-wing populism is causing a rise in hate crime. She emphasised that, in order to counter right-wing populism effectively, civil society requires strategies which are well-structured, long-term, and transcend the current project logic which is hindering decisive impact.

This was followed by input from Carlo Ruzza, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Trento. Ruzza has conducted extensive research on populism, civil society organisations and anti-racist movements on a supranational level, and believes that populism presents a serious threat and must be responded to accordingly. The key for civil society is learning how to communicate with the distinct social groups which hold right-wing populist ideals. In order to combat right-wing populism, left-wing civil society needs to aggravate consensus, provide information and promote lifestyle changes. Participants agreed that civil society requires a base for cooperation: right-wing populist groups have a strong common identity, yet communities often want to counter them from very different angles. Civil society therefore needs a common agenda and a common base from which to fight against populism.

The second part of the roundtable shifted the focus onto bridging divides in society. Silvia Nicola, Civic Educator and Trainer at the Kreisau-Initiative, introduced the “360° Europa” project, which was conducted in five countries with the aim of bringing advocates and critics of the EU together to engage in constructive dialogue about Europe. René Cuperus, Director of International Relations at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, then presented his view that the demonisation of populists is part of what is contributing to their rise, and academics ought therefore to take populists’ issues more seriously. Cuperus also argued that Germany need not fear populism, as the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ party will have little influence on national policy. This prompted controversy in the room as to whether the ‘right-wing populist tsunami’ is slowing down and thus presents less of a threat, or whether the danger of real populist influence remains as high as ever.

The third thread of the roundtable saw participants debate how best to enable a participatory democracy. The first input came from Manuel Gonçalves Gil, Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum, who was of the opinion that young people are increasingly rejecting traditional political parties due to a lack of trust in traditional institutions and their concern that traditional parties are not taking their interests into account. Yet young people are not politically apathetic, but are rather choosing to engage in alternatives to the traditional political movements. Youth organisations therefore require a larger voice in civil society. This was followed by comments from Gary Schaal, Professor of Politics at Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, who was somewhat more sceptical about the democratic potential of innovations to our liberal democracies. He argued that democratic innovations often simply create „new channels of influence“ for those who already participate in politics, and that they therefore increase political inequality. What is more, participation in democratic innovations increases the expectations of participants with regard to political outcomes, which then often turns into frustration when no influence on decisions is discernible. What is needed, Schaal argues, are new concepts of representation and democratic legitimacy which include quotas for groups and their interests – only this way can democratic innovations live up to their promises.

Last but not least, Lena Prötzel, Program Manager at Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe summarised the discussion and provided an outlook. The roundtable was moderated by Maria Skóra, Senior Project Manager at Das Progressive Zentrum, who added some insights on right-wing populism and civil society from a Polish perspective.

We would like to thank all participants and speakers for their interesting contributions, and the Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe for their cooperation.

If you have any questions concerning the roundtable or the project, please contact Sven Altenburger. Run in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry of Families, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth as part of the federal programme Demokratie leben!


Meldungen [news count="2" type="person"]

Dominic Schwickert

Executive Director of Das Progressive Zentrum
Dominic Schwickert has been Executive Director of Das Progressive Zentrum since 2012. He has proven expertise in the field of political and strategic consulting. Dominic worked i.a. for Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Bertelsmann Stiftung, IFOK GmbH, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, German Bundestag as well as for the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.