Tuesday, November 28, 2017

When Boxers Take to the Soccer Field: How Populism is Confounding the Game of EU Integration

By Adalric Tuten, EUC Staff

On November 16, the European Union Center (EUC) of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign co-sponsored a lecture by Emilia Zankina, Associate Professor in Political Science and Provost of the American University in Bulgaria. Dr. Zankina’s talk, Theorizing Populism East and West, was part of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center’s (REEEC) New Directions lecture series and addressed the nature of populism in today’s Europe.

The focus of Dr. Zankina’s talk was on the problem of defining and theorizing populism and on discussing her new theoretical approach to the subject. According to Zankina, populism has found renewed interest among scholars due to its success in Europe and around the world. Yet, populism defies easy articulation, because it exhibits chameleon-like traits, making it visible across the political spectrum, in rightwing, centrist, and leftwing forms. Despite this resisting of easy definition, Zankina argued that populism does exhibit some important commonalities that make it a meaningful term for analysis. These include, for instance, reliance on charismatic leaders for political direction, avoidance of specific plans for executing policy, and aggressive assault on the political rules of the game that populist parties see as inhibiting easy resolution of major social crises, such as immigration or economic decline.  In other words, no matter the political message of a particular populist party, be it left, right, or centrist, the party sells itself as the savior of society, because it can bypass the political status quo to rescue the country from ruin and peril.

Here, Zankina forwarded her new theoretical approach for studying populism. Since all political parties sell themselves as able and ready to solve pressing social problems, Zankina distinguishes populism as a political strategy that relies on informal institutions and informal means to do so. Hence, populism promises to reduce political transaction costs by sidestepping formal political processes, such as use of vetoes and checks and balances, to expedite the saving of the nation. By informal, top-down means, Zankina noted, one of Bulgaria’s populist parties promised national salvation within 800 days.

So, what happens, as several audience members inquired, when populist parties win and win within the context of the European Union (EU)? Zankina responded that populist parties adapt to the formal political processes already in place, or they fail to survive. This is because the platforms of the parties are often highly emotional, lacking substantive policy foundations. Only when such parties form coalitions with traditional political parties are they able to carry out sustained policy changes. However, as Zankina further noted, because populist parties succeed through their rejection of formal political rules of the game, they pose challenges for the EU, even when they do not win elections. This is because the EU has no effective means for stopping these parties. As Zankina concluded, harsh reports and sanctions do not work against these parties, causing them to “freeze” the process of EU integration. Subsequently, then, these parties appear to be like boxers taking to the soccer field. They are successful at what they do by not complying with the rules of the game.


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