Europe's highest-ranking human rights official says things are moving in the wrong direction. Introducing his annual report, which impresses upon citizens the need for developing a "resilience to populism," Council of Europe (CoE) Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland suggests that "checks and balances" in the 47 signatory states to the European Convention on Human Rights are not strong enough to fend off populist, anti-democratic and nationalist forces gaining power. "Instead of blaming the most provocative leaders or parties for rising populism, other governments need to take a serious look in the mirror," Jagland said.
Jagland says populism takes hold where "people have lost trust in their politicians, where minorities haven't been integrated and where whoever shouts loudest takes the lead in dominating the debate." Releasing a report simultaneously on the growing incidence of journalist intimidation and self-censorship, Jagland noted with concern that this gives negative forces even more space to exploit.
He urges member governments to do more to protect freedom of expression and combat misinformation and hate speech, especially anti-Muslim expressions on social media, which the CoE says are at an all-time high. Jagland wants better integration of migrants and refugees and more attention devoted to their basic human rights, especially those of unaccompanied child migrants.
Rise of populism fuels political fatigue
Speaking to DW, Jagland's spokesman Daniel Holtgen explained the report's recommendations further, taking up the question of whether the word "populism" should even be used anymore as its original meaning has been so overstretched. "There has been a preoccupation with the subject of 'populism' and 'populists' even to the extent that politicians call each other 'populist' when they do not agree with each other," Holtgen pointed out. "Everything that is not welcome news is called 'fake news' and the effect of this is that people are disenchanted with politics, disenchanted with their leadership, and there is a tendency of cynicism and democracy fatigue. And this is very dangerous."
Cas Mudde, associate professor at the University of Georgia, writes frequently on populism and right-wing movements. He told DW the term "populism" isn't going away, but it must be used in an educated way. "We shouldn't stop using the term populism, but we should use it more accurately," he explained. "Even when clearly defined, which is rare already, it applies only to part of the political agenda of populist actors."
Like CoE chief Jagland, Mudde would like to see liberal democrats stand up for their policies and "give positive ideological defense of liberal democratic systems and values, explaining why it benefits not just the majority but also [political] minorities," he explained. "They should again set the political agenda, emphasizing issues they and many of their potential voters care about, rather than mainly responding to the agenda and issues of the populists."
But in the full throes of elections where even mainstream parties adopt nationalistic tones to woo voters, this is not the direction things are going. Human Rights Watch's Ben Ward points out that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, trying to beat back a challenge last month from anti-foreigner right-wing candidate Geert Wilders, issued a harshly worded dictate to Muslims in the Netherlands saying, "If you don't accept our values, get out of the country."
French elections yet a test
"You see it in France too," Ward said, with Conservative candidate Francois Fillon taking positions on immigration and Islam, for example, that Ward describes as "very similar" to [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen's. He says that while the prevailing perception is that it's a non-starter for political candidates to promote human rights in their platforms in today's political climate, he believes voters want such substance in the campaigns.
Mudde suggests "coverage of the French elections has become less disproportional since the Dutch elections and since Le Pen dropped and [Socialist candidate Jean-Luc] Melenchon rose." That said, he added that "we still know much more about Le Pen than about [Liberal Emmanuel] Macron, even though his chances to become president are much higher."
But the CoE's Holtgen says that the elevation of these issues into the political debate must be a priority and that the public must take some responsibility for creating the resilience the report advocates. "Many of the politicians that people call 'populists' have actually called into question the very basis of cooperation and human rights in Europe which is the [human rights] convention," Holtgen said. "And if you start doing that, you take away basically the foundations of post-war cooperation and peace on the continent."