Language selection


“European liberal democracies facing populism: Reasons for cautious optimism”

Address at the Conference: Crying for respect, seduced by populism? Nationalism as a challenge to the European Project

Tübingen University
March 18th, 2019

Stéphane Dion
Ambassador of Canada in Germany and
Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe

It is an honor for me to have been invited by one of the best ranked German University, at the occasion of this high level conference, to address a topic as crucial as populism, nationalism and the European project. It is also a responsibility and an amazing opportunity for which I am thankful.

I will discuss the risks to human rights posed by the current rise of populism in liberal democracies. My remarks about populism will primarily relate to Europe, a continent in which my current responsibilities as Ambassador of Canada to Germany and Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe are focused. I want to share with you the reasons why I am cautiously optimistic that liberal democracies will not be eviscerated by the current populist wave.

I will first briefly describe the democratic world of today. Then, I will define populism and explain in which ways it constitutes a threat for liberal democracies. Third, I will identify populism’s causes. Fourth, I will focus on the solutions, the antidotes against the harmful aspects of populism. Fifth, I will address the issue of nationalism and propose a way by which national pride may become an asset for democracy. Sixth, I will examine to which extent populism is a challenge to the European project.

1. Democracies in the world

Today, according to the Polity Project, there are 103 democratic states in the world, covering half of the world’s population.1 Of course, the degree to which these democracies are perfect varies greatly, but they have grown dramatically in number over time, given that there were only 31 democratic states in 1971.

Since the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, humanity has made great leaps toward a more just and democratic world. But there is still a lot of work to do and nothing should be taken for granted. A step backwards is always possible.

For a few years now, internationally recognized references in the area of human rights and democracy, such as Freedom House, The Economist’s Democracy Index 2017 and the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017-2018, have noted a deterioration of political rights and civil liberties.2  This setback has dampened the inflated optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of various Communist systems.

Francis Fukuyama’s famous prediction that liberal democracy will prevail as a universal form of government may come true one day, but in the meantime, liberal democracy will have to seriously compete with other political systems. 

Consider in particular the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism, the persistence of theocratic governments, particularly in certain Muslim countries, and dictators who continue to hold on to power by suppressing human rights. In some countries, including some of the former Communist bloc countries, democratic advances made at the end of the Cold War were more superficial than substantial, emerging in the wake of a momentary disarray of authoritarian regimes. Since then, state authoritarianism has regained strength.3 Among the challenges that democracies are facing, there is the rise of populism within democratic states.

2. Populism as a threat for liberal democracies

Let’s define populism. The populist ideology features a strong party or leader who presents himself as the rescuer of the people who are threatened by corrupt, self-serving and out of touch elites.

This ideology may come from the far left (radical socialism or anti capitalism) or the far right (defence of, or nostalgia for, a homogenous nation). In Europe, populist parties came to power in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, as well as recently in Italy. Elsewhere, they are often a junior partner within a coalition government or the main opposition party. Populism influences programs and the discourse of traditional political parties.4

Not everything is bleak in these populist movements, which claim to speak on behalf of the people against the elites. In some circumstances, such opposition to the “establishment” can lead to a much needed reflection on the status quo and a political class that may be too self-satisfied, socially distant and unable to be self-critical.

However, in my view, populism carries three risks. First, the rejection of “elites” may also spread to the rejection of science and empirical fact, to instead generate enthusiasm for conspiracy theories or simplistic, short sighted solutions. This does not create a climate that is conducive to tolerance, mutual respect and the advancement of human rights.

Certain populist parties devalue the empirical evidence about environmental stresses and manmade climate change as but the whims of the elite who are disconnected from the real concerns of actual people. Even though preoccupations about climate change consequences are becoming a growing priority for many voters, especially among the youth, the concerns about energy costs lead toward an enhance resistance against climate change policies. It was certainly one of the main triggers of the yellow vests movement in France. Similar backlashes were – along the usual fear about immigration – behind the raise of populist parties in elections held in 2019 in the Netherlands with the Forum for Democracy (FvD), and in Finland with the Finns Party.5

Second, an inclination toward authoritarianism is a step back for liberal democracy and the rule of law when a populist leader, in the name of protecting people from the elites, centralizes power in his hands and weakens or politicizes liberal institutions serving as a barrier to this concentration of power: an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, Parliament, the integrity of electoral monitoring institutions, local and regional authorities, academic freedom, etc.

The danger in this step back for democracy is particularly strong in countries where liberal democratic institutions are new, weakened by corruption and not solidly entrenched in the political culture. However, even in well-established democracies, populists can score points by denouncing how slowly institutions act or their lack of transparency and by inspiring people with ideas of a strongman whose resolve will overcome these challenges and make everything easier.

Third, by describing the “real people” as a homogenous entity, a nation set in stone, some expressions of populism are a direct threat to human rights and more particularly to the rights of minorities. Not all so-called populist parties engage in national identity politics that could lead to xenophobic tendencies. There are reasons to be uncomfortable with a concept that groups together parties that capitalize on xenophobia and those that condemn it. It seems to me that the differences between for example, La France Insoumise and Le Front National (now called Rassemblement national) in France, or Podemos and Vox in Spain, far outweigh their similarities. Populism is a concept that must be handled with precaution.6 

3. Populism’s causes

The main causes being given to explain the recent rise of populism vary depending on whether we are speaking of left-wing populism or right-wing populism. The most likely explanations about far left populism are related to economic insecurity. In countries where the youth unemployment rate reached 50%, we may have anticipated the rise of parties like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise in France and Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy.

However, the most widespread form of populism is that on the far right. Its main factor is ethno cultural insecurity related to the fear of immigration, racial diversity and religious pluralism, and, in particular, the fear of uncontrolled borders. As Inglehart and Norris concluded: “The main common theme of populist authoritarian parties on both sides of the Atlantic is a reaction against immigration and cultural change. Economic factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist vote.”  Similarly, Eric Kaufmann’s comprehensive review of the empirical evidence shows that “immigration, not straitened economic circumstances, best explains the populist right vote in Western Europe”.7  These populist parties describe immigration (and Islam in particular) as an existential threat to their national culture and Western civilization. They get most of their support from white, Christian populations living in areas that are still ethnically homogenous, among aging populations, and where people are concerned about the future of their way of life. Campaigns to restrict immigration attract them by offering them hope that the world they know will be protected.8 

Insecurity about immigration and ethno cultural diversity is fuelled by three factors. When a fourth factor is added, the conditions are ripe for a push toward xenophobic populism. The first factor relates to concerns about competition: the feeling that newcomers steal jobs, bring down salaries, clog up public services and abuse social transfers. The second factor is cultural in nature: the feeling that newcomers and ethnic diversity in general will upset traditional values and identities. The third factor relates to security issues, ranging from delinquency to terrorism, and in particular, targets Muslims who are unjustly linked to violent extremism.9 

However, when added to the others, it is the fourth factor that creates the conditions for a rise in populism. It is the feeling of invasion and the belief that migration flow is out of control, like a tidal wave that may crash at any time. There is a general sense that authorities are overwhelmed by what is happening. It is difficult to encourage the population to remain welcoming when they no longer believe in the integrity of the immigration system or the security of borders.10 Borders are seen as a sieve for the queue jumpers and this alone severely damaged the legitimacy and confidence toward the integrity of the immigration system.11

One might almost say “it’s NOT the economy, stupid”, being that so many voters are inclined to let their voting preferences be guided by their cultural and identity concerns over economic interests.  For them, “it’s the migration, stupid.”

This creates an especially difficult political arena for center-left parties, who are struggling to campaign and build their credibility with voters on issues like “identity” and cultural security. With the political spectrum polarizing, it becomes harder to build consensus, and to build the coalitions that so many European electoral systems require for effective, stable governance.

Central, Eastern and Balkan European post-communist countries are the only regions where populists routinely beat mainstream parties in elections. These countries are new democracies and have had little recent experience with immigration, especially with non-Christian immigration, and look at it with much apprehension.12

We should not be surprised by the fact that the countries with little experience of immigration - especially non-white and non-Christian immigration - register an exceptionally strong cultural backlash against it. Similarly, everywhere in Europe, it is in the racially homogeneous community zones with the lowest percentage of foreign born people that the vote for anti-immigration parties is the highest. These towns and rural areas like their homogeneous societies and fear the cosmopolitanism that they see in large metropolitan cities like London, Paris or Vienna. Similarly, in the United States, “the racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”13  

Everywhere, one will find aging ethnically homogeneous towns and rural areas in demographic decline, economically stagnant and unable to retain their young people. As a result, they are losing confidence in the future of their way of life.14 

A sense of demographic displacement is also at play. Many countries feel threatened by the prospect of immigration, especially when it is juxtaposed with the economic emigration of their own populations, which is resulting in a massive brain drain and a collective societal loss.

In post-communist European countries, some of which have almost disappeared over the two last centuries, or at a minimum have been dominated by various imperial powers, an aging non-renewing population is all the more vulnerable to nativist populist rhetoric. The existential fear of disappearing continues to be part of their collective memory. Now that they are finally able to enjoy their own sovereignty, parts of their population

4. Populism’s antidotes

The question now is: what can democracies do to stay healthy and strong in face of the populist wave? Considering the left wing populism, since the sources of this phenomenon is mainly driven by growing inequalities and loss of social mobility attributed to economic globalisation, technological displacement and neo-liberal ideologies, then we would have an additional reason to champion inclusive growth and to make:

Economically, we need to find a path to growth that is inclusive and benefits everyone, not just the wealthiest 1 percent or the .01 percent. This is why the Government of Canada has, among other social measures, increased taxes on the richest and cut taxes for the middle class, in addition to significantly increasing assistance to families, granting them almost the equivalent of a guaranteed minimum income, which has reduced childhood poverty by more than one third.

How can we make people feel they are truly included when the financing of political parties depends on major billionaire donors and clandestine foreign sources, and when one needs to be well-off to engage in politics? We need to take a serious look at political party and electoral financing; make it more grassroots and transparent, otherwise we will not be successful in curtailing the flow of populism. 

However, as valid as these policies are, they will not keep us immune from the main surge of populism, the right-wing one, because this phenomenon is much more driven by ethno cultural insecurity than by economic insecurity. This kind of populism is a phenomenon driven more by value than class.

It is the triumph of ethnic-based notion of identity politics, putting at the forefront, as I said earlier: fears of migration, of racial diversity and of religious pluralism, and especially fear of uncontrolled borders.

Therefore, democratic countries need to find a way to strengthen trust in inclusion as a country’s condition for success within the context of globalization. They must take the necessary measures to reassure their populations about border controls and safeguard the rights of refugee claimants. They must identify and share best practices for integrating immigrants.

In this respect, Canada, a country of immigration, is willing to share its experiences while recognizing that its situation differs from the one in Europe. You will have undoubtedly noted that Prime Minister Trudeau has made it a political priority, both at home and abroad, to focus on the inclusion of all communities, including the Muslim communities that are too often unjustly associated with violent Islamism, when in fact they are the main victims of it.

Together, we must also learn to give more effective assistance to countries affected by conflict, poverty and, more and more, climate change. Otherwise, migration flows will only get worse. On this front, Canada has recently adopted a feminist international assistance policy, as it has been shown that promoting women and girls is a powerful lever for development and democratization.

We need also to make national pride an asset for democracies. Allow me to develop this point.

5. Making national pride an asset for democracy

In many countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, populists are using nationalism as a way to consolidate their power. They are portraying liberal democracy and human rights as a foreign agenda, a Western agenda that some arrogant cosmopolitan elites want to impose on nations against their soul and their traditions.

You have skilled elected leaders boosting these nationalist reactions in order to firm their grip on their people, and increase their capacity to weaken the liberal institutions that keep the rulers under watch: a pluralist parliament, an independent judiciary, an independent electoral commission and other strong check and balance mechanisms, a free press, free unions, and so on. 

In the name of nationalism, democracy and its pillars are being eroded: the rule of law; the basic freedoms of expression, association, and religion; the truly free, fair, open, and competitive elections; the opportunities beyond elections for citizens to participate; the government transparency and accountability; a market economy that is free of corruption; and a democratic culture of tolerance, civility, and non-violence.

It is not easy to cope with this problem so much as nationalism is a powerful ideology. Sometimes, indeed, by our interventions we may inadvertently give these skilled politicians the pretext they need to fuel a nationalist backlash against democratic benchmarks that may challenge their power. 

It would be a terrible mistake for liberal democrats to abandon the arena of national identities and so, leave it to be monopolized by populists. If we portray democracy as something evanescent, an abstract ideology detached from the people, incompatible with patriotism, we will weaken the fight for the cause of democracy. To the contrary, we should say: as a people we are proud of who we are and we will use this pride to show to the world that yes we may build an exemplary democracy, respectful of human rights and offer our own contribution for such universal aspiration.

When I was a child, I remember it being said that democracy was not for Latin people. As a French Canadian that was very difficult to accept. But then, a new generation of Quebeckers said: “really? We cannot be as democratic as others? Let us see.”  And then Quebeckers became an asset within the Canadian federation in the never-ending quest for a better democracy. We called it the Quiet Revolution.

Let’s dream for a Quiet Revolution for the Western Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe.  Let’s make national pride an asset for democracy in all countries. Refuse closed populist rhetoric and embrace plural identities: that is another way to move forward toward liberal democracy.

How do we deal with countries whose leaders engage in actions to weaken liberal democratic institutions? Prime Minister Trudeau’s approach is to criticize, to oppose, but without shutting the door; in maintaining a difficult but necessary dialogue. And I would add that we should not only criticize bad practices, but we must also acknowledge and support governments that are making the right choices on the democratic front.

6. The European Union facing populism

Acting against populist setbacks to liberal democracy are the European Union, its Commission, its Court of Justice, as well as the Council of Europe and its Venice Commission.

The EU requires – from its member states and from any European country seeking joining it – standards of liberal democracy and good governance. These so-called Copenhagen criteria include the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, electoral fairness, human rights and respect and protection of minorities. Until recently, it was more or less taken for granted that these criteria were respected by member states, but this is no longer the case. There are frequent tensions between Brussels and populist governments.

The European Union is in populism’s line of sight; its structure, philosophy, and policies echo populism’s targets of choice: cosmopolitism, technocracy, supra-national compromises, trade agreements, restrictive budgetary rules, and, above all, open borders within the EU.

The EU relies on a constant need of compromises between member states and Brussels. Populism erodes shared values and the capacity to reach such compromises, making it, for example, more difficult to reach a common ground between the Macron plan for more extensive banking union and more generous mechanisms of solidarity, and Merkel’s preoccupations for more fiscal discipline and member state accountability.

But there is optimism to be shared. The fact is that opinion polls continue to show considerable support for democratic and accountable government and that a clear majority of Europeans cherish the view of themselves as tolerant, open, and diverse. Most Europeans continue to see the European Union with pride, as a grand achievement of and for humankind, a unique fabric of peace and democracy.

No other country followed the United Kingdom in its bitter attempt to exit the European Union. In fact, far from having created a domino effect, the sad spectacle of the Brexit saga is likely to have strengthened Europeans’ support for their union. In polls, the EU’s image is the most positive it has been since 2009, surpassing that of national governments and parliaments, including in Hungary and Poland.15  Meanwhile, Türkiye and non-EU Balkan and East European countries want to join this union.

The EU borderless area, called as you know the Schengen zone, allowing the free mobility of 420 million people, covering 26 countries, 4.3 million square kilometers, is certainly a difficult entity to manage, but it is also quite an accomplishment, appreciated every day, in airports, train stations and highways by its citizens. Despite all the controversies about the Eurozone, there is no popular support to leave the common currency. The most Eurosceptic countries remain closer to a reformist approach rather than a rejectionist one.

Despite the strong likelihood that populists and Eurosceptic parties will increase their representation in the next European Parliament, the risks are very low that the May 2019 elections will result in a Eurosceptic parliament. The popular support for these populist parties seems to have reached a plateau, as the migration flow has considerably diminished. Current projections give them around a third of the seats in the EU Parliament, which will make more difficult, but still probable, the negotiation of a functional and stable pro-EU coalition.

The selection of new Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council and the nomination of a new Commission is likely to be a complicated but not insurmountable task in the coming months.


I am confident that populism will not eviscerate liberal democracy in Europe, but it is, and will likely continue to challenge some of its key pillars, especially the rule of law, individual and minority rights, and social, political and religious tolerance.

Canada has been able to resist the populist wave so far. But we are well aware that even a democracy such as ours, which has never experienced a coup d’état, a civil war or foreign occupation, and which has had a long and fruitful experience with immigration, is not immune to populism. Without preaching to anyone, we want to offer our full cooperation so that together we can make our societies more inclusive, less vulnerable to populist drifts and better equipped to build justice, harmony, security and universal human rights on solid liberal democracies.

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt concluded in their bestseller, How Democracies Die, “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. This is our challenge. It is also our opportunity.”16 

In order to seize this opportunity, Canada, as a country of immigration and a multicultural liberal democracy, is willing to contribute by comparing best practices, learning from other countries and working together accordingly. Increasingly, cultural diversity will become a fact and inclusion must be the choice: the right choice.

As we get closer to this goal, we will become better at avoiding the most dangerous populist extremes and promoting universal human rights around the world.


1 Robert Muggah and Steven Pinker, “Democracy isn’t in as much trouble as you might think,”  World Economic Forum, April 2018,

2 Munich Security Conference, Munich Security Report 2018: To the Brink – and Back?, Stiftung Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz, February 2018,, p. 6.; 2017-2018 WJP Rule of Law Index: Global Press Release, World Justice Project, 31 January 2018,; The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2017: Free Speech Under Attack, The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, 2018,; V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018: Democracy for All?, V‑Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg,

3 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Myth of Democratic Recession,” Journal of Democracy 26, 1 (2015): pp. 45-58.

4 Markus Wagner and Thomas M. Meyer, “Decades under the Influence. How Europe’s Parties Have Been Shifting Right,” Foreign Affairs, 4April 2018.

5 H. Sterling Burnett, “Climate Politics Abroad Are Turning Decidedly Skeptical”, Climate Change Weekly #322, The Heartland Institute, May 3, 2019,

6 Roger Cohen, “It’s Time to Depopularize ‘Populist’,” New York Times, 13 July 2018.

7 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse,” American Political Science Association, 2 (June 2017); Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, Penguin, 2018, p. 247. See also: Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were not Working Class,Washington Post, 5 June 2017; El País, “Las razones de los votantes de Vox: la inmigración y la unidad de España,” El País, 9 december 2018; Roger Harding, “Key Findings: A Kind‑Hearted but not Soft-Hearted Country,” The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes 34, 201; M. Goodwin, H. Clarke & P. Whiteley, “Yes, Immigration Really was to Blame for Brexit”, CapX. 2 May 2017; Holger Lengfeld and Clara Dilger, “Cultural and Economic Threats: A Causal Analysis of the Party Identification with the “Alternative for Germany” (AFD) using the German Socio-Economic Panel 2016,” Zeitschrift für Soziologie, August 2018 edition; German Lopez, “Polls Show Many—Even Most—Trump Supporters Really are Deeply Hostile to Muslims and Nonwhites,” 12 September 2016;  Rose Meleady, Charles R. Seger and Marieke Vermue, “Examining the Role of Positive and Negative Intergroup Contact and Anti-immigration Prejudice in Brexit,” The British Psychological Society, 2017; Diana C. Mutz, “Status Threat, not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 March 2018; Bo Rothstein and Sven Steinmo, “‘Us Too!’—The Rise of Middle-Class Populism in Sweden and Beyond,” Social Europe, 3 December 2018; Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support: His Voters are Better off Economically Compared with Most Americans,” FiveThirtyEight, 3 May 2016.

8 Philip Auerswald and Joon Yun, “As Population Growth Slows, Populism Surges,” The New York Times, 22 May 2018,

9 Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes and Katie Simmons, “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees. Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs,” Pew Research Center, 11 July 2016.

10 Dietrich Thränhardt, “From Welcome Culture to Welcome Realism. Refugee Integration in Germany” in Refugees and the Media in Germany, eds. Giovanna dell'Orto and Irmgard Wetzstein (Austria and Greece, 2017).; Meleady, Rose, Charles R. Seger and Marieke Vermue, “Examining the Role of Positive and Negative Intergroup Contact and Anti-Immigrant Prejudice in Brexit,” The British Psychological Society (2017); Roger Harding, “Key Findings: A Kind-Hearted but not Soft-Hearted Country,” 2017, The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes 34,

11 Andrew Stark, “Oh Canada,” The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2018,

12 Jacques Rupnik, « La crise du libéralisme en Europe centrale », Commentaire no. 160, (2017), ; Slawomir Sierakowski, “How Eastern European Populism is Different”, Project Syndicate, (5 February 2018),

13 Jonathan T. Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell, “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump” (2 November, 2016),

14 Philip Auerswald and Joon Yun, “As Population Growth Slows, Populism Surges”, The New York Times, 22 May, 2018,

15 “Autumn 2018 Standard Eurobarometer: Positive image of the EU prevails ahead of the European elections,” European Commission, Brussels, December 21, 2018, Also Zsolt Boda et al., “Societal change and trust in institutions,” Eurofound, December 12, 2018,

16 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (New York, Crown, 2018), 231.

Date Modified: