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Empty spaces invite populism

Julie Ward, British MEP, Labour

Svetoslav Malinov, Bulgarian MEP, Democrats for a strong Bulgaria

By Ole Aabenhus
"What is evident to me is that extremists and populists fill out empty spaces. When large sections of society can't see they make a difference, they don't participate and they don't make use of their right to vote. The result is that a political space is left open for extremists and populists to fill", said Julie Ward, a British Labour MEP at the seminar in the European Parliament where the My!Europe project presented its "20 Recommendations For More Democracy In Europe".

Her analysis, that empty spaces will invite populism was seconded by Svetoslav Malinov, a professor of political science at the University of Sofia, who represents a small centre-left party called Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria.

The strength of being in opposition
Back home my party is always in opposition, he explained, but here in the European Parliament I have the greatest difficulty in explaining who is in power, and who is in opposition. Here, it is not the normal left-right divide between socialists and conservatives that counts, as the two largest parties tend to agree most of the time [in order to "strengthen" the Parliament in relation to the Commission and the Council]. "The only group you can describe as being in opposition in the EP, is the anti-Europeans".

"Being in opposition you always gather a little more sympathy and more interest from citizens", Malinov said. "But who get that extra sympathy in the European Parliament? The anti-European forces! Instead of talking about what kind of Europe we should have, we tend to ask if we need Europe at all, and if Europe is democratic".

"That's why they are so strong, and when they go back to their national democracies - they represent the only alternative to the existing order".

What is a European democracy?
As professor Malinov sees it, there is a fundamental problem related to European democracy: We don't know what it is! "Political science does not give a convincing theory of democracy at inter-state level. If we don't realise that, we will always be frustrated. We should start from the lowest possible level, the pupils in schools, teaching them about the European Union and try to connect the problems of European democracy with nation-state democracy".

EU-sceptics such as Nigel Farage - the fast-talking LEAVE leader in the Brexit campaign - talk about EU-democracy as if it should be identical with national democracy. "But the European Union will never be democratic the same way as a nation state is or can be", Malinov said.

In her intervention at the seminar, Julie Ward cited Sonnenberg as "one of the reasons why she got involved into European politics". She worked in an art education organisation, working with young people in a remote, white community, who did not have "a very wide view" of the world.

Her organisation became a British partner for the Sonnenberg Summer School on using art and cultural tools to explore European values. "The change in these young people, from before to after they went there, was transformational and long lasting. In cross-culture dialogues you learn more about yourself, when you encounter the other, and that what happened. Instead of being the lost souls, which they were before they went, they became aspirational - they decided to go to college, university, often as the first ever in their families, they started businesses and became active citizens. They stopped being a burden on the state".

"So reaching out to disenfranchised citizens is crucial in order to save the European project, and also to change it, to shape it, to give it back to the people", she said.

Extremism and populism are the result of a political system, which does not take debate, democracy and participation serious. This is the opinion of two MEPs who took part in the My!Europe seminar in the European Parliament.