Benjamin Moffitt, Benjamin De Cleen, Panos Panayotu and Yannis Stavrakakis

We all know that populism is the flavour du jour in political science today. We also know that populism is often conflated with nationalism in popular and academic discussions, especially in the fallout of the election of Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum. But what happens when populism explicitly tries to decouple itself from nationalism – and indeed, move into a transnational space?

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

We all know that populism is the flavour du jour in political science today. We also know that populism is often conflated with nationalism in popular and academic discussions, especially in the fallout of the election of Trump and the results of the Brexit referendum. But what happens when populism explicitly tries to decouple itself from nationalism – and indeed, move into a transnational space?

Although this may sound like something that only exists in our imaginations, we argue that there is actually a very interesting case of such ‘transnational populism’ unfolding at the present moment: that of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). Launched in 2016 by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, DiEM25 has sought to construct a pro-European transnational left political project in the aftermath of the European debt crisis. It seeks to ‘democratise Europe’ via a transnational strategy that aims to construct a European ‘people’ against ‘the elite’ – in short, attempting a novel form of transnational populism, raising questions about the potentials of populism beyond the usual setting of the nation-state.

Yet how successful is DiEM25 in constructing such a transnational populist movement? Is DiEM25 a truly transnational populist movement or does it remain tethered to the national level? To find this out, in our recent article published in Political Studies, we first used discourse theory to build a conceptualisation of populism and nationalism that offers a set of formal criteria to distinguish these discourses from one another. We were particularly interested in the nodal point the discourse offers (‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ as an underdog?); the subject position it offers (member of ‘the nation’ as a community linked to a particular territory or member of ‘the people’ as an underdog?); who is set outside these positions (non-members of the nation or ‘the elite’?) and orientation between the nodal point and those set outside these positions (is it a horizontal in/out relationship on the basis of national identity, or is it a vertical up/down relationship on the basis of hierarchy and power?)

We then undertook a qualitative content analysis of the movement’s manifestoes, speeches, press releases and published interviews with DiEM25 leaders (especially Varoufakis himself). We examined how DiEM25 constructs a supranational ‘elite’ as its enemy and how it aims to construct a ‘European people’ in opposition to that ‘elite’. Our analysis showed that DiEM25 can indeed be seen as a form of transnational populism, but also that its move towards the transnational is not total, and that the national remains crucial to its demands for democracy. This tension was clear in the way that DiEM25 oscillates between speaking in the name of ‘the people’ (which tend to be transnational) and in the plural names of ‘the peoples’ of Europe (the separate ‘people’ of the different European nations), as well as how it sought to set up national party wings in Greece and Germany to compete in the EU Parliament elections to work alongside its transnational movement.

In short, we found that DiEM25 wants to straddle both the transnational and national dimensions: as Varoufakis has noted, “we have already experienced how the blending together of Europeans across nations and political parties into one transnational organisation is producing ‘proof’ that, on top of our existing multiple identities, it is not only possible but also empowering to overlay a new one – a transnational identity of our own making: radical, anti-authoritarian, democratic Europeanism”. The national and transnational do not constitute a contradiction according to DiEM25 – they exist as moments of the same political hegemonic project.

Our analysis of DiEM25 also showed that populism does not have to be tied to nationalism or nativism, as is so often the case in academic and popular work on the topic. Indeed, DiEM25 represent a case of left populism that is pro-refugee, running “let them in” and “stop the deal” campaigns (the latter supporting legal action against the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on asylum seekers), which explicitly support and welcome refugees and asylum seekers. Here DiEM25 sets itself against “the nationalist alternative [which] is to divide, to foster distrust leading to violence and perhaps to war”. Varoufakis has argued that “a progressive international” is the only way “to counter the nationalist international that is gaining strength all over the world”. More so, they do not advocate leaving the European Union, or a ‘Lexit’, but rather the EU must be further democratised.

Why should we care about (what looks like it could be) a relatively marginal political movement? Our argument is that this case may reflect a structural limit that all inclusionary populist forces in Europe are bound to face in their attempt to energise populist mobilisation and policy application beyond the nation-state. Establishment forces already seem to be able to function at the transnational level, even through ad hoc institutions like the Eurogroup, in which the acceptable degrees of legitimacy and accountability are quite low and flexible, reflecting a pre-existing agreement on commonly accepted policies. Such a transnational coordination cannot simply be replicated by anti-establishment forces to the extent that resistance is still mostly framed at the level of national community. We show that the enjoyment and the defense of rights remains largely tied to the membership of a nation-state; and the discursive and affective investment of oppositional demands and identities also seems to remain largely attached to the nation-state. This matters, because as we show, yes, a transnational populism is possible not only in theory but also in practice, but that such a transnational populist endeavour cannot simply escape the national level – and that speaking in the name of a transnational people is one thing, but actually constructing such a people is another.

Photo by Branko Radovanović, CC BY-SA 4.0.