Sonja Puntscher Riekmann: “If no counter strategies are taken, the worst is still to come”

By Annamária Tóth | 4 February 2013

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “Sonja Puntscher Riekmann: “If no counter strategies are taken, the worst is still to come””, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 February 2013,, displayed on 02 April 2023

Campaigning for another kind of Europe or leaving the EU altogether – catchwords we have been reading quite often in the news lately. Sonja Puntscher Riekmann, Director of the Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies and Vice-President of the European Forum Alpbach, explains to Nouvelle Europe why this discourse is not only limited to new, marginal parties and how they are setting the political agenda.

For the past years, we have seen new political parties appear both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Before going into detail on individual movements, what general tendencies can we notice?

I would describe the general trends as pluralisation and differentiation. However, we have to be careful when defining new political parties. In fact, there is a difference between genuinely new parties, such as the Pirates, and splinter groups of old and established parties eventually merging with others. We could use the Austrian case as an example, where the Green Party (Die Grünen) was genuinely new, while the Freedom Party (FPÖ – Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) saw splinter groups come up in form of the Liberal Forum (LiF – Liberales Forum, 1993) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ – Bündnis Zukunft Österreich, 2005) under the leadership of Jörg Haider. Similarly, Team Stronach for Austria (or Team Stronach in short), founded by Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach, unites MPs of different parties and will run for the next Austrian elections. Finally, several small groupings have emerged from the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP – Österreichische Volkspartei) in the Tyrol recently – I believe that around ten parties have voiced their determination to run for the next elections.

Austria, however, is not the only case. The Italian Christian Democracy Party (DC – Democrazia Cristiana) was succeeded by several parties, and in France, new formations have cristallised on the political left, such as the Left Front (Front de Gauche). These are all new political parties but very few of them represent a genuinely new position on the political spectrum.

What concerns do these parties have?

Generally speaking, they are dissatisfied with the establishment not addressing salient questions, such as the social question, but they also bring up new issues, such as the ecological question. To use Albert O. Hirshman's terms: they do not have voice within the establishment and hence exit.

Why is their way of mobilising citizens different – or is it different at all?

These new parties may have different strategies compared to established parties because they thrive on mobilisation. However, the permissive consensus supporting traditional or “old” parties is eroding. This means that all parties, old and new, are converging in their strategies to mobilise citizens. The use of referenda as a form of direct democracy is a case in point. We just have to look at Austria again, where a referendum was held on 20 January on whether or not to continue with obligatory military service. It ultimately became a means to mobilise citizens along the main party lines in preparation of the next national elections later this year, demonstrating a (supposed) determination to introduce more direct participation when deciding about the country's future.

These trends are not limited to one European country but can be seen all around the continent, which does not necessarily seem to be a new phenomenon: indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century, nationalism spread all around Europe and the thirties saw fascist regimes rise. Or is there a new European dimension now?

There is no new dimension. European states are communicating vessels of political trends and to a certain degree, they have always been. We encounter similar problems everywhere (in fact not only in Europe but all around the world), such as the debate around the pluralisation of societies due to immigration. The differences are in small nuances rather than in general principles.

Let us talk about individual new political parties. One of the newest political parties emerging are the Pirates, which are probably best established in Sweden – in fact, the youngest Member of the European Parliament, Amelia Andersdotter, is a Swedish Pirate. The Pirates campaign for civil rights, direct democracy, and open access to information. Will they reform democracy? 

You could say that they do so – but only to a certain extent. The Pirates too address issues neglected or not tackled appropriately by others, and they point to generational and social cleavages. They speak to the IT generation and are sensitive to issues of information restrictions and data protection. They are geared towards direct participation and less hierarchical structures. So, they are innovative in certain aspects, but they also show limitations when it comes to general political problems, such as practical solutions to current challenges: pensions, social security, economic and fiscal policy, or even foreign and defence policy.

What about the Indignados? They might not be a party, but they also claim to be more democratic and less hierarchical than the long-established parties, protesting against the rising levels of unemployment and austerity measures to tackle the financial crisis. Even if they claim to be apolitical, are they the new European left?

They are not. They use protest rather than a clear vision and have no unifying theory that would guide a new left. In fact, they are conservative in regard to the welfare state. But they have a very important function and that is pointing to the dangers of a lost generation.

Yet another current trend is new populism, mostly in the form of right-wing parties showing a pan-European agreement insofar as they have a strong anti-European agenda. To put it bluntly: is their anti-Europeanness actually a very European phenomenon?

This is exactly the paradox of a European movement that is at the same time nationalist and eurosceptic. They focus on Europe as a common feature of their criticism. In this respect, they are more European than others; however, we also have to keep in mind that using the EU as the source of all evil is a welcome issue.

Exactly. For example, here in Austria, the “big” parties seem to be borrowing some of the extreme right's discourse: thus, we saw that the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ – Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs) has started to raise Eurosceptic voices, while the ÖVP has taken a harder stance on immigration. Is it because of the far-right that trends like scapegoating the EU or the “death of multiculturalism” occur or because of more general trends?

Both. European integration has been an increasingly contested phenomenon ever since the introduction of the Maastricht Treaty and the end of the so-called permissive consensus. Right wing populism takes up feelings of unease of certain groups and constituencies regarding the loss of sovereignty due to integration. The parties in question incite and exacerbate feelings that are ignored (and could be ignored for decades) by established parties (the same holds true for immigration). As right-wing populist parties made considerable inroads in the electorate of established parties, the latter tried first to resist and than gave way to pertinent discourses. In this sense, populist parties appear as agenda setters.

You have already mentioned the Greens. In fact, we often forget that the Greens were a “new political party” some years ago. While they have shown quite considerable electoral success and brought environmental issues on the political agenda, they have more recently failed to convince their voters. Can we conclude that the “faith” of new political parties is to remain marginal in the long run?

In a way, the Greens are failing because of their success. As you mentioned, ecological issues are now on the agenda of all parties. Also, Green parties now belong to the established party system. As they have already participated in governments, they are also held accountable for their governmental action. For example, it was the Socialist (SPD – Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands)-Green (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) German government which introduced Agenda 2010, a series of reforms of the German welfare state including the Hartz IV law, measures considered as one of the greatest cuts in the history of the German social system. Now, the Greens as the SPD are held responsible for the social consequences of these measures.

However, here, too, future is given where good structures can be established. Again, let us take the German example. Baden-Württemberg has a Green government and Stuttgart's mayor Fritz Kuhn is from the Green party. Previously, the mayors had come from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU – Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands) for forty years. Similarly, in Lower Saxony, the Greens have recently scored their best results so far.

Greece might be a special case in the debates about new parties and anti-European feelings. ECFR research fellow Ulrike Guérot argued in an article in the Guardian last June that after the Greek elections, “the best – or worst – of integration is still to come, and soon”. What do you think: is the best or the worst still to come?

That is difficult to tell. On the one hand, measures taken in terms of austerity policy exacerbate social cleavages and thus sow the seeds for societal disintegration and the emergence of political extremism (see the European Commission's report on the North-South-divide). If no counter strategies are taken, the worst is still to come (hence the greater insistence on growth), which would of course not be conducive to enhance loyalty towards the European Union. On the other hand, as Grexit seems to be worse (why should Greece fare better outside the EU given its lack of innovation and productivity?), keeping the Union together becomes more likely. If complemented by transfers and investments, improvement is still possible. This, again, would also create greater affection for the integration project.

Talking of Grexit, there is also another Member State where leaving the EU is not just a mere theory anymore: the United Kingdom. What would happen if the UK decided to leave the EU?

First of all, the UK is not Greece. In the Greek case, the main concern is a different one – namely that of the contagion effect. Once a weak Euro-country such as Greece leaves the Union and the Eurozone, the argument goes, there is an increasing danger for other countries like Portugal and Spain to be in the same situation. The effect would not only be contagious to other Member States, it could also lead to the Euro's breakup altogether.

However, the UK is not in the Eurozone. If you look at Wolfgang Münchau's article “It does not really matter if Britain leaves” in the Financial Times of 13 January, you will read that “[l]ooking at this from inside the EU, the UK left the heart of Europe 20 years ago when John Major negotiated the opt-out from the euro”. In this sense, Brexit would not have a significant impact on the EU. However, it would have a strong symbolic meaning – after all, if a Member State exits from the EU, this is a question of internal structural weaknesses.

But no matter what the decisions may look like now, the UK will most possibly not leave the European Union. We have already seen the outcry of the City and of big companies, which have already protested and do not want to loose their access to the internal market. In addition, we also have to note that the debate about a possible Brexit and a referendum to decide about it are both factors that have fueled anti-European feelings.


As Vice-President of the European Forum Alpbach, Sonja Puntscher Riekmann presides over the organisation of the Alpbach Perspectives, which will deal with the future of the European Union. Political participation will be but one aspect discussed between August 19 and 21, 2013 in Alpbach, the Tyrol, Austria.

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Photo credits: Peter Mayr & European Forum Alpbach; Magdalena Lapka