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Populist Constitutionalism? (4): The Populist Threat to Democratic Constitutionalism

14th November 2017 Paul Blokker

The Populist Threat to Democratic Constitutionalism

by Paul Blokker, Associate Professor of Sociology, Charles University, Prague

Populism is widely understood as incompatible with liberal-democratic constitutionalism: ‘populist ideologies are structurally hostile to constitutionalism’. It is even said that ‘populists are a greater threat to liberal-democratic constitutionalism than the minority of religiously fundamentalist immigrants ever could be’. Populists worldwide, however, actively engage with constitutional change and even constitution-making.1 In many of these instances, populists claim to be constructing an alternative constitutional order, in at least partial and critical contrast to liberal-democratic constitutionalism.

What should we make of this? Are the claims and justifications of populists to be dismissed out of hand, as abusive constitutionalism from which the only lesson that can be drawn is that liberal-democratic constitutionalism should be fortified? And is therefore any attempt to scholarly engage with such claims to be met with ‘suspicion’ and to be viewed as an act of complicity?

Further reading

Narrating European Society: Toward a Sociology of European Integration by Hans-Jörg Trenz

The Library and Research team has interviewed Professor Hans-Jörg Trenz about his new book Narrating European Society: Toward a Sociology of European Integration which is now available for loan in the library.

Hans-Joerg Trenz

Hans-Jörg Trenz is EURECO Professor for Modern European Studies at the University of Copenhagen and a researcher at CEMES (Centre for Modern European Studies). He has a background in media and communication, political sociology and the sociology of European integration and has previously held positions in Norway, Germany and Italy.

In his new book Professor Trenz introduces a sociological perspective on European integration by looking at different accounts of Europeanisation as society-building. He observes how Europeanisation unfolds in ongoing practices and discourses through which social relations among Europeans are redefined and re-embedded.

- Why did you chose to look at the European integration process from a sociological perspective?

European integration in the way I have experienced it has always been more than an elite project that concerns only big business and bureaucrats. Several generations of Europeans have now grown up in a social reality where Europe forms an integral part of their everyday lives. At the same time, our understanding of these socialising experiences is limited. I felt that the political scientist view on the Europe of states and governments became too narrow. The so-called EU studies community has responded to the new challenges posed by European integration by raising principally normative questions. There has been a shift from the narrow perspective of EU governance and institutions to the broad perspective of EU democracy and identity. This reflected an often very emphatic understanding of European integration as a process that promised better problem-solving capacities and a higher rationality of government. As such the European Union was often embraced in an affirmative way by the ‘enlightened community’ of EU scholars, by progressive politicians and by public intellectuals. In this book, I wanted to take a middle way and raise the question of a European society. Integration is a term that has a genuine sociological meaning. It relates to a repertoire of knowledge, of values and ideas that are shared by a particular group of people, that gives them orientation and guides their daily interactions. By understanding European integration as a socialising experience we enter the core of sociology as a discipline, which in the classical sense analyses how social meaning is constructed and used as a resource for collective action.

- What is new about your analysis of the European Union project?

The book systematically introduces a perspective on European integration as society‑building.  This is an attempt to look beyond the policies and the institutions that have shaped European integration. In the current crisis, institutions go through hard times and face often fierce resistance by the citizens. EU policies might often prove inefficient or have unintended consequences. This calls for a systematic understanding of the various ways people feel affected by European integration.  For many in Europe, European integration has been a socialising experience, which is very real and reflected. Some embrace Europe and use it as a positive signifier of their lives, others go through more dramatic experiences and find reasons to oppose Europe. The argument I wish to unfold in the book is that there can be many ways in which Europe becomes salient in cultural and identitarian expressions, in collective life projects but also in conflicts and opposition. Apart from engaging in joint projects, many people also encounter Europe in everyday  discourse and practices such as travelling abroad, watching movies or TV from different European countries  or consuming goods that are shared on the free market. I therefore also try to locate Europe under the surface in everyday practices and routines where common European achievements or standards might exert a huge impact on people. These people are not necessarily aware that they are living in a European social reality and some of them might even decide to ignore it. Still, they are part of a European society, which is emerging in these various ways of engaging in cross-border communications and practices and also in the interpretations and meaning attributed to these practices. In the book, I call these attributions of meaning  ‘narratives of a European society’ and I offer a matrix for categorising such narratives as triumphal, banal or traumatic. In short, the project of a European society can be embraced by Europeans, it can be ignored or it can be opposed. In the current crisis of European integration, we can observe how these narratives become mobilised, how they are used and recombined by various actors, including the citizens themselves, and how their validity remains contested.

- What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the book?

The book has been written as a research synthesis. I did not wish to document findings from empirical research projects in full detail, as I have done this in previous journal publications. The monograph style has a huge advantage here as it gave me more freedom to develop my ideas and combine research findings from several projects I have been conducting with researchers from Norway, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the UK and Poland. I should mention that part of these projects also benefited from funding from the European Framework Programme, where I was offered the opportunity to conduct research on the European public sphere, European civil society and Euroscepticism. One main FP 6 project that inspired the book is called RECON (Reconstituting Democracy in Europe) and was run between 2007 and 2011. I refer here to the website of the project, which has been archived and where reports, working papers and further details on the research conducted can be retrieved:

I also covered the period after 2011 and I benefited from research funding at ARENA, the Centre of European Studies of the University of Oslo and a large collaborative research project on the role of media in mobilising EU opposition during the years of crisis. Particularly inspiring for this project was the collaboration with Asimina Michailidou at ARENA, which opened the possibility of a systematic country comparison, understanding the new North and South divisions that became salient during the years of crisis and the particular role played by Germany and Greece in this conflict.

- Can you share more about your current research activities?

I am currently investigating another core aspect of the sociology of European integration, which is transnational and European solidarity. In a collaborative research project funded by the new Horizon 2020 EU Framework Programme for Research, we investigate challenges to European solidarity during the years of crisis. We investigate the impact of EU solidarity policies and programmes in the fields of unemployment, migration and disabilities, but we also look at bottom-up initiatives and solidarity mobilisations of local civil society and grassroots across countries.  For me, this is a highly promising project, as we will be able to draw very precise conclusions about the strength of European solidarity after 60 years of European integration and also about the extent to which solidarity among the Europeans is currently undermined by crisis. Again, I take this opportunity to refer to our website, where further information on our work, publications and the name of the partner institutions can be found: