By Peter Scherrer

(Zur deutschsprachigen Version bitte hier klicken)

The summer break is over, political Brussels resumes parliamentary operation. We, the trade union movement, were spared any great shock from the elections to the European Parliament in May this year. The election result was noticeably behind what was feared in the camps of the democratic parties and also of the unions. The gains of the populist and far-right parties in the European elections are essentially the result of the “Lega” of Italian Matteo Salvini, the “Rassemblement National” of Marine Le Pen in France, the “Fidesz” party of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the ruling party in Poland “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” (PiS), the German “AfD” and the “Brexit” party of Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. At present, the right wing extremist, populist and anti-European parties represent about a quarter of all MEPs. At national level, the last tentative success story for a far-right populist party was the German AfD, which did gain substantially in the regional Parliament of the state of Brandenburg (23.5%) and of the Saxony free state (27.5%). The recent general elections in Austria were a noticeable setback for the extreme right FPÖ but not a fundamental disaster.

Once again, migration and asylum policy, support for the “forgotten regions”, unemployment (especially among young people) and the fear of the negative effects of globalisation were the dominant themes in the election campaigns. The losers of the election nights, as so often across Europe, were the social-democratic / left-wing parties. It has been noted that significantly more men than women give their votes to right-wing populist parties.

Populist parties equate globalisation with the loss of national sovereignty (very visible during the Brexit debates), the liberalisation of the economy and the deregulation of industrial relations. Populism is directed in particular against the “elites benefiting from globalisation”. For populist parties, these elites find themselves in the ruling establishment, in the “Brussels bubble”, in the established parties, in the business elite, in the “mainstream media” and also in the “union bosses”. Populists present themselves as the lawyers of the “little people”.[1] To counter these threats, they are offering to retreat into the narrow confines of the nation, which guarantees solidarity through a supposed national identity. Xenophobia and more or less open racism are the propagandist/rhetorical glue that keeps their suggested solutions together.

Populists of all stripes have long since identified the European Union as a common enemy across Europe: it presumably triggers and reinforces national and regional disadvantages. The anti-European similarities are clearly visible in the elections to the European Parliament. It is claimed that the European Union needs to be reformed. In truth, however, populists want to downsize the Union and threaten even with exit. The shift of basic political, economic, social and financial skills back to the nation state unites populists across Europe. They reject the basic EU treaties on the single market and currency.

Significantly, populism also affects parts of the middle class. This makes it clear that it is not social decline and impoverishment that are the fuel of populism, but rather the fear of change and possible descent. In many questions of wealth distribution, infrastructure and participation, criticism of populist movements undoubtedly addresses real problems.

Trade unions must lead the discussion on the future shape of the European internal market and globalization more openly and assertively. We see not only threats but also opportunities. Fair and sustainable globalisation can lead to a socially equitable increase in wealth among trading partners and in the countries of the European Union. But for that we need a fundamental policy change. The European Union, and in particular the European Parliament, as the legitimate representative of European citizens, has the task of setting rules for economic and social fairness and sustainability and demanding their enforcement across Europe.

The “prosperity promise” of the European Union must apply to all, not just the strong ones. In Germany, too, we have to admit that we are only well if our European neighbours are doing well too. There cannot be a lasting split in the Union between globalisation winners and globalisation losers. The project “justice in distribution” must start now, here and today. For example, campaigns such as the ETUC campaign “Europe needs a pay-rise” must be set up again and more decisively supported by national trade union organisations than ever before.[2] An excellent example on the sectoral level is the recently launched campaign „Togehter at Work“ of „industriAll“, the umbrella organisation of the manufacturing/raw material industries trade unions in Europe.[3]

Rural areas need special attention and help. Public services of general interest, access to education and participation in social developments must be available to all citizens, no matter where they live. An efficient and well-functioning public service is an indispensable pillar for a democratic society. Digitalisation can make many things easier. Access to modern means of communication has to be accessible for everybody. The objectives of regional policies must be set with the broad participation of stakeholders and actions implemented quickly – and their fulfillment must be monitored transparently. This transcends the framework of traditional regional policy, because it covers both the fields of action and of the actors as a whole. Trade unions need to readjust and strengthen their regional presence. Especially in the regions trade unions must be at the forefront and by this trade unions (and democracy in general) can build lasting credibility.

Because union members are not immune to xenophobic and nationalist propaganda, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and its institute (ETUI) have recently explored the question why “attractiveness” in particular right-wing populist parties has grown.[4] The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has very recently published an interesting study on EU Trade Union Strategies to address trade union members’ and workers’ growing propensity to vote for right-wing populists and nationalists.[5] It clearly underlines the need for trade unions to be more active and in direct contact with their members regarding the means (i.e. racism, xenophobia, exclusion…) populist parties apply to gain attraction.

Looking at the strategies and actions that trade unions apply to counteract the rise of Popular Radical Right (PRR) parties, we see considerable differences among the workers’ organisations. Some concentrate on counteracting populist parties’ social and economic policy, which is often extremely hostile to the working population. Others follow the “defining limits and open door” strategy, which means that there is a defined red line of “no cooperation whatsoever” (regarding xenophobia/racism), but at the same time an open door for the ones who demand serious solutions for existing problems. In order to be effective and successful in the effort to push back populist right-wing extremist parties, all trade union levels must be networked. In order to operate such a network, European trade union structures are of particularly great importance. Both sectoral and cross-sectoral organisations are required to cooperate with each other and with their respective membership. The European Trade Union Institute can provide well-researched information and could serve as an organisation providing a discussion platform.

Despite social media, personal and face-to-face contact are of the utmost importance. It goes without saying that trade unions must address the media, public rallies, demonstrations and protests against xenophobia, racism and nationalist politics. At the same time, trade unionists, organisers, militants and works councils must take sides in the workplace, in companies and administrations against the exclusionist and misanthropic policies of right-wing populists.

Trade unions need to clarify their position on fair and sustainable globalisation and on a thorough political reform of the European Union. This must be the subject of daily trade union debate, education and public relations. It is not just about enforcing a “Social Europe”. Trade unions bear the responsibility for a proactive dialogue process for a new reform for Europe and its institutions. The 14th Congress of the ETUC (May 2019 in Vienna) provided an excellent platform for the discussion on a structural and fundamental overhaul of Europe. The political/social manifesto (ETUC-Manifesto 2019-2023), approved by the European trade union movement, is a solid foundation for our political action both at European but also at shop floor level. Let’s make freedom, solidarity and equality happen for all human beings in Europe!


[1] See: Philip Manow, in „Die Politische Ökonomie des Populismus“, Edition Suhrkamp, 2018.



[4] Internal Workshops and public conferences serve information and experience exchange, see:


Titelbild: Gerrit Burow CC BY 2-0

Peter Scherrer | Foto: © ETUC

Peter Scherrer conducts research on the issue of Radical Right-extremist Parties. He supports the ETUC as an expert on European Social Dialogue. He was General Secretary (GS) of the European Metalworkers’ Federation and Deputy GS of the ETUC. He was educated as a metal worker and as an Historian at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Berlin and Bielefeld University (M.A.)

Link to article