Seminar attempts to define the role of liberalism amid today’s rising populism

MANY European countries have recently witnessed the increasing support for populism. Populism has been affiliated to political extremism in matters such as resistance of economic globalisation and immigration, and so the need for a discussion on liberal and conservative values has grown. A seminar, held last Wednesday, 21 November in the Old Student House in Helsinki – organised by the Finland-Swedish think-tank Magma – offered a forum for the topic. The seminar looked into what liberalism is today, and what kind of contradiction it bears with populism.

One of the topics in the seminar was whether and how liberalism should counterforce populism. Frank Van Mil, the executive director of the Hans van Mierlo Foundation, is of the opinion that liberal parties seldom gain popularity despite of their efforts, because people are looking, not only for an administrative leader, but also moral. He thinks that some of the liberal politicians in his native country, the Netherlands, have led their parties in an immature way, which has affected the rise of populism.

“In Netherlands there has been an absence of boundaries. Some people have been doing whatever they please under the guise of liberalism. And when other people who consider themselves as liberalists don’t stand up against, they shouldn’t be surprised that opposition occurs from the other side.”

Nils Erik Forsgård, the director of Magma, stated that the challenge for liberalism is to find ways to cope with nostalgia for an old culture and traditions, in which populism relies on. Johan Ekman, the chairman of the Swedish People’s Party of Helsinki district and an attendant at the seminar, supported Forsgård’s view.

“People choose nostalgia, because their future is filled with question marks. They wonder how much they’ll pay taxes and what kind of social security they’ll have in the future, and especially the young generations ask themselves whether they’ll be left unemployed. In that situation it’s easy to lean on populism”, he says.

Magma is an organisation run by the Finnish-Swedish Institute’s national federation. Among other activities and functions, Magma conducts and publishes studies and risk-analyses, and organises conferences and seminars. Magma’s aim is to preserve and support bilingualism and the Finnish-Swedish culture in Finland independent from party politics.