An interview with Caroline de Gruyter

On the rise of populism in Europe and the early example set by Switzerland

Hi Caroline, You’ve had a long career as a reporter and EU correspondent. How did you get started?

My first job was writing for theatres, companies, ministries—communicating internally with their employees. But after a couple of years, I got a bit restless— bored maybe—so I started travelling and writing about it. I travelled to societies in transformation: to Chile after Pinochet and to South Africa, waiting for Mandela to be released. Things were changing. So, I started writing about it. I liked it so much that I continued, first in the Netherlands, then in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, and now I’ve been covering Europe since 1999.

You say that a perfect state of mind for a journalist is to be confused, and thus remain alert. Is this what drives you?

Yes. I like societies in flux, I find them much more interesting, and especially what’s happening in Europe nowadays. People have a tendency to turn everything into black and white. You have the federalists, the nationalists and they clash. But this is a sterile discussion, because Europe is not like that. Europe is about grey zones and grey tones. Europe is about constant change and improvisation as well. 

One day we all talk about debt and deficits, and you leave Brussels for a while. Then you come back—it happened to me, last year—after 8 years abroad, and all of a sudden nobody talks about debt and deficits anymore. They talk about security, about borders, even about defence, which was completely taboo before. So, you see, Europe is changing all the time.

What are the big trends that you noticed in the EU bubble and how did they change over time?

When I first came to Brussels in 1999, it was a very small EU—just 15 member states. 

People thought it was boring. Europe was very good at this: breaking political problems into small technical bits, and then trying to solve these bits. Everything was depoliticised

The real stuff that people cared about was decided on a national level. Security, education, money, everything. Gradually all of that changed. Now we have European money, we even had a euro crisis. We eliminated borders between most of the countries in the EU—and also some outside, like Switzerland and Norway, so that puts the onus on external borders. All these things are becoming more and more political. 

In the Europe I started working in, heads of state and governments would meet each other twice a year or sometimes four times a year. That Europe doesn’t exist anymore. Because there is more of a concept of Europe, people are more interested.

Do you think that populists have an important hand in defining the EU political agenda?

No, I don’t think so. Member state leaders are scared of populists, but populists don’t have—so far—a real plan. 

They’re usually against European integration, they’re against the ECB interfering in the course of the euro, they’re against this and they’re against that, but they never lay out a plan. They react so that they don’t bear any responsibility for it either, they only criticise those who do bear the responsibility. 

All these populist parties used to do things on a national level. They were using national podiums to rally against Brussels. Now, because of Brexit and the Russian war in Ukraine, even Europe’s populists don’t want to get out anymore. They want to step on the European podium and do European politics. 

They’re trying to change Europe from the inside, in Brussels. It’s frightening on the one hand, but on the other hand it helps European democracy.  All of a sudden, the drama is there, and the discussions about Europe are not so sterile anymore. There’s emotion there. There’s fierce discussion about everything, about things that people care about, about security, about defence, about monetary issues, about everything that used to be national… 

Meloni—who just won Italy’s elections—was recently in Spain holding speeches. She has a very European kind of discourse. It’s not my kind of discourse, so that’s scary. 

You say that the EU was able to depoliticize problems when it didn’t have to concern itself with geopolitics. When was the tipping point that changed this?

Late. I remember when I was living in Vienna in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied part of Donbas.

I started writing that we have to watch out for Putin: Where would he stop? I received a lot of angry responses from people saying that I was provoking Putin. In that sense, change came really late. The real turning point was the invasion in February 2022. Because it touched on the raison d’être of the EU and that woke everybody up. The raison d’être of the EU is to “never again” be at war, and we really believed this. We wanted to believe it. The war in Yugoslavia, was seen as the last remnant of the Cold War by Western Europe—that it had to be fought out, and after that everything would be quiet. In hindsight, we look at that a bit differently too.

You looked at Switzerland to analyse the rise of far-right parties in Europe. Why Switzerland?

In many ways, everything goes faster in Switzerland than in the rest of Europe. The EU—which surrounds Switzerland—is always slow with everything because we have to negotiate among 27 member states. Switzerland has just one government. And Switzerland is one of the most globalised countries in the world.

Because the country is small and doesn’t want to become a member of the EU, it needs this openness. Switzerland lives off the rest of the world. Since this is the case, the reaction against globalisation was also very early and very strong, much stronger than in the EU. 

The Swiss’ People’s Party, the SVP, was the biggest party in the country by the mid-1990s, much earlier than in the neighbouring countries. But the anti-populists in Switzerland were also the first to get organised and active. Young people who were much greener than everybody else and liberal at the same time, who wanted to be European. They were the first really to fight the SVP. In the EU, the opposition to populism came much later.

Can you set the scene for how these progressive forces became a viable opposition to populist movements in Switzerland?

The SVP had a referendum proposal to kick out all foreigners who had committed two or three traffic offences. I’ve lived in Switzerland, if you are allowed to drive at 30 km/h and you drive at 32, and they catch you—you’ll pay hundreds of Swiss francs in fines, and it is registered. So all the foreigners, which is more than 20% of Swiss residents, could be kicked out of the country because of that.

A political movement called Operation Libero went to all the political parties, warning them weeks in advance. They were saying that the parties were being too quiet, and only the SVP was being heard: day and night on the radio and television, where they were portraying foreigners as the bringers of all evil in Switzerland. 

Operation Libero was smart with computers, and they knew what they were talking about. They really did their homework and started publicising manifestos. For the first time somebody answered those extremists in the SVP. And in the end, Operation Libero won the referendum!

Why do you think that the other parties were bending to the discourse of the populists?

Because it’s not so much about principle, it’s much more about survival. Political parties look at the polls these days, and political leaders are actually more political followers. 

What is happening in many countries, like in Sweden and in Italy, is that the moderate right get destabilised by the far right. And they think: if what these people scream and shout is so popular, then we should start being tough as well, we have to move in that direction. By moving in their direction, they take over the rhetoric of the far right. And the far right, of course, keeps running a bit further right. In a way, the centre right has the keys to democracy.

Coming back to Switzerland, can you tell us more about how the anti-immigration sentiment developed there?

The Swiss are very globalised, but also very traditional. Both are connected, one is a reaction to the other. For us foreigners, you feel like you’ve landed in a real village type of life. Each year, there was a cheese fondue organised by our village, for newcomers. They really care about the social tissue. You don’t have this in Brussels, or in Amsterdam, or in Paris, and certainly not in Rome. You get a real feeling of country life, of real traditions, of local recipes, that kind of stuff.

One day, I discovered that you could see election results per village. I googled the one I was living in and saw that more than half of the vote went to the far right. The village has the best immigrants—well-educated, rich—that they could want. They primarily pay local taxes, which all go to the village. So what were they complaining about?

I went around to the surrounding villages—not my own because I thought it would be painful—and it was the same results there. The far right was winning everywhere.

When these villages had local votes, they would gather in the old maison communale and then debate if they needed to change that junction there, or if they needed more money for the school, the things that you debate in a local democracy. All this was political, but it was also very social. Everybody knew each other, they were very close, they babysat each other’s children. 

They would tell me: We did it ourselves. We sold our lands to the expats, we built houses on our land and rented them out to people like you, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves. And we don’t want any more of this so this is why we vote like that. 

I expected big racists and big extremists, and I don’t know what else, conspiracy theorists. Not these people moaning that they had lost their nest.

This fear of foreigners, isn’t that rooted in racism, even when it’s not openly stated?

Not necessarily. They’re citing all kinds of examples of social systems they didn’t want to open up to newcomers anymore. They didn’t want to lose their jobs, stuff like that. It is a bit more complicated than racism.

But don’t you think this racism is coded in the language used to speak about immigrants?

Yes, it is, but the funny thing is that most of what they are debating in the local politics of the village is stuff like deciding on how to build a road, or whether or not to cut a tree…

Did these people in rural areas keep the SVP in power over the years?

The SVP made a huge mistake betting on the polarisation between the cities and rural areas

The Swiss cities are bursting and people are moving away. People with young kids move to the countryside. So the cities are expanding and a lot of the countryside is becoming suburbanised. And who moved to those suburbs? It’s young green voters, young liberal voters, and people who might have been tempted to listen to the SVP as well. But after a while, they can’t stand all this moaning about foreigners, about patriotic nonsense and sovereignty. They just want good schools and good public transport, that kind of thing.

These developments also give you hope. Today, a lot of people are depressed because Meloni won the elections in Italy. But, in Slovenia, just a few months ago the populists were voted out of power in a big way.

The same thing happened in Norway. And in Germany, the far right party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) has fallen spectacularly in the last elections. It comes and it goes. But we all have to be awake and aware. We have to fight back.

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