Right-wing populists have been gaining support throughout Europe. Their nationalist and xenophobic outlook that seeks to reassert national glories has found a great support among rural communities in many countries. Although right-wing populism is not an exclusively rural phenomenon, its popularity among European countrymen is alarming.

However, the European countryside provides not only a breeding ground for regressive populist forces, it also may offer progressive solutions in the form of emancipatory rural politics. The latter is the focus of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI).

ERPI is a scholar-activist community that aims at understanding the rise of right-wing populism in the rural world, as well as the forms of resistance occurring, and the alternatives being built. We believe that top-down initiatives are unable to resolve the political crisis: resistance and alternatives should come from below. Our European team (ERPI Europe) includes researchers, rural activists, representatives of NGOs and social movements who work together to build the ERPI network in Europe and find sustainable solutions to the populist surge in this region.

To resist right-wing populism it’s necessary to understand its causes. The far-right movements are commonly portrayed as the result of economic and cultural crises that hit Europe during the last decade. Indeed, the Global Financial Crisis and the Eurozone Crisis have exacerbated economic inequality and social deprivation in rural Europe, which influenced the villagers’ support for populist parties. Likewise, the fears of losing the cultural identity due to globalisation, multiculturalism and the refugee crisis are especially profound in the countryside and make rural dwellers more receptive to the populist message that they are the true protectors of their nation’s culture and heritage.

However, the economic arguments do not explain why in Portugal – the country that hit hardest by the financial crisis – the far right remains only marginal. Meanwhile, Poland – that has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe – became paralysed by right-wing populism. Likewise, if we consider the migrant crisis as the reason for right-wing populism, we would not be able to explain why the strongest support for banning minarets in Switzerland was expressed in rural cantons where the number of Muslims and immigrants is low.

ERPI Europe has recently conducted a multi-country research project on causes, consequences and cures of right-wing populism in rural Europe. Its results show that the root cause of right-wing populism is the fundamental crisis of neoliberal capitalism that is especially pronounced in the European countryside. The neoliberal approach of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy benefited larger companies that are oriented on boosting yields and industrial production, while small-scale farmers became marginalized. During the past decade, the number of full-time farmers across the EU fell by one third, representing 5 million jobs. In non-agricultural areas, de-industrialisation and state-withdrawal from the provision of public services caused economic and infrastructural decline, cultivating the feeling of ‘left behind’ among rural residents.

The crisis of neoliberalism is directly linked to the crisis of representative democracies. Neoliberal globalisation used to be advocated by the Europe’s political mainstream as the only development trajectory with no possibility for agonistic debate. In the countryside, alternatives were even more limited due to the lack of political debates and movements. Rural issues used to be overlooked by politicians because of the relatively low electoral weight of rural constituencies (just 28% of the EU-28 population) and supposedly apolitical character of rural voters. Meanwhile, large-scale agribusiness and multinational corporations successfully lobby European governments on the topics of food and agricultural policies.

European farmers movements and unions lack networks of action and solidarity among its members and, thereby, do not have sufficient bargaining power to influence their governments’ decision-making. Moreover, rural activists are unable to build coalitions with consumer movements and urban-based food activists, who are often more advanced in political mobilisation and activism over food issues. The lack of political representation and strong social movements made many villagers turn to right-wing populists, who claim to be the true representatives of the ordinary people.

Thus, what has to be done? Since the cause of right-wing populism is the failure of neoliberalism, cosmetic changes will not have a long-lasting effect, we need to rethink the entire system. We need to put food producers – not multinational corporations and supermarket chains – at the centre of the European food system and decision making. This requires a radical transformation of power relations, which is impossible without a large-scale mobilisation of food producers and consumers.

We believe that food sovereignty has the potential to mobilise various rural groups across the European continent and act as a counterforce to right‐wing populism. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It asserts that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions.

The European food sovereignty movement is currently in its early formative stage and misses organisational and ideological coherence of its counterparts in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Our research has indicated the following three “must do” actions to facilitate the emancipatory rural politics of food sovereignty and to combat right-wing populism. First, it is important to make food more political. The ways of how we produce, distribute and consume our food should become subjects of political debates. Second, there is the need to change rural dwellers’ perceptions and beliefs about their role in society. Small-scale farmers are not a backward past, but a sustainable future, yet they should believe in this themselves. And finally, there is a need to redefine what a progressive movement is in the European countryside. There are substantial overlaps between food sovereignty and food justice movements in Western Europe or food self-provisioning in Eastern Europe. Thus, it is crucial to create mobilisation around the existing, culturally specific practices of food production and consumption before introducing new alien solutions.

ERPI Europe coordinating team:

About ERPI Europe

The European team of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI Europe) is a scholar-activist community that aims at understanding, resisting and building alternatives to regressive right-wing politics in the European countryside. It has emerged after the international ERPI conference on ‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World’, held in The Hague in March 2018. Since then, ERPI Europe initiated a research project that includes studies on rural populism in different European countries and co-organised the conference ‘People, Politics, Participation. Government of fragile rural areas in Italy and Europe’ in Rovigo in March 2019. Its members actively cooperate with Agricultural and Rural Convention 2020 (ARC 2020), Transnational Institute (TNI), International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), and other research and activist organisations.

ERPI EUROPE on ARC2020: http://www.arc2020.eu/right-wing-populism-emancipatory-rural-politics-initiative-europe/

ERPI EUROPE articles in Sociologia Ruralis: