Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Interview

EU populists not actually that 'popular', says global activist

  • Avaaz, the world's largest activist network, is gearing up to boost voter turnout in the 2019 European parliament elections. It previously campaigned in Europe over Glyphosate and saving the bee population (Photo: Avaaz)

Place Jourdan in Brussels on a summer night, packed with people cheering the Belgian 'Red Devils' football team playing England on large TV screens in bars and restaurants.

Just a few hundred metres up the road, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel was fighting another major battle. She needed to strike a compromise about Europe's future migration policy, or risk splitting her own government and potentially the European Union.

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  • 'Europe is the only great power able to lead the world right now', says Avaaz founder and CEO Ricken Patel (Photo: Avaaz)

The Belgians won and Merkel landed the deal. But both victories were quickly to be challenged.

The real challenge is next year's European parliament elections, says Ricken Patel, founder of, Avaaz, one of the world's most influential campaigning groups, in an interview on the busy square.

The 41-year old is Canadian born. He is an EU citizen, with an English mother and an Indian father born in Kenya. He appears at the table on Thursday (28 June), in his final stop on a two-month tour around Europe in preparation for next year's European Parliament elections.

"I think there is little that is more important," he says about the European elections.

"We feel that the liberal democracy world wide is under existential threat and Europe is the only great power able to lead the world right now".

Avaaz has 20 million active members in Europe alone and Patel is considering to use the influence of his organisation to rise the turnout in 2019.

"We need to have Europe strong enough to help save the world," he says.

"It is actually at stake because the far-right is coming fast and coming hard against European democracy".

"But how can you help Europe to do that?", EUobserver asks.

"I think the number one thing is to get out and vote. The populists are not popular. It's 14 percent of the vote in Germany and smaller percentages in other countries," Patel said.

"Polling shows that Europe is very popular, people trust Europe more than they trust their own national governments on average.

"The problem is people don't vote in European elections. So the extremists are going to be able to turn out potentially more people just because of how passionate they are".

Online mobilisation

His Avaaz movement is known to be efficient in mobilising for results, and thus feared by politicians or companies it targets with a campaign.

A typical Avaaz campaign involves millions of people, joining together online at first, sometimes signing a petition together. But that is just the beginning.

After they sign the petition, they then go to the next web-page which might be something like making a phone call to a leader, or donating to a media campaign or organising to get together in the streets and offline.

"And then, that massive public push, we twin with very high-quality advocacy with governments, we launch legal cases, we work with media, it is really all that is required to get the job done," the Avaaz founder and CEO explains.

"It is very creative, it is very innovative. And it is about winning".

Avaaz is already a strong force in the online information war that has a growing influence on modern democratic debates and elections.

"I think the Russian disinformation network has been going after Avaaz for years now," Patel said.

"And we have been going toe-to-toe, doing battle with them in various [occasions], in Hungary in the last elections, in Italy in the last election, over the Brexit battle, in France in the last elections, so I think our action has been noticed.

"You can see we have been attacked in loads of right-wing papers, all of Silvio Berlusconi's papers have run features attacking us, Orban took us to court in Hungary, tried to get us banned – but he failed. I guess the far-right is noticing us, yes".

'Obstructionist arsonists' in parliament

But you lost the Brexit battle, you lost in Italy and Hungary. Why do you think you can win Europe, EUobserver asks?

"That's a great question. Citizens have not understood yet the full danger of what is going on. I think people had no idea that Brexit really had a great shot of happening, until just close to the vote. Just like with Donald Trump. We had no expectation of it happening".

"I think Europeans are waking up to the danger that this poses – and when they do, I think the wast majority of people will be out in the streets, will be in the ballot boxes and will be voting. And we [Avaaz] will be one of thousands of vessels by which people are going to mobilise to that threat".

It could have major consequences if voters don't mobilise and vote in the European parliament elections, he finds.

"I think it is going to be a longer process, by which Europe weathers the storm, learns the lessons from it and emerges stronger. I am fundamentally optimistic for the future of Europe but an obstructionist group of arsonists in the European parliament will frustrate the efforts of people to make Europe stronger and to meet its challenges together," Patel said.

He also says that the term "populists" is incorrect.

"I think they are extremists. Sometimes, if they begin to occupy a significant percentage of the population, like Marine Le Pen, you might call them radicals. Because they are pushing a radical vision of change. Or you may call them right-wing radicals. I think those are the accurate terms to use. There are also left-wing radicals and left-wing extremists. But I believe the term populism is a massive propaganda win for the extremists in our societies".

Fascists always attack press

Campaigning in the US, Patel also sees a lot of similarities between Trump-ism and what Europeans refer to as populism.

"I do think there is a very close correspondence, I think it is all Trump-ism. It's all just one political phenomena. And I think it is born of a cocktail of things and I actually believe that the first thing that I would put as a cause of factor is the rise of disinformation".

"Fascists have always traded in lies and propaganda. They always attack the press, they always try to destroy trust in any other source of information. They have always demonised in ways that were entirely unfair".

It is fuelled by disinformation and hybrid warfare. And behind that is Russia, he says.

"I think we are not waking up to the threat. Nato calls this the largest example of hybrid warfare in the history of human kind. Russia has launched a direct and powerful attack. And we are on the frontlines," he says.

"We see every day how powerful and sophisticated these disinformation campaigns are. They are streets ahead of anything, anyone on the other side is running. And no one is responding. The European Union has three people working full-time, just watching, [on a] disinformation campaign. Russia has tens of thousands working full time on it".

This is not just politics as usual. "This is actually warfare happening".

"It does not mean, that smart disinformation doesn't appeal to real issues and real cleavages and real problems in society. And I think there is a general dissatisfaction, a gap between people's expectations and the delivery of their institutions. And they are playing into that gap with an anti-establishment narrative".

"I also think the migration crisis really created a fertility for the kind of demonising, misleading politics that these kinds of political forces always traded on," Patel said.

Wake-up time

On 16 July US president Donald Trump will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Finland, what does Patel make of this meeting?.

"It think that the Russians have launched a hybrid warfare campaign that has claimed the executive branch of the United States. And I think Trump himself is more closely aligned in temperament and perspective with Vladimir Putin than he is with his own government".

"I think it is shocking to Nato to see this happening and it is playing out theatre by theatre".

"When we think about national security, a lot of the institutions we have set up, our militaries, our defence departments, they think about tanks, and guns and borders. But the internet knows no borders. And the kind of threat that Russia has been able to launch is far more profound than military invasion".

"They have manuals, you can actually read their manuals for what they are doing. They are attempting to weaken the fabric of our societies, destroy trust in our existing institutions and create a kind of anarchy in which the worst actors, the ones that are in their pay, can flourish and arise to take control of our societies".

"That is not hyperbole, that is the assessment of some of our security experts that are studying this problem".

"I feel we haven't yet woken up. I talked earlier about we need to wake up to the threat of Brexit, we need to wake up to the threat of the far-right, we need to wake up to the threat to liberal democracy worldwide posed by this fundamentally new tactics and warfare".

Solutions vs Fantasies

"I think the people of Europe stand with Merkel," he says.

"That doesn't mean that every right-wing voter in Bavaria stands with Merkel's positions, but the majority of people in Germany, and the majority people in Europe, stand behind her and she needs to lead with confidence, and with boldness, and with creativity to execute the solutions she is offering, because the other side is not offering any solutions".

"They are offering fantasies and unworkable solutions and things that would destroy the laws and the values of the European project and liberal democracy. And I think she should continue to lead boldly".

"In her case, Seehofer [the CSU interior minister] for example, is acting out of a desire to protect the CSU hegemony in Bavarian politics. They are seeing the threat from the AfD and they want to capture their voters. And I understand that. That is politics. The centre-right needs to meet the far-right effectively, and speak to their issues".

"When extremism rises it is often because of failure in moderates to lead," he adds.

Patel says CSU leader and German interior minister Horst Seehofer is proposing to violate European values and laws, "based on a 'nothing-burger'" - as nobody is crossing the Austrian border.

His CSU deputy, and European People's Party leader in the European parliament, Manfred Weber, is making a bigger point, calling for borders around Europe instead.

"That is how we are going to give Europeans control over the destinies of their societies and the levels of immigration. And that is not a racist thing to do. That is an utterly legitimate aspiration that most Europeans support," says Patel.

"At that border, refugees will be welcome in a community of laws. Because that is the international law. But not migrants – there is no right to migrate. And there is a democratic ability to chose who can live in a society and who can't, based on a whole set of values and factors".

"That, I think, in this fight between the CSU's Seehofer and Weber, you see here the right way for the centre-right to fight back – and the wrong way".

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