Is populism protectionism’s champion ?

Is populism protectionism’s champion ?

If for a long time protectionism has been a notion coming from the extremes of the political spectrum (from both right or left), it is now widespread among more traditional parties in western politics. Indeed, the neo-liberal consensus seems to be reaching its limits since the 2010s and continues to be criticized. Because the border between economic nationalism and protectionism is still unclear, it is common to find national-populist discourses disguised with economic protectionism.

The point of this paper is not to determine if the critics toward neo-liberal theories are justified or to measure the optimum degree of protectionism needed in an economy. However,  using the example of Matteo Salvini’s discourses toward food safety in Europe, we will demonstrate how national-populism uses protectionism arguments, despite its political action not going in that direction. 

The main objective is to protect national economic actors.

The notion of protectionism is mainly an economic doctrine, but when associated with a national-populist discourse -process of othering, and call for the defense of a national values- its political dimension appears clear. Mostly, this notion refers to the limitation of the entrance of goods and services coming from another country into the national space. The main objective is here to protect national economic actors. This can be motivated by the concern for the protection of a national or local culture and tradition, the protection of employment or the safeguarding of the national independence in some crucial economic sectors. These measures can take various aspects, or can concern only a limited branch of a market. For instance, protectionism can be both direct (using taxes or quotas for goods and services entering in the country) or indirect (using quality norms for safety for example or conducting a campaign in order to sustain consumption of national products).[1]

In the 80s, protectionism disappeared from the discourse of traditional politics.

The notion of protectionism perfectly suits a certain degree of nationalism. In fact, David Todd, historian for the King’s College of London, describes how protectionism played a big role in the construction of nation in concurrency against the British Empire of the early XIXth century. This tendency was directly coming from the French revolution and was part of a ‘progressivist nationalism’ which sustained the construction of modern democracy.[2]

It is only starting from the 80s that protectionism disappeared from the discourse of traditional political parties and was almost exclusively defended by parties of far right or far left. Indeed, following the election of Thatcher and Reagan, the neo-liberal doctrine started to build a consensus, seducing an important part of the left wing as well as the right-wing. The European project itself was built following the assumption that liberalism was the best paradigm.[3]

Of course, during the 90s and even more after the crisis of 2008, the neo-liberal doctrine started to lose its superb and protectionism slowly came back in the political debate. At first, the notion was still supported only by the extremes of the political spectrum, but understanding that political demand was indeed asking for protection, mainstream parties also started to turn toward a more protectionist project.

A new tendency confirmed in 2016 with the Brexit and Trump’s election.

In France, in 2011, protectionism was still seen as a ‘very bad idea’ according to Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2017, François Hollande described it as ‘the worst of the answers’.[4] Nonetheless, at that time, protectionism was gaining new supports: the Front National (FN now named Rassemblement National RN) and new left wing political parties frome everywhere in Europe such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece…[5] Even under the mandate of François Hollande, who firmly condemned  protectionism, Arnaud Montebourg (minister of economy at the time) started a campaign of indirect protectionism under the slogan ‘Achetez Français’.[6] A new divide was happening at that time, with a part of traditional parties being seduced by protectionist ideas or at least understanding the political demand toward protectionism. This new tendency was confirmed by the election of Donald Trump at the United-State presidency, but also by the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016.[7]

The fact that the notion of protectionism is coming from the extremes allows far right and left parties to claim the ownership of the idea. But although it is true that this tendency comes from the extremes of the political spectrum, the traditional parties appear to have succeeded in translating the notion and adapting it to their own programs. In fact, even Emmanuel Macron’s party (La République en marche, LREM), the French president, was campaigning under the slogan ‘The Europe which protects’ (‘L’Europe qui protège’). This party, despite its very liberal orientation, defends the idea of an ‘ethical entrepreneurship’ based of qualitative norms, an idea which can be associated with a light and indirect form of protectionism.

Indeed, over the past decade, the debate went from an opposition between neo-liberalism and protectionism to a debate on the degree of protectionism that  is necessary to implement into economic policies. In this context, protectionism is a notion that can be used perfectly in a nationalist argument.

The responsibility principle lies on the member states.

On this issue, in June 2019, the Commissioner for the health in the European Union strongly criticized the use that Salvini makes of the notion of protectionism.[8]

The Commission announced its will to reinforce the tracking tools of food, guaranteeing its geographical origins. This was the opportunity for Matteo Salvini to argue that the EU is responsible for bad quality products entering Italy. He also claimed that he was simply protecting the Italian farmers and fishermen against the EU’s legislation, particularly harmful for the ‘made in Italy’ products, according to him. His concerns, he said, were mostly consumer safety, the prosperity of small businesses and were aimed to favour european production.

In response, M. Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for the health responded that it is a national responsibility to control the quality of products entering in its national borders through its own national checking system. Vytenis Andriukaitis also regretted that European health measures were used by nationalist parties in their populist discourses.[9]

In fact, the EU has one of the strictest legislation on food safety in the world. The European norms concern not only the european production but also the food products which enter the European market. These norms have been established in 2000 with the white paper on food safety and in 2002 with the rule (CE) No 178/2002. The criteria target consumers safety but also animals and vegetal treatment. The system is based on four principles. First, there is the responsibility principle, placing a double responsibility on the productors which have a self quality control duty but also on the national authorities which have to control what enters in their territories.[10]

Then, the tracking principle (which is announced to be reinforced), obliges the productors to know the origins of any elements composing food products for human or animals, or the origins of animals producing food products.

The principle of precaution allows special measures to be undertaken in case of any risk detection or doubt about the quality of a food product.

This precaution principle is accompanied by a principle of transparency which guarantees that the population will be informed in case of any doubt occuring concerning some food product safety.[11]

These four principles are completed with the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF): a network through which each member member state is obliged to share any doubt about the quality of foodstuff with the other member states.[12]

According to Karine Jacquemart, headmistress of Foodwatch France, an NGO which focuses on food issues in Europe, the European rules are satisfying. However,  a problem does exist. For Foodwatch, the main deficiency does not come from the rule itselfbut from its application by the member states. Indeed, if some scandal such as Fipronil in 2017 are still possible, it is only due to a permissiveness at the national scale. The first problem, she said, is a ‘sense of impunity’ because of the lack of sanction effectively applied against the states.[13]

Referring to this situation, Vytenis Andriukaitis asked to Salvini how he could be ignoring the work of Italian laboratory responsible on the check up on foodstuff at the Italian borders.

This usage of the EU by Matteo Salvini directly refers to the ‘justification logic’ defined by Sophie Jacquot and Cornelia Woll, political sciences professors, meaning that the Italian leader is blaming the European Union for its own responsibilities.[14]

An hypocrisy that should be denounced.

In fact, if the populist parties were for a long time seen as the champions of protectionism, it seems that this reputation has been usurped.

Indeed, the Italian leader underlines the EU responsibility because of the free trade agreement negotiated by the European institutions which would allow bad quality products to enter in Italy.

Matteo Salvini is right to worry about the impact of free trade agreements. Foodwatch actually shares his worries and sees these agreements as a danger for the EU health regulation because it would undermine the tracking principle on food products.

However,  in practice, concerning the free trade agreements, even the national-populist parties are divided in the European Parliament. The Lega and the M5E for example, led by Salvini, were traditionally against the TAFTA but they recently approved the opening of a new negotiation process for a free trade agreement with the United-States. When inspecting the result, it appears that, in the European parliament, the Italian democrat party is more systematically opposed to the negotiation on free trade agreements.[15] This should seriously undermine the image of national-populist parties as ‘protectionism champions’ but, for now, Matteo Salvini is still blaming the EU for the decisions or mistakes from its own party. To give credit where credit is due, left-wing parties seem more protectionist in their actions than national populist ones and maintain more coherence between their discourses and their votes in the European Parliament.

Baptiste Richard


[1] SESwebclass : Le Protectionnisme, 2019 : http://ses.webclass.fr/notion/protectionnisme

[2] ASTA.M,Les gauches européennes renouent-elles progressivement avec le protectionnisme ?,  The Conversation, 2019.

[3] Ibid

[4] PELISSIER.M, Européennes 2019, le protectionnisme s’impose face au libre-échange, La Croix, 2019

[5] Ibid

[6] HOUCHARD.B, LACHEVRE.C, Le protectionnisme, une fascination française, L’Opinion, 2016.

[7] DAVESNE.S, Brexit, Trump … La montée du protectionnisme, nouvelle donne des industriels

Politique Industrielle, L’Usine Nouvelle, 2016.

[8] FORTUNA.G, Salvini et Andriukaitis s’affrontent sur le nationalisme alimentaire

EURACTIV.com, 2019.

[9] Idem.

[10] SCHMITT.C, Sûreté alimentaire : comment l’Union européenne protège ses consommateurs, Toute l’Europe, 2018.

[11] Sécurité alimentaire dans l’UE, Garantir la sécurité des aliments de la ferme à la table, Europa.eu, 2019.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] JACQUOT.S, WOLL.C : Usage of European Integration, European from a Sociological perspective, European Integration Online Paper, 2003.

[15] Ibid.

Baptiste Richard

Etudiant français en Master 1 de Gouvernance Européenne à Sciences Po Grenoble, je suis particulièrement intéressé par les questions relatives au développement de la coopération européenne dans les secteurs de la défense et de la santé. Je suis responsable de la rubrique : “#LaRéplique : face au populisme” au sein d'EU-Logos Athéna.

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