Bursting the Bubble

The Ghosts of Europe’s Past and the EU’s Struggle with Rising Populism

17 May 2017 | by

This year has marked six decades since the creation of the European integration project. However, what should have been a celebratory moment for the long effort to construct a solid European community turned out to be a more cautious affair, especially after the Brexit backlash. Less than a century ago, Edmund Husserl’s warning words about Europe were more than farsighted: ‘the gravest danger menacing Europe is its lassitude’. The EU needs now more than ever a strong and united leadership to steer the bloc towards protecting the legacy of a community of post-security against the backdrop of a number of both internal and external challenges. The most worrying fact is that there are indicative signs that the European integration project is no longer a strong enough instrument capable of shielding the EU from its own populist and traditional power-politics past.

The recent migration waves from war-torn areas have undoubtedly triggered an array of tensions and dilemmas within the EU, which in turn rekindled feelings of insecurity and have provided fuel to exclusionary and populist-oriented politics. There is an undisputable resurgence of nationalist rhetoric in major European countries, where virulent demagogues and fear-peddlers the likes of Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Zeman, Fico, Orbán or Hofer capitalize on popular fears and threat perceptions. They skilfully link the economic hardships of the EU’s own brand of neoliberalism and the failures of late capitalism to the perils of terrorism and the insecurities caused by the migration flows. One is left baffled of how, after more than twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, democratization efforts are disintegrating at a fast pace and the ghost of populism is still haunting Europe.

Citizens’ faith in the traditional political establishment is declining, along with their trust in traditional parties, the mainstream media and the EU structures. This establishment has been de-legitimized in the eyes of the electorate because of its inability to protect against both economic (globalization) and security risks (terrorism). However, it is a flight of fancy to entrust your hopes for a better future in the hands of Eurosceptic nationalistic governments and extremist politics. Their promises are very convincing, namely to protect citizens’ livelihood by reintroducing controlled borders, by reinforcing national sovereignty in key fields such as politics, economics and security, and by protecting the ‘Nation’, this ephemeral socio-political construct, from enemies within and without.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘we learn from history that we learn nothing from history’. People with short memories tend to forget that politics under the guise of the ‘Nation-First’ ‘Make the Nation Great Again’ type of patriotic rhetoric is no-more than a power grab by self-interested politicians that gain popularity by resorting to hate speeches cloaked in what the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has called the ‘banalization of bigotry’. Hate speeches nowadays seem to only trigger lukewarm responses, a raised eyebrow or a resigned shoulder shrug, and not the expected outrage or scandal that such discourses would have engendered twenty or thirty years ago. The propaganda recipes are all too familiar, namely a toxic mix of disinformation, half-truths, scapegoating, religious and racial prejudice, playing on the national sentiment, the criminalization of the ‘Other’, oversimplification, omissions, isolationism, and the tantalizing promise of returning to an inexistent yet idealized past.

Emboldened by the example set in the US by Trump, European populist leaders are jumping on the bandwagon and taking cue from the new discursive frame provided by non-other than ‘the greatest nation in the world’. The cavalier disregard of the rule of law, of the rights of others, or of truth for that matter sets a very bad example. The end-result is a very deceptive and dangerous downhill path in legitimising authoritarian leaders. To wit, Trump’s congratulatory remarks addressed to Erdoğan after winning the contested referendum, his declared admiration for the North Korean ‘smart cookie’ Kim Jong Un, and Trump’s recent ‘very friendly’ talk with Duterte. The world needs statesmen, not bullies under the guise of strongmen that target the weakest, the defenceless, and the voiceless to consolidate their power!

In the day and age of the 140-character politics-by-Twitter, false news and post-truths are becoming the norm of ‘anything goes’, but at what costs. The EU and the vice president of the European Commission Andrus Ansip has recently cautioned social media sites such as Facebook to take stronger action against the proliferation of fake news on their platforms. Herein lies the crux of the problem, social media platforms are primarily money-making and sensationalism-driven clickbait companies, devoid of the Fourth Estate’s added professional responsibility to produce objective and fact-checked journalism. Such platforms are echo chambers meant to validate beliefs and to appeal to emotions. They create algorithms that are trained to curate our preferences, isolate us from conflicting or uncomfortable perspectives so that we can retreat in our own filtered bubble of happiness and confirmation bias. The next battle lines will be drawn in the digital realm, between lies versus truth, facts versus fiction, and emotions versus expertise.

The EU has also taken steps to devote more financial resources to its East Stratcom Task Force in order to combat fake news allegedly coming from Russia. However, blaming Russia for all the ills and faults of recent political upheavals is an all too easy explanation, glossing over the deep-rooted socio-economic concerns that fuel todays popular resentment against the European project. It is easy to blame the effects without properly analysing the causes. There is a lot of blaming and shaming going around, but both the EU and national leaders should share responsibility for the current state of affairs. Indeed, change needs to happen but not based on hate, because history has taught us that hate breeds more hate, which leads to violence.

With the rise of illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe and especially in Hungary and Poland, we are witnessing a concerted effort to destabilize democratic strongholds of resistance and contestation, by making use of systematic tactics of silencing against critical media, civil society, and NGOs. This trend is coupled by a sharp decline of human rights and an overt anti-EU propaganda. Without any doubt, we are witnessing a normative paradigmatic shift in post-socialist countries and an ideological turn from liberal democratic politics towards kleptocratic illiberal governance and the centralization of power in the hands of charismatic leaders. In their discourses, they portray the EU as the bête noire of what seems to be every problem under the sun. The EU is being vilified for a laundry list of problems, from failing to secure European citizens and borders, flailing job markets, technologies reshaping the workplace, to the economic crises engendered by the cabal of big government and predatory big business.

Indeed, the EU’s elite-driven supranational and procedural bureaucratization and its single market formulas are quite remote from the common European voter and not as attractive as the antics and hate discourses of populist leaders. The EU has put forward a technocratic and thin understanding of politics, far from the true grit of conflictual local politics. The critiques of this abstracted EU approach to politics advocate for creating substantial political communities, but do not go further to propose concrete solutions for peacefully galvanizing local politics, passions and emotions in a community. Only by constructing democratic channels to re-orient and structure political tensions, to voice citizens’ fears and concerns and transform them from their malign nature to a more benign one, we could avoid the alternatives put forward by old-practices of populist politics.

Despite its many faults and imperfections, the EU has played an active role in guaranteeing its member states’ interests and values in the international arena, by using the combined power of its diplomatic and economic influence to stabilize international relations. Conversely, if even national self-sufficiency is possible nowadays, political and economic autarky has generally led to disastrous consequences. Le Pen’s and her ilk are the representatives of a retrograde world that still believes in this autarky, hoping to recreate a sovereignty-based self-reliance insulated from external influences. Nevertheless, the defining challenges of the 21st century are global in scope, not national, and more challenges will appear, such as the resurgence of international power-politics balancing, the automation of labour, the rise of artificial intelligence, climate change, or the race to produce cutting-edge dual-use technologies.

Hopefully what we are witnessing today is the last hurrah of this delusional group that uses xenophobic verbiage at the expense of concrete measures and working solutions. Nonetheless, I sincerely doubt it, at least as long as the economic and security grievances of European citizens are not properly addressed. Angst over migration cannot be tackled without understanding its root causes, global security governance is better strengthened by working together with other European partners, and the anti-globalization backlash should be approached on other more progressive grounds than fear-based nationalism. Both national political classes and the EU need to reconnect with disgruntled constituencies and rebuild their credibility in the eyes of European citizens.

What do you think?