The truth is that ‘trust me’ didn’t work and the much-vaunted expertise of the ‘third way’ politicians have contributed to the disarray we see all around us.
The Vienna Policy Conference, October 29-30, 2015, will delve into one of the most important trends driving change in European politics: the dramatic drop in public trust in many political institutions. Policy researchers, activists, leading European thinkers, and political figures will discuss new research and analysis of the causes and consequences of the trust gap across the European continent. Debating Europe and openDemocracy will be covering the event and its follow-up, and we continue the series with the thoughts of the Director of the Migrant Rights' Network on what trust means in Europe today.
The gloomy reality of the European Union as it currently presents itself poses many daunting challenges to the political activist who sets herself the task of rebuilding trust in its core project.
The potentially dangerous business of pooling sovereignty across nations has only ever made sense to those sucked up into this process if it produces clear benefits in the realm of reducing the potential for conflict, strengthening economies to produce greater prosperity, and providing the forms of social insurance around the welfare of citizens which has always seemed to be part of the European way.
The years of outright recession followed by low and stagnant growth rates since the financial crash of 2007/8 have brought the expectation of social and economic progress on the part of ordinary citizens down to rock bottom levels. The EU now seems to most people to be a means to manage austerity across the region, with the prospect of the living standards of millions being eroded for years into the future.
If this is the dismal backdrop to our European predicament, an even more hopeless picture of chaos and incompetence is presented by the failure of the region’s authorities to come up with a response to the refugee crisis in the eastern Mediterranean which gives any assurance to people that plans are in hand which are capable of managing the situation. The image of desperate people crowded at frontier crossing points, facing lines of police struggling to repel efforts to move across borders is for many a nightmare vision of what the European Union has descended into over the course of the past decade. The image of desperate people crowded at frontier crossing points, facing lines of police struggling to repel efforts to move across borders is for many a nightmare vision of what the European Union has descended into over the course of the past decade.
It is not difficult to read a narrative into the situation of today which is all about the failure of a Europe as it comes under ever greater pressures from poverty and the fiasco of its weaker state administrations. At some point this becomes conflated with the realities that people face in their own neighbourhoods, where the presence of EU nationals exercising free movement rights begin to be seen as another aspect of the refugee crisis which is supposed to be sweeping across the continent.
In short, the weak state of Europe is no longer read by its citizens as the failure of political elites to agree budgets and rebates or the proper application of common policies on agriculture and trade: it is now vividly illustrated by images of actual people suffering great hardship, some of whom are caught up in long chains of movement, with no prospect of an adequate remedy in sight.
This is a crisis at the most fundament level for the European Union and it would be facile to think that it will be addressed by working hard to restore credibility to the status quo. There are no treaty revisions or regulations or directives to be adopted that will make good the damage done by recession, austerity and the loss of trust in the competent management of the movement of people.
What is now required is a forceful re-statement of a vision for Europe which revisits the themes of peace, economic prosperity and socially just outcomes with regard to welfare. Most difficult of all for those wanting to undertake this task is the fact that it now must be proclaimed in what we are learning to call the populist moods of our times.
Populism as a mode of doing politics derives its energy from drawing on the grievances which exist amongst the people and which are named as having their source in configurations of social forces which can, if only we agree on how to proceed, be countered and remedied. During the years of social democratic ascendency populism was reviled by the political classes because of the turbulence it represented to them. It seemed to be so unconducive to the technocratic solutions to social problems favoured by the ‘experts’.
The ‘enemies of the people’ which populists alighted on were seen by their opponents as too crude and simplistic a summation of realities that had to be faced up to with more nuance. In their years of pomp, centrist and centre-left politicians learnt to sneer at the rhetoric which was generated by crude analysis and vulgar appropriation of just one or two of the most salient facts about the complexity of modern life.
But our predicament at this time seems to arise precisely from methods of doing politics which too often precluded the democratic impulse that populism represents, offering instead an appeal to ‘trust me’, and trust the deals I am planning to do with neo-liberal, free markets ‘trust me’, and trust the deals I am planning to do with neo-liberal, free markets and the elite interests they embody, as the best way to secure the prosperity which you are aspiring to.
The truth is that ‘trust me’ didn’t work and the much-vaunted expertise of the ‘third way’ politicians have contributed to the disarray we see all around us. In the meantime, a radical democratic version of populism has bubbled up from the fringe social movements that the technocrats worked hard to marginalise. Like all populists they proclaim the existence of an ‘enemy’ made up of interests which stand in opposition to those of the rest of the population, but the enemy image now is a different one. There is a sophistication in the analysis which picks out the concatenation of forces which stand to gain from austerity, and which names the interests being advanced by the overwhelming threat represented by ‘the troika’ and the deals being done to force TTIP on our economies.
This approach has the potential to provide us with a perspective on European politics today which places the poverty being reinforced by austerity alongside refugee and migrant worker movements in a context in which xenophobia and racism do not have the prime purchase over the imagination of millions. Rebuilding trust means nothing unless it opens doors and admits the entirety of the population to the political mainstream, setting an agenda in which collaboration and cooperation across borders re-emerges as the best way to live our lives, in the hope of a better future in the twenty-first century.