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The European elite's politics of fear

Fear mongering about 'anti-European populism' discredits the EU elite’s position on European democracy – it should stop.

A World War II propaganda poster (detail). Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.A World War II propaganda poster (detail). Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

A World War II propaganda poster (detail). Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.A World War II propaganda poster (detail). Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Fear mongering by political elites is nothing new. In fact, influential political thinkers from Machiavelli to Schmitt have argued that creating antagonisms and fear constitute the essence of politics. Thousands of articles have been devoted to the ‘politics of fear’ towards ‘others’ in recent decades. Particularly in the European context, they have pointed out how European elites have created stereotypical images of (mostly Muslim) immigrants – as homogeneous, fundamentalist, anti-western or pre-modern, authoritarian, violent, etc. – and exaggerated claims of an apocalyptic future – in which minarets have replaced church towers, Muslim majorities oppress ‘native’ minorities, etc.

But another type of fear mongering by European elites has met almost no criticism and has remained unstudied, so far. I refer here to the EU elite’s long-standing warning against alleged threats from so-called “anti-Europeans,” by which they mostly mean Eurosceptics. At stake here is not just the (imagined) national communities or states of Europe, but the (imagined) European community and state, as embodied by the EU. This politics of fear follows the same mechanism as those described above: opponents are essentialized and homogenized, while an apocalyptic future is presented (which, of course, can only be prevented if the policies of the elite are followed). Eurosceptics are “anti-European populists” “nationalist,” or even “anti-democratic,” while the future is one of political crisis or even war. The most alarming statement in this long tradition came a week ago from the prime minister of Luxemburg, Jean-Claude Juncker. In an interview with Der Spiegel, the now retired head of the Euro Group said: “I am chilled by the realization of how similar circumstances in Europe in 2013 are to those of 100 years ago.”

What did Juncker mean? What is the EU elite warning us against/for? Whether referring back to 1913 or 1933, the message is the same: Europe is again at the brink of a massive political crisis at best, and a European war at worst! In June 2010 EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned that democracy could “collapse” in southern Europe, while EU President Herman van Rompuy has regularly warned against the “winds of populism,” which he considers the biggest threat to Europe. 

The economic crisis has heightened the discourse of the threat of another European war. In the past years various high-ranking European politicians have warned people against the threat of war should the euro collapse (including British Business Secretary Vince Cable, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski). While these warnings have been heard more frequently in recent years, they are not new to the crisis era. For example, in the Dutch campaign in the run-up to the European referendum in 2005, Economics Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst warned that, were the Dutch people to reject the European ‘Constitution’, “the light would go off” in the Netherlands.

From an economic point of view, the similarities between 1933 and 2013 make some sense. While the structure of national and global economics has changed fundamentally in the past century, in both periods a banking crisis caused a global economic crisis, which hit (parts of) Europe particularly hard.

However, from a political point of view the similarities are much less clear. While it is true that “Not since World War II have extreme and populist forces had so much influence on the national parliaments as they have today,” as EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström recently declared, this is only part of the story. First, “extreme and populist forces” are represented in the national parliaments of only about one half of the EU member states, depending slightly on the interpretation of the terms. Second, while they do have more influence than ever before in the postwar era, they still constitute (small) parliamentary minorities in most countries, with virtually no representation in national governments.

Even more importantly, while (liberal) democracy lacked majority support among large parts (often majorities) of the European elites and masses in the first decades of the twentieth century, today the democratic ideal is truly hegemonic. In fact, whereas in 1933 many of the few democratic countries were governed by reluctant democrats and challenged by fundamental anti-democrats, today both the establishment and its main challengers are fundamentally democratic, and the latter at best reluctantly liberal. Moreover, as a consequence of the, admittedly unequal, development of welfare states across the continent, the economic hardship experienced as a consequence of the current crisis, while brutal and inhumane in many cases, is softened by welfare measures that have prevented life-threatening poverty for most European citizens.

But what about Greece? Here the “anti-European populists” (Monti) gained almost half of the votes in the (first) 2012 elections, unemployment is at - or even above - early-twentieth century levels, poverty is truly threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Greeks, and political violence of left and right seems an almost daily occurrence. Moreover, Greece is indeed the one country where  “neo-nazis have been elected” (Malmström) to parliament – one could perhaps also include Jobbik in Hungary.

Although I do consider mass support of extremist parties like Golden Dawn (CA) and, to a certain extent, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) as warning signs of truly anti-democratic sentiments within a society, there are some important qualifications to be made. First, together these two extremist parties attracted around 10 percent of the Greek people in the June 2012 election! Even in the most favourable polls, the vast majority of Greeks continue to support democratic parties; even if they might be Eurosceptic. Second, Greece is not Europe. Not now and not in the (near) future! In fact, Greece has always been an outlier, even within southern Europe, in terms of both the strength of “extreme and populist forces” and the failures of the democratic state. Not surprising, then, that the mass political protests in Portugal and Spain have been organized predominantly by clearly pro-democratic, and often pro-European (i.e. EU), groups, and “extreme and populist forces” have played little role in elections. 

Many fearmongers identify Germany as the main cause of the lack of European solidarity and, thus (in their mind), the threat of a new European war. Almost excusing the fierce, and sometimes violent, anti-German sentiments in southern Europe, Juncker said: “The way some German politicians have lashed out at Greece when the country fell into the crisis has left deep wounds there.” Similarly, academics Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini, eagerly given voice by pro-EU media, warned that Germany, “would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.”

Let’s see how Germany has behaved within the European context over the past five years. Germany has approved every single bailout of a EU member state with large parliamentary majorities, and has already invested close to 500 billion euro in the various bailout and stability measures. Not exactly a new German Sonderweg (special path). And the so maligned German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared her unwavering support for the process of European integration, including a further deepening of the European Union, throughout the crisis. In fact, she has at times sounded like one of the EU fearmongers: “Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. They are not forgranted. That's why I say: If the euro fails, Europe fails,” Merkel said, followed by a long applause from all political groups. Hardly a modern-day Adolf Hitler! 

In short, there is not much evidence that European democracy, at the national or EU level, is being threatened by either the national elites or the masses. While protest parties are registering record scores in several national elections, many of these parties, even the so-called populist ones, are reformist rather than revolutionary, with regard to both national democracy and European integration. In fact, the real threat for the EU fearmongers does not come from true anti-democrats or anti-Europeans (in the restricted sense of anti-EU), but from democratic Eurosceptics, who want to fundamentally transform, rather than abolish, the European Union. Juncker admitted as much when he said: “Of course politicians should respect the will of the people as much as possible, provided they adhere to the European treaties.” Asked whether this also applies to policies opposed by a majority of the people, he clarified: “This means, if need be, that they have to pursue the right policies, even if many voters think they are the wrong ones.” 

It is exactly this form of ‘enlightened Europeanism’ that constitutes the true danger to both national democracy and European integration today. By forcing national governments to continue on a path of European integration that is not, or no longer, supported by the majority of their population, they breed and radicalize anti-democratic and anti-European sentiments. Fully aware of this, the EU elite increasingly constrains the already limited avenues for democratic popular control of the process of European integration, most notably by pressuring national governments to refrain from referendums on important EU decisions – as was the case in Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, etc. Importantly, this does not only harm the democratic basis of the European Union, which was never particularly strong anyway, but slowly erodes the democratic basis of its member states too. Now that is something to be fearful of!


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