G7 Summit 2017 in Italy. The Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel with the President of the United States of America Donald Trump during the welcome ceremony and the photo family at Taormina, Italy on May 26, 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
“The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first.” Albert Camus, The Almond Trees (1940)
Donald Trump might be a creation of the age we live in. The lure of social media, the prominence of perception over facts and the decay of politicians’ status has opened the doors for charismatic – yet unprepared – leaders. But his victory over Hillary Clinton – the establishment’s candidate – worked as a rallying cry for populists and strongmen, casting a dark shadow over Europe. At a critical moment for the European Union, its main ally has aligned itself with those trying to destroy it. Populism has returned with a vengeance.
Cas Mudde describes this phenomenon as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the pure people versus the corrupt elites, which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”. In short, the opposition lacks political legitimacy and to compromise is to commit treason. Populism, thus paves the road for a polarized society where you either are with the people or against it.
At a critical moment for the European Union its main ally has aligned itself with those trying to destroy it.
The best defense against this epidemic – which often associates itself with communism, nationalism or socialism— is a strong political system where non-majoritarian institutions can work as a counterbalance. But, when such institutions are seized by populists the implications can be disastrous. This is particularly important in a Europe struggling with the hangover of an economic crisis, imposed austerity measures, the lure of nationalism and more recently the exit of the UK from the European Union.
Populism paves the road for a polarized society where you either are with the people or against it.
European countries do have strong political systems. However, ethnic-nationalistic parties have been able to break them in the past: Hungary is a clear example of what happens when populism permeates all levels of a political system. We shouldn’t overestimate the cohesion of our institutions. European integration, once a given, is now being questioned. Debates about our European identity and our shared destiny are being pushed aside by nationalist agendas and external pressures. Retracing our steps will show us that the problem – despite the financial crisis of 2008 – is not economic, but political. The lack of political will, the absence of a strong leadership and the failure to connect with citizens has sabotaged our ability to address the different challenges that now threaten our common future. The UK´s decision to leave reflects that.
However, Brexit will not break Europe. The impact will be huge – both economically and socially – but the project´s credibility and founding ideals precede the membership of the United Kingdom. Unexpectedly, the biggest threat to the European Project comes from the other side of the Atlantic. Mr. Trump’s illiberal discourse taps right into many Europeans anxieties and favors the populist agenda on the continent by linking the worst of two worlds. Mr. Trump and his European allies claim to be saving the West, but they are aiming at his heart. Just as in the 30´s, the enemies of the open society are many and cannot be found in one place. However, this time it is the President of the United States who leads the charge.
Mr. Trump’s illiberal discourse taps right into many Europeans anxieties and favors the populist agenda in the continent by linking the worse of two worlds.
Liberal democracy, and what it stands for – freedom, the rule of law and the dignity of human beings – must be defended. Burying our head in the sand is not an option. We should seize this opportunity to reinforce the bond between Europeans and reignite the Union´s sense of purpose. Connecting with the so-called losers of globalization demands a different approach. Right-wing populists feed on cultural and economic resentments to manufacture the perception of an insuperable crisis. To break this spell, the EU must address the anxieties that afflict its citizens: only by upholding our humanistic values, strengthening our strategic influence as a world actor and recognizing the social costs of austerity will we be able to restore our relationship with European citizens. We must respond to their concerns with answers, to their delusions with reality.
We should not be tempted by easy solutions. Playing on peoples’ emotions can be more effective than appealing to their common sense, but we should resist such tactics: adopting a populist rhetoric to exclude populists from power will certainly backfire. Trying to beat populists at their own game is not only a bad strategy – it is also a dangerous one.
Europe was a creation of an outstanding generation of politicians sixty years ago. Saving it demands our current generation rise to a new challenge. The way forward is more politics, not less – which doesn’t necessarily mean more referendums. Politicians must offer a better idea for Europe and explain it to citizens. We need more knowledge and participation; and less ignorance and uninterest about our common future.
Retrieving our ability to ask the relevant questions – political questions – is paramount in the times in which we live. Only by posing them can we agree where we want to go. And how we want to get there. The European project was – and will always remain – a choice. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU wrote on his memoirs, the (EU) is only a stage on the way to the organized world of tomorrow.
The Europe we want – and the world we want – depends on us. Only we can break Europe. Remembering this may be the only way to save it.