July 15, 2016
Guy Verhofstadt, unsurprisingly, claims that the solution to Europe’s nationalism problem is further European federalism. While this statement is partially true, it is misleading and, therefore, I must disagree. A federal Europe would have the tools to combat nationalism (and it’s leftist counterpart) as well as having the virtue of being more resistant to propaganda and misinformation– should federal reforms add transparency and ease of comprehension to European level structures.
However, up to this point, the EU has only really been successful in fostering a European identity in those segments of the population equipped to benefit from globalisation. For this reason, any half-hearted effort to integrate further should not result in an appreciable reduction in nationalist sympathies. Furthermore, the general fear of losing ground to their nationalist rivals will sap the will of national politicians to implement such policies. Brexit, as disastrous to the economic well-being of Britain as it has been should only embolden nationalists on the continent.
The reason for my prediction is an understanding of populism based on one key concept; populism is a rebellion against not only societal elites, but their methods. One cannot argue with populism because populists scorn logic, information and argument. Information has, since the days of its inception, been the chosen implement of liberalism. Liberalism ushered in the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Liberalism championed reason and held it up as a basis for almost everything. Reason is also the chain which holds many people in place by giving an objective standard to justify their lot in life. Those who have been left behind in the information society have little to lose in its dismantling.
The way to combat populism is to get people invested in the structure. While some people may support populism for ideological reasons, I would wager that most supporters support populists for material reasons. These are not self-interested individuals, these are– whether they know it or not– neo-feudalists, longing for the return of the certainty and stability of serfdom. They look at the government as a paternal figure: a paternal figure with whom they are angry with for not providing their due. Thus, to make them go away, one simply must give them their “due”. A guaranteed income isn’t a new idea. Some such as the Economist oppose such a policy, calling it a policy that might be suitable one day, but not today. I believe their opposition is founded in dogma. The chief failing is their not realising that not everyone can or will be a good liberal; some are simply unable to adapt to a world marked by global integration and will always lash out in their fear of being crushed under the wheel of progress. Though I find the idea of discouraging political participation extremely distasteful, that same idea of democratic participation is dependent on an electorate receptive to debate and information. As FDR once said: People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
As we’ve seen with Brexit and, to some degree, in Ukraine, the politics of lies are particularly effective tools against the EU. This is due to the opaque and labyrinthine nature of the EU institutions. As the nature of the EU remains so elusive and requires a depth of education to explain the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe or the function and relationship between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament or appreciate the shift between them post-Lisbon. If we’re being honest, I didn’t know the difference after my first university course on EU politics. If people cannot understand the structures then they cannot form the logical foundation required for critical thought to see through propaganda. In the absence of internal critical examination, they have little choice but to accept the positions offed by experts, whether their credentials and arguments have any real integrity or not. This will continue to haunt the EU as its principal weakness in public relations until the EU hierarchy can be simplified.
The opaque nature of EU governance means that even with further integration, populists will continue to be a problem. Nationalist, who take advantage of misinformation will be disproportionately effective so long as they can monopolise “superiority” in the information space. It is not enough to tell people how the EU functions, they must be able to see for themselves if the EU is to hold the middle against opponents who spurn rationality.
While federalistion could help deliver structural reforms, to persuade the undecided middle, and arrange for programs to undercut the loses from globalisation, to weaken the populist support base directly, these steps are neither dependent upon or directly related to federalism. It is disingenuous to claim that federalism will help combat nationalism in Europe. It is unlikely that further integration would be backed by the will to make the necessary changes to effectively combat rising populism in Europe. Therefore, I disagree with Mr. Verhofstadt.C. Shannon