“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Alphen, Netherlands, 22 January. Last Thursday night in the heart of Berlin I had the honour to give a dinner speech to a distinguished audience on the issue of European populism and its implications for the transatlantic relationship. The speech took place as part of a conference co-organised by Germany’s Federal Academy of Security Policy and the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies entitled Transatlantic Relations: Prospects and New Directions amidst Political Change. Below is my speech in full:
When I was asked me to do this I had a choice to make. First, I could interpret the mission as I chose. So, I have decided to talk about European populism and the transatlantic relationship.
Second, I could offer you yet another politically correct assessment of the causes and nature of populism in Europe and confirm elite prejudices by telling you how ‘beastly’ the populists are (and, indeed, many of them are). However, it is precisely that self-serving, self-denying, somewhat self-pitying and elite self-reinforcing ‘let off’ that has got us in this mess (and, believe me, we are in a mess) and enabled failing liberal elites to avoid their own responsibilities for it.
Therefore, in this brief talk my mission tonight is to offer you the following: a definition of populism, its causes, possible remedies, and finally its implications for the future transatlantic relationship.
My blunt core message to you is this:
There are many causes of populism but at its most simple it is the failure of mainstream elites faced with big structural shifts in a big age to allay the often legitimate fears of millions of decent people about the impact of change on their lives. Until our elites in Europe become better at being elites and demonstrate they can deal to effect with big change far more effectively than of late the populists will continue to exploit the growing gap between leaders and led with their half-baked and often dangerous prescriptions. Make no mistake, we are living at a time when all the assumptions that have for almost sixty years underpinned dominant European liberalism are under assault.
A Definition of Populism
All of the above pre-supposed a fundamental question: what is populism? There are several definitions from that range from the benign to the downright sinister. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary drives two such definitions. The first describes a populist as an, “…adherent of a political party seeking to represent the whole of the people”, whilst the second calls populism: “A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”. However, for the sake of this speech I prefer the 2004 definition of Cas Mudde at the University of Georgia. “Populism is a “thin ideology” that merely sets up a framework: that of a pure people versus a corrupt elite.
Populism on the March in Europe
Populism is certainly on the march in Europe (at this juncture I will leave our American friends to their own thoughts about the march of populism in their own country). According to a new paper (European Populism: Trends, Threats and Future Prospects) prepared by, of all people Tony Blair’s Institute for the Promotion of Tony Blair, sorry, Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, there were 33 ‘populist’ parties in Europe in 2000 and 63 now. Their support has risen from 9.6% then to 24.6% now. In other words strong enough to influence governance, but not lead it.
What are the shifts/tensions driving discontent, disillusion and Euro-populism?
It would be easy to dismiss such a revolt against establishments as simply due to economic crisis and mass migration. They are, of course, powerful drivers but there are other factors such as the the decline of democracy in Europe, distract elites and a failure to properly secure and defend the citizen.
The decline of democracy and the creation of an elite caste
The erosion of the nation-state in Europe, often by establishments in Europe firm in their own belief that states cause wars has triggered a profound battle of identity between elites and their own peoples that is reflected in a further struggle taking place between the EU, the state, and the individual. In the past the most important ‘conversation’ in Europe was that between elected elites and the people they ‘serve’. Today, European elites regard the conversation with each other as being more important and their respective peoples as impediments to their ‘progressive’ policy who must be at best kept in the dark, or at worst manipulated. The creation of Europe’s elite caste reinforces too often a disrespect for democracy, particularly so if the choices of ‘the people’ clash with elite ‘we know best’ prescriptions.
The result is a growing tension in Europe between those who legitimise power and those who enact it. Brexit is an example of this drift. Leavers have been pilloried and insulted by the liberal elite for being closet racists or little Englanders. Such people certainly do exist. However, for many in Britain the central issue was clear and legitimate given the evolving and centralising tendencies of Brussels to transfer power from the member-states unto itself: who governs us? It is a question all Europeans should ask.
The impact of economic failure and incompetent governance
The economic crashes of 2008-10 is still impacting people hard on both sides of the Atlantic. Jobs are at a premium, salaries stagnant, unemployment stubbornly high, savings eroding and ends hard to meet for millions of people. This is classic turf for populists and conditions could not be better for them to flourish. It is easy for European elites to blame global forces, such as the US sub-prime loans scandal. However, poor choices and incompetent governance are also factors, not least the creation of the Euro for political purposes without any due elite consideration for the economic structures and conditions needed to ensure the single currency helped rather than harmed citizens.
Liberal elites also seem obsessed with ‘isms’ such as racism and feminism as though virtue signalling to each other and often radical segments of society and change-for-change sakes is more important than building a properly grounded consensus. Do not misunderstand me, as I am also a firm progressive who believes the rights of minorities and the equality of women not only matter but will benefit society as a whole in time. However, the impression is too often given by elites that these issues are at the exclusion of all others and that the rest of society, the majority, is either simply taken for granted or the cause of the ‘problem’. By causing such offence a further wedge is driven between elites and millions of people who would otherwise not dally with populism. Worse, when mainstream political parties offer no room for dissent on such matters, and imply any such dissent is a form of racism and/or misogyny, the subsequent sense of frustration and offence gives voters nowhere else to go but to the extremes. It is a sense of frustration reinforced when elite politicians put such change down to the consequences of Globalisation or Globalism and that resistance is thus futile. And, it is frustration that is further exacerbated when democracy is reduced to little more than an exercise in rubber-stamping established elites in comfortable power.
The failure to secure and defend
The creeping sense of millions of Europeans that their elites cannot be trusted extends in many societies to a growing belief that incompetence is compounded by vague complicity in matters security and defence. After each terrorist attack in Europe the elite respond with hand-wringing calls for ‘us all’ to stand together against such evil. Equally, elites also too often give the impression that hand-wringing is all they do and that their collective ultra-liberalism not only prevents them from taking real action to stop such attacks, but actively creates the conditions for such attacks to take place.
Elite refusal to understand or empathise with the impact of rapid mass immigration on communities
Which brings me to perhaps the most contentious issue in this speech. Mass immigration of peoples from other societies with other values DOES impact on the indigenous population and does so profoundly. Recent rates of immigration in many European states is not just a function of natural change, but enforced change seen my many as driven a liberal, progressive elite obsessed with multi-culturalism and/or free movement for the sake of some future higher ‘good’ that many can neither see nor accept.
This schism between leaders and many of the ‘led’ is made worse by ‘Davos’ elites living escorted and protected lives lecturing the people living on the front-line of such change with such mantras as wir schaffen das. Such ‘let them eat cake’ politics not only creates ever more political space for populists to exploit but raises a fundamental question for modern European society: is there a ‘we’ and if not can ‘society’ as commonly understood be said to exist.
Are the people wrong-headed on this issue as many elites claim? During the height of the migration crisis I wrote a piece entitled Lebanon on the Rhine. My thesis was that it was naïve in the extreme for an elite to believe such a population shift from traumatised regions of the world would not at the same time import many of the problems from which those regions suffer in cities and towns in our own countries.
And then there is the changing nature of elites which is exacerbating the schism between Europe’s elite caste and the people. Indeed, another reason for populism is the nature of elites themselves (hence the reason I have rather provocatively used it) and the creation of political castes. For example, when I was a kid in Sheffield the MP was always Labour. One could put a donkey up for Labour in Central Sheffield and it would get elected. However, that ‘donkey’ invariably came from within the community and reflected its majority viewpoint: socialist, democratic and patriotic. Today, politicians are part of a professional political class, normally university-educated party hacks ‘parachuted’ into a constituency or onto some electoral list. They came into politics because they were hooked onto some ‘ism’ or another but know little or nothing of the lives of the people they serve and seem to those people detached from them and their concerns. This is not just a British phenomenon. It is the same in the country I now live, the Netherlands. And, it has been apparent to me in the other European countries in which I have lived.
How to Counter Populism?
At the start of this speech I offered two what I regard as truisms. First, populists offer no solutions to the very real complexities with which modern European societies must contend. Second, Europe’s elite caste needs to be better at its job. Let me offer you a third. Until elites stop hiding behind mantras such as Globalism or institutions such as the EU and begin to properly engage citizens on the issues that really matter to them populism will flourish. Equally, there is a range of steps that should be taken now to prevent populists seizing real power across Europe:
- Separate the nostalgists from the pragmatists: There is no room for nostalgia in society we are where we are. We MUST forge new societies and new identities and within the ranks of those who lean towards populism there appears to be a split between nostalgists, who can never be assuaged, and pragmatists open to change if their concerns are addressed.
- Make existing systems work: Trust in governance in Europe has collapsed. National leaders blame the EU and the EU blames national leaders. In fact, all have been pretty bloody incompetent in preparing Europeans for big change. For example, faith in EU and national government immigration and asylum policies and systems has collapsed. The elite will need to demonstrate they really do function if the trust of the people is to be regained.
- Legitimise change more effectively: Tony Blair (again) suggests that populations can be divided into roughly four groups: 30% are supportive of change, 30% implacably opposed to change, whilst 30% are willing to be convinced if change is managed effectively. 10% may properly be dismissed as idiots. Europe’s nightmare is a coalition of the implacably opposed, annoyed pragmatists and downright idiots. Rather, European leaders need to focus on building a coalition of those open to change and the pragmatists if they are to re-legitimise their own leadership.
- Recognise the scale of the challenge and stop treating the people like idiots to be manipulated for electoral purposes: Be honest with people about the length of time and the cost of dealing with the challenges Europeans face. That begins by an elite that demonstrates it really does have a grip of the big threats Europe faces across the spectrum from economy to security. At present, Europe’s leaders only play at dealing with danger and the people smell their weakness.
The Transatlantic Relationship and the Strategic Implications of Euro-Populism
What is European populism succeeds and takes power across Europe? There is one driver of change I have not mentioned thus far: systemic change and the relative power decline of the West. Populism is toxic because it seeks to turn a national community into distinct and separate communities living parallel lives with profound tensions between them. Populists flourish in division. Worse, they create the space for adversaries, be it Russia, Islamic State or others to exploit growing vulnerabilities within our societies – war at our seams. It is a war that is already being waged.
Over time the lack of social or political cohesion not only undermines the home base upon which all national security strategies depend, it also undermines the ability of our states and institutions over time to protect people and project power. Be it in North America or Europe if the populists (who are not interested in power simply disabling it) succeed forget the talk of transatlantic ‘pillars’ be it within NATO or with the EU. And, over time, forget the transatlantic relationship as European states become little more than parodies of power. Indeed, however militarily strong a state may such power is irrelevant if society is divided and broken.
Euro-Populism and the Transatlantic Relationship
To conclude, it is vital the populists are defeated for they offer no solutions to complex challenges. However, elites will only stop such people if they come down from the high horse of vacuous internationalism they have for too long espoused and begin to deal properly with very real issues change imposes on ordinary decent people. Most people are not closet neo-fascists or racists, simply people desperate to deliver for their families, for whom hope springs eternal that (at last) their leaders are listening to their concerns, and that they will be responsibly led – tough, hard choices and all. Hope, belief and trust.
Walk around Rome and one sees the same acronym everywhere: SPQR - Senatus Populusque Romanus. One can even find it on Roman drain covers. It is a standard of the late Roman Republic that suggested an ideal of the Roman Senate and people together in power and justice. It ‘died’ in the first century AD when Caesar seized power and turned Rome into an empire. As Europe stands on the cusp between ‘republic’ and ‘empire’ Europe’s latter day political caste should think hard about how they too convince the people that the Europe towards which they wish to take them is one with which Europeans en masse agree.
Show me you listen and show me you can lead, leaders, and I might just believe in you as leaders!"