Populist Conceptions of Europe
Contrary to the more traditional collaborative view on the project Europe, as discussed in the previous part of this series, populist parties, on the rise over the last decade, defend the idea of national sovereignty as the ultimate solution for the existing and ongoing crises. Nation states are stronger alone, or at least with like-minded parties, which Salvini has recently referred to as “natural allies”.
Main topics across Europe include security and immigration, in other words, two problems allegedly caused by the EU’s open border policy (Schengen) and its enlargement in 2004. While security has been a core theme of the EU since its very foundation, it is worth noting that the enemy against whom Europe should be protected is now to be found outside of the continent, or is at least framed as a non-European problem (think about Islamic terrorism). If these are especially topics that invite to think about cross-national policy and collaboration, the populist reflex goes in the opposite direction, although the continuing Brexit soap has urged parties such as the Rassemblement National to re-adjust their isolationist discourse – the Frexit is now officially off the table.
The overarching idea behind the populist view seems to be the economic metaphor of the “image of the limited good”, coined by George Foster in 1965. This fallacy considers that there is only a limited amount of the “good”, and thus if others take more of it, there is less for us. Within this framework, immigrants are seen as invaders, taking not only jobs, social housing and “our” women, but also culturally transforming the Old Continent. This alludes to ideas of a “hostile takeover” or a “diluting” of European culture, as we can read in Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Remplacement or Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français. This mode of thinking creates a division between “winners” and “losers”, where populists perceive themselves as losing an unfair competition.
In this regard, the solution for the problems lies in a return to the pre-crisis setting, feelings of nostalgia to “better times” characterized by national sovereignty, economic prosperity and a strong national identity. However, it goes without saying that nostalgia cannot be a real option: today’s world is not comparable to that of the 1950s, and the Brexit crisis shows the extent to which single nation states are only spiders in a global web. At the same time, as we have seen in part I, the idea of “a Common Sense Europe” presents an additional problem, i.e. the oppositional binary of the common sense vs. the expert judgement, in other words, the idea that truth is of lesser importance than ideological and tribal instincts. It should be clear by now that this notion of common sense is essentially exclusive and hierarchical, as it claims “our” common sense to be better than “theirs”.
The factual constant: diversity and global challenges
Cultural narratives do not grow out of anything. They orientate behavior while they also are informed in the tension of different forces and patterns. In contrast to the cultural narrative of common sense championed by national populists, there is a twofold constant that should be embraced by any disruptive counter-narrative to the national-populist tribal and strategic mode of thinking. Evidence by experts on global inequality, such as Branko Milanovic and Thomas Piketty, as well as historian Yuval Noah Harari in his influential book Sapiens, arguably show that inequality and respectively diversity are constant factors in the configuration of our social fabrics.
Instead of invoking tribal attachments to “a country without diversity, which never existed except in the reactionary images of the past” (Finchelstein 2017: 245), we should think about accurate tools to face real challenges such as rising inequality (cf. Piketty) and humanitarian crises. For this, it is essential to think beyond the fallacy of the limited good, which considers the other as a threat- and to explore political, cultural and social configurations about how diversity can make us stronger. If we can take one lesson from Harari’s Sapiens, it is that human migration and cultural exchange are constants throughout our long history, which made Europe as culturally rich as it is today: from Moorish architecture in the South of Spain to Saami folk songs in the North of Finland.
In sum, the populist “common sense” view presents us with two paradoxes that should be addressed. First, there is the assumption that global problems can be overcome with national solutions: closing borders to stop immigration or moving back to a national currency to stop financial crises. In his influential book Global Inequality, Milanovic explains that only global policies can solve such global problems. Second, as we have discussed, populists defend a return to the past as a solution for the future, which is physically and conceptually impossible. It is now up to us – Europeans – and experts to come up with a counter-narrative that puts challenges in their global perspective, focusing not on what there is potentially to lose, but what a fair and tolerant future Europe may have – for everyone.
Pablo Valdivia and Judith Jansma
Chair European Culture & Literature
- Finchelstein, F. (2017). From Fascism to Populism in History. Oakland: University of California Press.
- Foster, G.M. (1965). Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good. American Antropologist 67(2), 293-315.
- Harari, Y. N. (2014) Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. London : Harvill Secker.
- Milanovic, B. (2016) Global Inequality A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st century. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.