Thursday

2nd Apr 2020

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Recently the French radio station France Culture invited a German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, for a two-hour breakfast interview.

The entire conversation was about Europe, one of these nice tours d'horizon European broadcasters hardly ever do anymore.

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  • Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

They talked about the notion of 'Europe', the European elections, the Franco-German axis, the 'yellow-vest' protests, and the future of European welfare states.

Towards the end the interviewer asked how important it is for the EU to become more popular.

He probably expected Sloterdijk to say: very important, without more public support the EU may implode – or something like that.

Instead, the philosopher replied: "Well, paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but to a certain extent this is good. When emotions are running too high in politics, hotheads may take over. This can lead to revolutions and wars."

He has a point.

Of course it is important that European citizens understand what the EU is about, what it does and what is has achieved; it is deeply problematic that many citizens have no clue or don't seem to care.

Moreover, one of Europe's biggest handicaps is that national governments never invest enough in the EU to make it perform well, and afterwards blame 'Brussels' for mediocre outcomes.

But then – and this is of course what Sloterdijk was getting at – look at the unfolding Brexit saga in the UK: if emotions and utopian scenarios start dominating politics the result can be far more disastrous.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French philosopher and essayist who grew up in a world torn by religious struggles, used to say that improving the world is wonderful, as long as you do it one small step at the time.

As a child, Montaigne had seen a man being lynched by a mob. His family had to move to safety several times.

As a result he strongly disliked zealots and revolutionaries, whatever cause they championed. He distrusted anyone advocating a radical overthrow of the existing order.

It is better to change society gradually, Montaigne argued, on the go - evaluating achievements and mistakes periodically, making adjustments along the way.

To him, good politicians must be patient and realistic, possess a healthy dose of self-doubt, and believe in compromise. In countries with such leaders, citizens often have better life.

One wonders what Iran would look like today, had Iranians used some of this wisdom back in 1979. Many opponents of the current regime are still traumatised by the revolution, wanting to avoid another one at all cost.

Pragmatism vs Perfectionism

No one can better explain how catastrophic the 'Nirvana fallacy' is – the deceptive belief in paradise on earth – than the citizens of Iran.

But the Brexit story is becoming rather instructive, too.

The story of how a nation was taken for a ride by a small group of free-market utopians, whipping up popular sentiment with lies and fairy tales, will keep political scientists busy for decades to come – not to mention the management of the inevitable hangover.

For the dream of a fully sovereign society, free from interference from Brussels, will be impossible to realise.

The UK is at the doorstep of the largest market in the world. 50 percent of the country's exports currently goes to the EU, compared to just 16 percent to the US.

If London stops following EU internal market rules for food, plastics, chemicals, etc, its major trade flows will be disrupted immediately.

This is when the famous 'soft power' of the EU comes into play: its regulatory power, also known as 'the Brussels effect', is recognised and feared all over the world.

Third-countries like Switzerland, Norway, or Turkey copy a raft of EU regulation over which they have no say. Full sovereignty, for them, is confined to a few carefully chosen areas.

By leaving the EU the UK doesn't gain more sovereignty. Rather the opposite: it will lose sovereignty because it will no longer be able to influence or block the European policies it must implement.

This may not be exactly what 'the people' want. But it is what life as a third country outside the EU is like. If the UK leaves the EU on October 31st without a 'deal', it will probably come knocking at its doors quickly again to avert further disruption to trade, the economy and public services.

Perhaps Sloterdijk was wrong.

Politics needs emotions and some drama, otherwise citizens cannot engage. It is good news that the European elections were more widely and hotly debated than ever, and that turnout was a lot higher than last time.

But the wider point the German philosopher was trying to make still holds true. When emotions are running too high in politics, hothead revolutionaries in pursuit of an ideal world may take over. The main lesson of Brexit is that this ideal world does not exist.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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