8th Feb 2023


Fixing Europe's rhetoric

  • With Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the EU's dual leadership is more worldly than before, including in areas where the EU has not traditionally been very prominent, such as defence (Photo: European Commission)

If every man dies alone, then democracy too dies a million deaths.

Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999), in his insightful memoir of life in interwar Germany, saw his country succumb to "a million-fold nervous breakdown", making democratic citizenship unthinkable.

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It was fear more than anything that had driven everyone, individually, into a state of exhausted collapse.

Continuously faced with forces beyond their control and problems beyond their comprehension, they simply "yielded and capitulated".

Today's Western democracies can relate. Again, a constant stream of external, elusive and oppressive forces is draining people's sense of democratic agency.

The result is a widespread reaction, not so much against democratic politics as such but against the idea that it can still have an impact.

Across Europe, that reaction is aimed at the European Union, and it is through EU politics that it will be countered – or not.

Reactionary rhetoric

So how do fatigued and fearful people feel about politics?

Political thinker Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012) wonderfully analysed the arguments reactionary politicians and intellectuals have been using since the beginning of modern democratic politics some 200 years ago.

One central tenet is the 'futility thesis', the idea that any attempt at change is a waste of time and money, as political influence is not going to make a difference in any case – cosmetic at most.

It is today a common reaction when stories of climate change become too apocalyptic for people to deal with: 'Won't help, so don't try. Technology will have to work it out'.

The second, most effective argument used by reactionaries is what Hirschman calls the 'perversity thesis'. Any disliked action, they argue, will end up producing exactly the opposite result.

It is traditionally used against the welfare state and any kind of poverty-alleviation or development aid: help only creates dependency, so doing nothing is the responsible option.

It also permeated the way many of us now talk about migration.

Last week the European Parliament voted down a resolution calling on governments to step up their search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean – to elated applause of the extreme right and some of their allies.

The idea that solid and humane migration policies could save lives has been all but given up.

Those that fear migration the most, argue that nothing should be done to tackle it. Especially not at EU level, where perversity forms the core of their aversion anyway.

The third, more subtle proposition is the 'jeopardy thesis.

Here, Hirschman argues, 'the reactionary takes on the progressive's clothes' to argue that reforms suggested now would only endanger highly-prized achievements of the past. Going too fast is doomed to set us back, if only because people are unable to keep up with the pace.

That too is a classic of euroscepticism. For a few years now, the most rabid forms of anti-EU rhetoric have been retreating. Brexit has cured most citizens – and therefore also most politicians – of any desire to actually leave the EU.

Even the likes of Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen now plead in favour of some kind of Europe...'but not this one', because regulation, reforms and money proposed by 'Brussels' going forward will only undo the benefits Europe produced so far.

In some strange way, applauding Europe's past achievements goes naturally together with attacking its current state of affairs.

It is almost a silly argument – 'even progress was better in the past' – but a highly effective one. People feel like the past ended rather well, it's just that the future is not what it used to be.

Time to talk back

If the rhetoric of reaction is simple, it is also surprisingly difficult to counter. After all, they are supposedly fighting for the same things as progressives are, except without the wide-eyed enthusiasm.

The real challenge for Western democracies is to make politics work again, to reclaim the elementary right to make decisions in the public interest. The European Union, by its very nature, has a massive part to play.

First, large problems don't necessarily need large solutions.

The reactionary mindset is notably averse to expansive and fanciful schemes – 'Weltverbesserer' [do-gooder], Hirschman noted, is a favourite term of derision – but needs to be changed one step at a time.

That has always been the EU's main strength: it is good at technical and mundane but, taken together, far-reaching changes to how countries work together.

There will be no Big Bang on migration, for instance, but closer cooperation on border control, common application of asylum procedures, support for frontline states and realistic but fair relocation of refugees can go a long way... if, and only if, consistently applied and convincingly defended.

In that sense, the recent mini-summit in Malta was a statement of intent.

Playing with time is another peculiar EU talent.

Rhetorically, it is telling how often faraway dates feature in Europe's more successful projects: the climate action targets of 2020, 2030 and 2050 follow in the footsteps of the 2004 mark for enlargement, 1999 for the euro, Jacques Delors' single market year of 1992 and Sicco Mansholt's Agriculture 1980.

It is the European way to create momentum and focus for those that want to move forward. It also creates a sense of inevitability for those that need to move forward, whether they want to or not. When politics seems to have lost the plot, providing perspective is particularly important.

Third, we should not give up on political pedagogics.

People are afraid, and there is a lot to be afraid of – they are not beyond reason.

The EU should be a lot better and bolder at explaining the way the world works and what we can do about it. Actions no longer speak for themselves, they need to be fitted into a world view that carries the same conviction and coherence as the anti-political narrative.

With Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the EU's dual leadership is more worldly than before, including in areas where the EU has not traditionally been very prominent, such as defence.

That might also make them more pragmatic, hence better able to 'plead their case', in Hirschman's words, 'with greater originality, sophistication, and restraint'.

His advice to progressive politicians rings true for everyone involved with EU politics in reactionary times: "Curb your idealism, but don't give up on it."

Author bio

Vincent Stuer is a Belgian playwright, former speechwriter to EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso, and political aide now working for the Dutch D66 delegation in the European Parliament. His latest book is called Curb Your Idealism: the European Union As Seen From Within.


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


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