‘We can’t upset the market’, ‘Brussels decided’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘Some change is better than no change’. A good politician is pragmatic, does what needs to be done. But we have lost sight of what we believe in, and might lose the EU because of it.
Pro-EU march in Post-Brexit London on March 25, 2017, to mark 60 years since the EU’s founding agreement, the Treaty of Rome. Picture: Ilovetheeu via Wikimedia Commons.
In the Netherlands, five parties have been trying to form a coalition for four months. In the first round of formation talks, which has since stalled, the young and idealist surprise of the last election, the leader of the Green party, couldn’t agree with the three conventional mid-sized parties. He considered the final offer on refugee policy morally unacceptable. While many criticize his stubbornness, one journalist wrote ‘We need to see that the new generation is done with pragmatism’. This is an apt analysis, which I suspect explains some of the political turmoil of the past two years: we are in dire need of ideals to aspire to.
While liberal democracy might have seen some victories in recent elections across the European continent, the belief in liberalism is generally dwindling. The grip of populist parties is still strong across the European continent, and the political centre doesn’t hold against extreme views because it lacks conviction, of which they have plenty.
Too often politicians defend their policies only with a cost-benefit analysis, or a reiteration that this is simply how things work, rather than a vision of the society for which they stand. Of course practical considerations are immensely important, but too often these are used to pretend that there are no alternatives.
Such a problematic lack of vision is most clear in Theresa May, now scathingly called ‘Maybot’ by most British news outlets. She seems to execute Brexit with militant pragmatism; this is what needs to happen now and she has to do it. The fact that she wanted to remain in the EU before the referendum already proves that she lacks any conviction for the task at hand, and every time she is asked it becomes clear that the British public shouldn’t expect her to have any vision or even a coherent plan. Yet Brexit is a project of unprecedented impact, and her lack of direction is denounced both by European leaders and her own party.
So voters turn away from the traditional parties and towards anti-establishment movements because they no longer feel represented or heard by their leaders, and who can blame them? We pick our leaders because their ideals or goals for the next term align with ours, but it seems that these are always at the mercy of pragmatic considerations. Thus, the feeling that things will never change and that political engagement is futile grows stronger. The only way to respond to this disillusionment, and to stop populists who use this sentiment for their hateful campaigns in their tracks, is by giving voters something to believe in.
When looking at Brussels, many citizens will feel all the more powerless. Perhaps pragmatism is exactly what has been plaguing the EU’s popularity all along. Claims of economic necessity have long been dominant in European politics. Neoliberal policies such as cuts to social security and increased employment insecurity were presented as inevitable in order to compete in the global economy, while in fact these were deliberate choices made by all member states. The idea that any further investment in social security would result in bankruptcy was dispelled during the financial crisis, when member states transferred large sums of money to banks.
This supposed pragmatism leads many citizens to believe that they cannot impact what happens in Brussels and has triggered alienation and wide dissatisfaction with the European project. Citizens turn away from those values that were so central to the creation of European wealth in the first place – like solidarity – and turn to nationalism. Without ideals and without a population who believes in those ideals, the EU will soon cease to be a political community at all.
In most member states, national politicians are complicit in this renationalisation, by claiming they cannot impact what happens in Brussels. Many let their commitment to the EU depend on popular opinion rather than conviction, and absolve themselves from blame for decisions they made by claiming Brussels pulls all the strings. This line of attack was used frequently by the British Leave campaign, who claimed Brussels forced the UK to accept many policies it didn’t want, while in fact the UK has lost only 76 out of 2466 votes (which includes votes on the areas they opted out of).
But even if politicians were honest about their decisions and more transparent about the process in Brussels, the support for the EU as a project of economic convenience is simply not enough if it is to survive. If we are asking citizens to believe in the European project even when it doesn’t seem economically beneficial – when it means giving Greece another pay-out, or taking in our fair share of refugees – then we need to convince them not with the mere warning of economic downfall but with a real utopia of justice, equality and freedom for all.
I am not claiming that this utopia is within our reach, or that we will all agree on what it looks like, but rather that this is what we should be debating and this is what politicians should be selling us. European and national politicians alike must not be afraid to show their belief in the European project not only as economically beneficent, but also as the embodiment of their values. And if we want to overcome the threat posed by populism and nationalism, we must ask the same of those leaders; force them to tell the public exactly what society they envision and what their view of justice entails.
Politics should in its essence be a clash of values, of visions and of means towards realizing these, not of power plays, inevitabilities, and playing hands. Of course, we shouldn’t be naïve about what politics entails – who can be after House of Cards? – but we can still ask our leaders to do better and fight for this European utopia. Of course, every member state or party might have a different utopia in mind. Let us debate passionately about these differences. Let us not be satisfied with pragmatic answers to big questions. Let us fight about European values so we can once again fight for them.
Tessa van Rens
Tessa is based in London. She is from the Netherlands, and is currently finishing her masters degree in Legal and Political Theory at UCL.