On populism and saving the euro

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Anyone who followed the EU-related news over the last few days must have gotten the impression that the euro area is facing imminent breakdown. Presidential elections in Austria and the referendum over constitutional reform in Italy threatened to jeopardise Europe’s single currency.

Every time a body of citizens is about to perform their democratic right of casting their vote, a significant portion of the commentariat or official sources raises the alarm on the viability of the EU or some of its institutional arrangements. The implicit suggestion is that Europe only stands with pro-establishment forces in government. Democracy is thus reduced to a simplistic binary of “EU or chaos”.

There is a clear pattern here. The Greeks go to vote, a ‘Grexit’ is about to happen. Tsipras becomes the prime minister, populists have gained a firm grip on power. People in Italy are tired of business as usual and are looking for alternatives, only for those to be preemptively dismissed as ‘populist’. Podemos in Spain is gaining some traction, their appeal is attributed to misleading rhetoric. And so on.

A misguided narrative

What underlies these stories is a combination of self-righteousness and elitism. The former consists in the presumption of the critics of ‘populism’ that their views are necessarily correct and well-informed. They are the enlightened experts. The latter is discerned in the tacit belief that voters of ‘populist’ forces are either naive, misinformed, or just idiots. Otherwise, the thinking goes, they would vote for the powers that be.

The faults of the status quo, if admitted at all, are limited to bad communication practices. They have failed to tell citizens what the EU is about, how beneficial the euro is, etc. Seldom are the supranational level’s design deficiencies mentioned or, if they are, it is in the same spirit of implementing “structural reforms” and pursuing “more Europe” as an end in itself.

The critics of ‘populism’ fail to deliver on a couple of fronts: (i) offer a definition of that very term rather than use it as a self-evident truth against anyone they disagree with, and (ii) take the ‘populist’ arguments seriously and, perhaps, accept that there is at least some value to them.

What makes ‘populists’ appealing is that they speak to the person on the street. For instance, Italy’s economy has been stagnant practically since it adopted the euro. Why should Italians not have a referendum on eurozone membership, when that currency clearly affects their everyday life? Why is such a proposal derided as populist from the outset?

Which brings us to the unwillingness of the ‘intelligentsia’ (is this the opposite of populism?) to listen. The European Union and the euro cannot be peddled as necessary goods. They may have some clear positives, but these have to be contextualised. They also exhibit some evident flaws. And there are real problems across European societies that need to be discussed. No taboos, no artificial dead ends. However that is exactly what people get whenever the euro in particular is brought under scrutiny. The quest of preserving the integrity of the eurozone is marketed as some sort of a sacred mission. Not to be questioned, modified or interfered with.

It is understandable that a lot of political capital has been invested in Europe’s single currency. Many are those who want it to be a success in meeting its longer term objectives. Yet the average citizen faces much more immediate challenges. Unemployment, precarious working conditions. They cannot afford to put their faith in some abstract long term project, especially when it appears to reinforce the spiral of debt-deflation they find themselves in.

Many do not have the luxury to wait for the distant future to deliver them some vague promise. Their thinking is fixed on the here and now. It is thoroughly practical. What may ease the pressure on them, improve their standard of living. There is no worth in a life of radical uncertainty, certainly not for the sake of propping up some much-vaunted fiat money.

Disaggregating the ‘populists’

This is not to claim that anyone who is anti-establishment is ipso facto right. Nor that those in office are necessarily suspect. Politics is a much more complex domain of human experience. There are nuances. Permutations and combinations of positives and negatives.

What we are trying to argue for instead is the rather simple, albeit difficult to find in the current political environment, attitude of eclecticism. This is a moral quality, the social virtue of not being dogmatic, of listening to what the other side has to say, and of synthesising different views to arrive at some better, well-rounded opinion.

This also suggests that a certain bad practice among analysts has to stop. Not all anti-establishment perspectives are of the same kind. There are differences of category and degree to be identified. Not all ‘populists’ share the same agenda. There are liars and racists such as Nigel Farage, ethnic nationalists and ultra-conservatives like Marine Le Pen, and eager reformists with the facade of socialism like Alexis Tsipras.

These political forces need to be treated as separate cases, not as instances of a single overarching phenomenon. Each must be properly named and analysed for what it actually is, with whatever pros and cons it may have. Placing them in some fictitious homogeneous whole of ‘populist’ mindset is a sign of obstinacy and dogma. If anything, disaggregation of the sort here considered is required for the sake of sound methodology. We may then better appreciate the underpinnings of political events, rather than recycle the various presumptions of misinformed masses or losers of globalisation voting for demagogues.

As for the euro, it may well be worth preserving. But this has to be a broad-based decision. It is not the prerogative of technocrats operating aloof from the fray. In a democracy society chooses what it wants for itself, framed by universal ethical values and practical reasonableness. Institutions and the political action derived therefrom must conform to popular will, not vice versa.

In Europe a trend is taking form whereby all political life has to be moulded in accordance with the institutional order of the EU. Usually in the name of some crisis, the popular mandate is disregarded in favour of pushing forward with the supranational agenda. This cannot go on forever. For the sake of Europeans, indeed for the EU itself, politics must become open-ended as it ought to be. No more false dilemmas such as “euro or calamity”. And enough with this cavalier attitude of preemptively dismissing the opinion of citizens who happen to live outside the Brussels bubble. Take a step back and listen. Show empathy, a greater sense of awareness to what is happening to people. Everyone has something to say. That is the point of having a democracy in the first place.