Little wonder EU is now the prime target of populists
Populist politicians seek advantage by appealing to the less attractive angels of our nature
Former British prime minister David Cameron: the deal he negotiated with EU partners in 2016 was rejected out of hand not because of its contents but because its necessary complexity could not be boiled down to a tabloid headline. Photograph: Getty Images
Populism is one of the most challenging issues of our day. It plays a significant role in undermining the shared institutions, agreed rules and respectful assumptions that have underpinned decades of progress in parts of our imperfect and vulnerable world. It has already gained a strong foothold in many countries, including the US, Hungary, Italy and Turkey. It is the latest incarnation of Yeats’s “rough beast”, and now slouches towards other citadels of democracy believing that its hour has come. The EU is now its major target. Brexit is its latest poster boy.
Yet populism remains hard to define. It is comfortable at either end of the political spectrum; or even at both ends at once. “How dare you call us populists,” they say, attempting to intimidate those who would challenge them.
But talk about populism we must. Populism, in addition to its false narrative about the elite and the people, is essentially a rejection of four things: complexity, compromise, diversity and the inevitability of imperfection. This could be illustrated by examining any instance of populism. Brexit can serve as a good and topical example.
Complexity has been crucial in building the structures which enable peaceful co-operation between nations, including in Europe. The more simple ways of European history involved legionaries and siege engines, tanks and bombs. The complexity of today’s Europe should be celebrated, especially by small countries which know well who gets trampled on when elephants fight.
However, the EU has always been too intricate for most UK politicians to want to understand it, too complicated for the bulk of the British media to try to explain it. The deal former British prime minister David Cameron negotiated with EU partners in 2016 was rejected out of hand not because of its contents but because its necessary complexity could not be boiled down to a tabloid headline.
Later, in the referendum campaign, Brexiteers boiled their arguments down until, in relation to the reality of UK interests, they were meaningless. Perhaps the biggest challenge now facing Theresa May in winning approval for her Brexit deal is that much of Britain has lost the capacity to deal with complexity.
The second thing which is anathema to all populists is compromise. The notion that the winner can, and should, take it all is equally evident in Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s posturing, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s bluster and Donald Trump’s soundbites.
We saw this also in the twin culinary fantasies of Brexitland: that you could pick whatever cherries you wanted and, to use the original ordering of the phrase, that you could eat your cake and have it.
We still see it in the ignorance about the necessity for compromise on the right of the Conservative Party, where many apparently believe that the UK can design its own Brexit deal as if the EU did not have a firm position of its own.
The third thing which all populists reject is diversity. Hostility to foreigners, and in particular to immigrants, is firmly written into the populist playbook.
The Leave side in the UK referendum chose, in the final weeks of the campaign, to downplay the economic argument, which they were losing, and instead to play the xenophobia card by focusing on migration. Many on the Brexit side found Farage’s racist poster distasteful but, on a particular day in June 2016, xenophobia undoubtedly carried the referendum over the line. The populists inevitably now shout with faux outrage “how dare you call us xenophobic?”
The fourth and perhaps most significant thing which all populists reject is the inevitability of imperfection. Human beings and the institutions we create are necessarily imperfect. All governments, parliaments and, indeed, businesses fall well short of perfection. If we are intelligent and fortunate enough, as we have been in Europe over the last half-century, we can build institutions which channel our imperfect natures into a respectful and creative way of doing business together, into something that appeals to “the better angels of our nature”.
Populists, on the other hand, pretend that perfection, of which they see themselves as the perfect exemplars, is possible. On the basis of this delusion, they dismiss the international institutions which, necessarily imperfect as they are, provide the best hope for today and for the generations to come.
It is little wonder that the EU is now the prime target of populists. Complexity is in the EU’s nature. Compromise is its way of doing business. Diversity is in its DNA. Its institutions and values remain essential to addressing the inevitability of imperfection both on our own continent and in the wider world.
It is worth recalling that the term populist differs from other political labels in that it does not refer to those who vote for populist parties. It describes only those who manipulate and exploit them.
Today’s populists must be confronted. That involves no disrespect for ordinary voters but a rejection of those who seek advantage by appealing to the less attractive angels of our nature.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy