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Europe needs European populism (originally written by Waldo Vanderhaegen, 29 March 2009)

Originally written by Waldo Vanderhaegen, 29 March 2009.

What a joy it is to follow the American elections. Even here in Europe it is a front page news story, with a very high tabloid-like attractiveness. The contrast between the US and the European Union couldn’t be bigger. While the American elections figure intense debate, with a clear policy choice the European elections are stuck in a greyness with relative meaninglessness… at least for the average citizen. European democracy is sick and we urgently need to look for the cure. The economic crisis is in this respect THE opportunity for the EU to reassert its value to its citizens, so we must grab it.

In order to reassert its value for o its citizens and to turn around the slide towards meaningless, Europe needs more populism. Europe needs popular protest for or against a certain way of doing things. Europe needs some actors who put the institutional order in question and other actors who defend it. Europe needs politics, Europe needs populism. If we have no politics, the system will become an administration, a technocracy, and the political traces of social divisions will disappear. Without populism, without politics, social tensions will remain hidden untill they viciously burst open and threaten to destroy what has already been built.

Amongst eurocrats, there is a lot of astonishment and indignation directed at the poor knowledge of the ordinary citizen and the poor coverage given to the EU by the press, while there is so much information available for EU citizens and the press to consult. But we need to be honest with ourselves: do we ever read up on information on topics we consider to be uncontroversial, boring or irrelevant? Of course we don’t! People have to come up to us, to tap us on the shoulder and point out the relevance, the interesting facts or controversy (and preferably all three) before we look into it. The same goes for the EU. Populism is so often coined as bad, cheap or politically incorrect. But it is more about a way of making politics and not about how a set of ideas is formed. Populism is the framing of a set of ideas in a way to appeal to the general public. Populism needs to be that tap on the shoulder that the EU dearly lacks.

Improving how EU policy ideas are communicated to the public is not the only silver bullet. Voting is a difficult thing to do, with all the different parties, the different candidates and the different institutions it is sometimes a real maze, certainly in the EU. On top of that the few easily identifiable actors either are not electable, such as Mr Barosso, or do not seem to have a lot of power, such as your local MEP. We thus need to concentrate the democratic output to less people with more power. The people thus can have a clearer idea about who is who and who stands for what, enabling the voter to evaluate and punish actors correctly through the election process. The people in power would in their turn have the motivation to fulfil the promises and programmes for which they were elected, and also to spread populist appeal and propaganda, thus raising the interest in and democratic value of the EU.

Several solutions have been offered in the past. A possible solution could be to let the European parties each choose one candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, thus effectively limiting the consensual role of the Council, while heightening the political and populist role of the Commission. Other solutions go much further and allow the national representatives in the Council of the European Union to be chosen through an electoral process, effectively creating a sort of ‘Senate’. In this respect I would also follow Libertas chairman Declan Ganley, propagator of EU reform and a clear example of a EU populist figurehead. The key element is the creation of positions for certain people who can explain the EU to ‘Joe the Plumber’ and at the same time create incentives for politicians to advocate EU issues to the general public, in order to get votes for (re-)election.

There are many other ways to further European populism and to create easily identifiable actors, so the EU may head towards real European debate and a real EU democracy, but the vital point is that action is needed. As the EU continues to expand, both in scope, depth and width, the risk will be that it keeps expanding whilst losing its base: the people. If this continues, national populism may overtake European populism causing the European bubble to burst.


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