Time to take populism seriously

Even if you wanted to, it seems you cannot get around the whole ‘Brexit’ affair. So much has been said and written about it that I felt reluctant to do so myself. We all know – one way or another – about the mess that the referendum left behind. Its aftermath has been, in one word, shocking. Though when hearing and reading about all the different reactions, one important perspective is often overlooked: the EU is undoubtably beneficial – but for whom? If it wants to prevent more member states from leaving, then politicians and policy makers need to take this question more seriously.

On Wednesday Frans Timmersmans, vice-chairman of the European Commission, gave an invigorating speech (see video below) to the members of the European Parliament (MEPs). He stressed the fact that they have all been democratically elected and therefore represent the will of the people. The Brexit vote should be respected, but so should all the other decisions taken by the EP. Those who pleaded for a British exit from the EU were accused of “destroying for the sake of destruction”. Moreover, they should stop playing games that have real consequences for real people. He ended by giving some piece of advice: “Never, never be intimidated by big mouths.”

Given the Brexit vote and the rise of populist parties all over Europe, perhaps we should feel intimidated by these “big mouths”. We have seen what a single referendum can do to the functioning of the EU: other member states are already considering to hold similar referenda. Here in the Netherlands, for example, the prospect of a ‘Nexit’ is quickly gaining momentum. Meanwhile, the credibility of the EU as a project is going further down the drain. We have moved on from bashing bankers to a constant stream of Europe-bashing. From Spain to Finland populists are gaining ground; it will only be a question of time before they take up political office.

More interesting would be to find out why these mouths are so big to begin with. Timmermans admitted that MEPs should “listen to the real concerns of our votes” because “they are not happy with us”. No shit, Sherlock. It’s clear people have problems with the EU, some more legitimate than others, but this does not explain why they are expressed so loudly. The very idea of having a simple Yes-or-No question about membership of the EU should be worrying enough because it shows that a substantial amount of people would be willing to throw the whole project overboard rather than finding a new course. In other words, people feel powerless and gladly use a referendum to air their grievances. The Brexit vote was not about red tape from Brussels, nor about the millions of pounds that could be spent otherwise after the exit. Most of all, it was about people’s autonomy, their sense of community, even their dignity.

Vote Leave

To see this, consider the clear correlation between income and Brexit-support. Cheap flights to Ibiza, unification of roaming tariffs, and being able to buy a second house in France might mean something for a person living in the City, yet it matters much less for the so-called working class. More generally, many promises of EU membership are becoming increasingly hollow for ordinary people: employment, social security, political influence, etc. Just consider the fact that in Britain, which is the fifth largest economy in the world, one out of every five citizens lives below the poverty line. Politically, there is a ‘class ceiling‘: a third of the current MPs are privately educated, compared to just 7% of the general public. These problems are for a large part homegrown, and sometimes the EU actually helps to overcome them – but this does not make them any less real. Since the EU is essentially an extension of national politics, it needs to find a proper response to these widening gaps.


I’ve talked about noblesse oblige before in a somewhat different context but it appears to be relevant here, too. For if we (the elite?) want to stop populist voices from taking over we need to take their grievances seriously. It’s too easy to label them as ill-informed, irrational, or as Timmersmans does, bigmouthed.

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