US satirist and journalist Patrick Jake O’Rourke once said about American politics, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” A similar principle seems to inspire European populists on the far right and the far left. They argue that the European Union does not work and, at the same time, they ask for our vote so as to make sure that it will not work.
Sure, every populist narrative is based on some unpleasant facts that have been decorated with a pack of lies. So the claim that the EU does not work – at least not as smoothly or democratically as it should – is of course true. The problem is that they seek to ground this claim on a bunch of conspiracy theories. It’s true that the corridors of European institutions are full of national and, in Marxist speak, lobbyists representing different social classes. But next to the office of Europe’s industrialists you can find the office of Europe’s unions; and next to the lobbyists from industrial farming you will hear the pressure groups representing the small and big European cooperatives.
The arena of political struggle is open, but the structure of the welfare state in Western Europe shows that the weak have won more battles than the strong. Sure, there have been retreats and defeats, and Europe never really became the socialist utopia that some out there had dreamed of. That said, Europe nevertheless steered clear of a Soviet-style nightmare, and it has the best welfare state systems in the world. The fight continues and, most importantly, there is nothing illegal about it.
For the past 60 years, Europe’s political class has managed to turn a battlefield of a continent into an oasis of peace and prosperity. It took endless compromises between national particularities which, before the time of the EU, would often result in bloody conflict. The price of these compromises has been complexity and red tape. Even a fishing regulation requires a great deal of fine-tuning and qualifications because states in the north and the south have different interests.
This complexity is conveniently attacked by the critics of the integration project. Although some of these complex regulations may indeed no longer serve a meaningful purpose, it is strange, to say the least, that they come under fire by the champions of national peculiarities. Critics attack the EU because it is insensitive about ethnic difference and at the same time slam the EU for being a mega-bureaucracy.
Sadly, in the runup to May’s European elections, the populists’ empty vessels will make the most noise. The question is, how many people will they manage to lure?