After the Irish ‘No’ vote: pathologising populism

The EU elites’ Mugabe-style disdain for their populist opponents only shows how cut off they are from the people of Europe.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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The response of the EU oligarchy and its political allies to the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty shows that they are intent on occupying the moral low-ground.

As far as EU supporters are concerned, democracy is a curse, which threatens to undo all the good things they achieved during months of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. The remarkable thing about their reaction to the Irish electorate – who rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum on 12 June – is that it expresses an intense hostility towards the European public more broadly.

Like Robert Mugabe, the EU oligarchs seriously believe that a referendum is simply a public relations exercise, the results of which don’t have to be taken very seriously. The main difference between Mugabe and someone like Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, is one of style: Mugabe doesn’t mince his words; Barroso speaks from a script written by an Orwellian ghost-writer.

Barroso, like his fellow oligarchs, insists that he ‘respects’ the vote of the Irish people. The British PM, German chancellor and French president have also gone on record to say they ‘respect’ the outcome of the Irish referendum. In fact, it is difficult to find any leading European politician who doesn’t respect the Irish result. Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century, the verb ‘respect’ has been denuded of any real meaning.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to respect means ‘to treat or regard with deference, esteem, or honour’. It can also mean to prize or to value. It is clear that, in the doublespeak of the EU bureaucrats, ‘respect’ for the Irish vote has little in common with any of those definitions. When an EU politician says he respects the outcome of the Irish referendum, what he really means is: ‘I am not a fool. I know that we lost, and while we play for time and try to reverse the result, I am going to hide behind innocuous rhetoric.’

In reality, the sentiment of the EU’s ‘respect brigade’ is a feeling of defensive contempt for the Irish and other European publics. ‘Senior British government sources have told me that the EU has to be “respectful” of the Irish vote and not be portrayed in any way as a bully that disregards the popular will’, wrote Will Hutton in the Observer. In other words, the EU doesn’t want to come across like a tin-pot dictatorship, openly flouting the ‘popular will’; it prefers to take a more subtle, behind-the-scenes approach to undermining the impact and influence of public opinion.

Hutton, who shares the worldview of his government sources, said that this act of deception ‘may be possible for a few months, but the clock is ticking’. So the question is not if, but when measures can be implemented to nullify the results of the Irish vote.

One of the most disturbing developments in the EU is the spread of the idea that the public’s behaviour is irrational, extreme and potentially dangerous. Anyone who reads the European press will be struck by its powerful mood of suspicion towards ordinary citizens and their political views. There is a growing consensus that people are all too easily swayed by dangerous ideas, and thus they cannot be relied upon to exercise their public duties in a responsible manner.

That is why EU technocrats and their friends in high places have such a profound distaste for the very idea of holding referenda. As Hutton argues, ‘Referendums work best for the demagogue, the dissimulator and scaremonger, as Hitler and Mussolini, lovers of referendums, proved’. It is true that referenda, like any election, can be manipulated by demagogues and bad people. But when it comes to manipulation, the EU oligarchy really is following in the footsteps of its illustrious anti-democratic predecessors.

Critics of referenda are often motivated by their own uncertainties, because they recognise that they lack any decent arguments with which to convince the electorate. Instead of doing something about the paucity of their own arguments, the EU oligarchs prefer to blame ‘populism’ for all of their troubles. In recent times, ‘populism’ has been rhetorically transformed into a twenty-first-century equivalent of an old-style fascistic movement. Those who question the legitimacy of the EU are frequently dismissed as naive fools who, as Barroso argues, have fallen ‘into the populist temptation of depicting the European Commission as the expression of bureaucracy and technocracy’.

In reality, contemporary angst about populism and populist movements reflects the profound gulf that separates the political class from the people. It is true that sections of the European public may be influenced by confused prejudices, and may have a narrow and parochial outlook. But so what? An open-minded and democratically inspired public figure would regard this as a challenge to be confronted through debate and political engagement. What the public needs is not cynical rhetoric about ‘respect’, but rather to be taken seriously in the political process.

The tendency to treat supporters of populist campaigns as the enemy, as foolish individuals who should be ignored or possibly saved, betrays the elite’s feeble attachment to democratic politics. After all, supporters of populism constitute an important section of the populace, and they should be taken no less seriously than those whose views appear more enlightened. It is also important to note that populist movements are influenced by a variety of contradictory things. Disenchantment with the political system and the EU elites can lead people to adopt a narrow-minded, divisive attitude of them-and-us in relation to other groups. But very often, populist movements are influenced by an aspiration for social solidarity.

Social solidarity, however, is a sentiment that most EU oligarchs wouldn’t recognise if they bumped into it.

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.

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Topics World


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