EU

Post-Truth Politics: Europe’s Next Integration Challenge

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UKIP posters contained many claims of dubious legitimacy.

Amar Shakil

As a British student studying and living in continental Europe, Brexit has affected me in the sense that I ,like many others, don’t know how much of an impact it will have on my life abroad. As a remain voter, I, like many, scoffed in disbelief, unable to comprehend politicians spouting lies and falsehoods and more importantly why most people chose to believe it. Post-truth politics is a useful concept in understanding why the discourse in the Brexit campaign developed as it did, and why the result is what it is. Post-truth politics is a political culture in which political debate is disconnected from comprehensive policy, and is instead driven and framed by emotion and rhetoric rather than reason and evidence, with factual rebuttals ignored.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the consequence of the success of post-truth politics, and signify its threat for further integration of the European Union. Despite Europe’s ability to overcome times of crisis to further European integration, (as the response to Brexit has shown with discussions over further European defence cooperation,) Brexit nonetheless shows that the emergence of post-truth politics is a threat to the European project.

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Nigel Farage, head of UKIP has been accused of fomenting racism through deceitful claims regarding migrants in the UK. Here he stands with an infamous billboard, described as “nazi propaganda” by George Osborne.

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have been the catalyst behind the emergence of post-truth politics. If we’re honest most of us are guilty of selectively choosing news sources that we agree with or those which best speak to our views, hence we live in our little social media bubble in which we share views and opinions with people who already have the same opinions. People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed to‘, and selectively choose information to support those views while resisting perceived falsehoods. The ubiquitous nature of social media, and news media facilitates the ease with which people can seek out news sources which conform to and strengthen, their beliefs, while at the same time driving partisan divide and shutting out contradictory information. This played out in the UK referendum campaign, with a key talking point being Turkey’s potential membership of the EU, playing on the fear of millions more migrants entering the UK. Though proven false as Turkey can only become a Member with the agreement of all EU Member States, this claim was successful in framing the narrative of the campaign to the wider issue of immigration, which drove the Brexit campaign. Another example is the rejection of research based evidence by experts on the implications of a Brexit. This shows, as one conservatoce put it: People in this country have had enough of experts’. Attempts to challenge these claims and falsehoods were dismissed as project fear, which makes it difficult to engage in open debate as people become increasingly entrenched in their views.

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Michael Gove, Conservative Politician, claimed that British people were done with experts. Photo by Policy Exchange.

Post-truth politics shows the importance of feelings and emotions. Facts and statistics may show the socio-economic benefit of the UK remaining a member of the EU, but as Brexit shows, people still feel left behind. There are big regional inequalities. Certain regions are just not seeing the supposed economic benefits of EU membership . Post-truth politics plays on these emotions, engaging and mobilising voters who feel left behind by offering them a vision of a better, more prosperous society, outside of the EU. Post-truth politics builds on discontent and economic inequalities, with the EU used as a scapegoat.  These feelings of dissatisfaction are not exclusive to the UK, thinking otherwise would feed into the narrative of an ‘out of touch’ bureaucratic eleite, feeding into a post-truth narrative that will foster further anti-EU sentiment.

Populism is on the rise in Europe, with post-truth politics and populism in an almost perfect symbiosis, fostering the idea that: Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic’. This can be seen in the rise of populist parties in central and eastern Europe, highlighting the difficulty in furthering integration when the EU can be framed as a threat to hard won national sovereignty. Post-truth politics reinforces this and makes it difficult for the EU to confront misinformation. The EU needs to come to terms with this rather than dismiss it. Brexit, Donald Trump and populist governments in Europe highlight the potential challenges in future attempts at European integration in the age of post-truth politics where populist rhetoric are easily dispersed and spread through social and news media.  It makes it difficult to address the increasing shift towards nationalism, as facts and reason become redundant making it difficult to engage citizens and integrate further.

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Another UKIP poster making a exaggerated claim.

Brexit is a warning that the EU must address its existing faults and weaknesses, it must take a step back and acknowledge the shift in the political discourse towards post-truth politics. Social media is a key driver in the emergence of Post-truth politics and is key in giving greater voice to Euroscepticism and populism. In the age of post-truth politics, facts and reason are not enough to engage and mobilise voters and signifies the need for the EU to engage citizens through a bottom-up approach, in constructing a positive image for the Union and engaging those who feel left behind.

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