Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?

By Linda Piersma

Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens.[1] Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.[2]

A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond.[3] However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?

Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term,[4] I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.”[5] By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making,[6] it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices. Continue reading “Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?”

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Nationalism in Europe: Where did it come from, and what does it mean?

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Olga Starikova

At the end of the 20th century, it seemed barely possible that nationalism would come back to the West. The international community was supposed to learn the harsh lessons of the past and reach the important conclusions. Terms like globalization, multiculturalism and internationalism were no longer just a part of political discourse, but also entered the language and the reality of common people. Being cosmopolitan became trendy – especially to younger generations in the West. The fifteen years following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty became a sort of Golden Era for the European Union. The integration process seemed unstoppable – three enlargements of the EU took place, including the biggest in the history of the Union in 2004. The common currency was established in 2002, replacing the national currencies of twelve member states within the Eurozone, which also kept on growing. Nationalism in Europe was close to dying out in the new millennium.

However, reality has collided with this optimistic picture, and despite the common trends of globalization and integration, the right wing started gaining popularity. Nationalism has changed its look, and has probably become more moderate and polished, but it did come back.  This turn in the development of Europe is not illogical: the economic crisis, the so-called Islamization of Europe, and financial inequality of member states have all contributed. The recent European migrant crisis tops the cake.

Yet, what’s really striking is how fast something that was commonly seen as intolerant, odd or just shameful can get significant support in Western society. In this regard, the only thing more impressive than this phenomenon itself is the speed of its evolution. Right-wing politicians and public figures that were formerly treated with disdain suddenly achieved high-profile positions.

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French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The French National Front, with its charismatic leader Marine Le Pen, serves as a shining example. Even though the ultra-right populist party experienced a decline in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s managed to rise from the ashes like a phoenix in this one; seeing success first at municipal elections, and then in 2014 winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in European Parliament – an unprecedented number for the National Front. Now, the scariest thing for liberals is Le Pen’s presidential campaign this year. Considering the events of the past five years, her candidacy should not be underestimated.

Similar things are happening in Germany, where luckily they have not yet reached that extent. The right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland is represented in the majority of German states, despite the fact that the party is fairly young and was only founded in 2013. In the European elections of 2014 AfD gained 7%, significantly less than the National Front’s 24.9% in France. Nevertheless, this number is very impressive for Germany, where the Nazi past makes the population less likely to support ultra-right political parties and the state was paying attention to the issue. Somehow, AfD leader Frauke Petry managed to successfully apply the bottom-up approach and gain the support of some people, often with low income and lower levels of education.

 

Those were the founders and the main political powers in the European Union. However, the “right turn” is typical for other countries as well, including Austria, Switzerland, and those in Southern and Eastern Europe. While nationalism has traditionally been rather strong in Eastern states like Poland and Hungary, the “right voice” in Scandinavia – considered to be incredibly tolerant – is much newer. In May 2016, the BBC published a brief Guide to Nationalist Parties Challenging Europe. The article is well-structured, and worth reading for those seeking basic information on the phenomenon.

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AfD leader Frauke Petry. Photo by Michael Lucan.

From 2014 to today, the trend has become too obvious to ignore, and naturally begged the question: “Why?” As mentioned before, normally financial crisis and refugee issues are named as main factors. The ideals of the European Union did not equate to those of certain cohorts of people. The establishment, in turn, did not always react appropriately, failing to suggest working solutions to current problems, and people started to look for alternatives.

Having faced multiple problems, the European Union as a huge bureaucratic machine appeared to be slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, it turned to be fertile ground for populist parties that often suggest rather extreme solutions. The European idea has definitely known better times, yet despite Brexit, it is too soon to speak of the decline of the European Union and the concept of supranational government. The EU’s history is rather short to make conclusions, as it was started in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community.

It is more a speculation, but maybe, using the terms of Samuel P. Huntington, there are certain waves of democratization; in this case waves of nationalism. Or, to be more precise, they are not simply waves but spiral bends, if one can see the process as a spiral rather than a sine curve. If so, the phase is temporary – the only question is its intensity. It does not help that nowadays the “right turn” does not seem to be unique to Europe, as evidenced by the recent US elections. On the bright side, European integration has gone so far and economic binds are so tight that cutting ties often means losing profit – which should make the politicians think twice. The most challenging aspect for the establishment is getting closer to common people, a skill that has been mastered by right-wing populists. So far, we have not passed the point of no return, and this “wave” is a good lesson for the EU to learn from its mistakes. To cite a famous saying: history repeats itself until the lesson is learned.

Olga studied Political Science in Russia and the USA, finished her M.A. Euroculture studies in Germany, and currently lives and works in Moscow.

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The Elections that will shape Europe #1: The Netherlands

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Geert Wilders. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs

Arne Van Lienden

This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.

It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.

The surge and decline of Geert Wilders

In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.

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Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Photo by Minister-president

It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.

Puzzling for a coalition

With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.

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Jesse Klaver. Photo by BuelensLeon

Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.

The Netherlands in Europe

What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.

However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition  could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.

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OPINION: Has Culture Replaced Race in Europe?

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A mosque and a church sharing a yard in Kosovo. Photo by Valdete Hasani

Sabine Volk

During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.

Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.

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Photo by Mark Dixon

When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).

In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.

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A German anti-Islam demonstrator. Photo by blu-news.org

So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?

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Are Muslims the new Jews? Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe

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Are Muslims the new Jews? Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe

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Dutch right-wing extremists protesting against Islam. By Wouter Engler.

Sabine Volk

This article is a follow-up of “Fearing the Other: Islamophobia in the United States” written by Sabine Volk and published on the Euroculture Website on the 30th of January, 2017.

 In times where hate crimes against Muslims and Islamic religious sites become more frequent in European countries, and the new American president calls for surveillance against mosques and a total shutdown of Muslim immigration, one cannot help but wonder: are Muslims the new Jews? After all, it is easy to draw parallels from now to past times where Jews were heavily discriminated against and excluded from social life in both Europe and the US. And still, comparing the contemporary situation of Muslims in Western, predominantly Christian societies with the situation of Jews in the past might be an illegitimate endeavor. Right-wing populist hate speech against Muslims is terrible, no doubt, but it does not include the genocidal rhetoric that was spurred in Nazi Germany. At least not yet.

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Anti-Semitic graffiti in Nazi Germany. By Yad Vashem.

 

So, the claim that ‘Muslims are the new Jews’ is normatively problematic. Nevertheless, the resentments against both groups appear to be comparable phenomena. Both present-day Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism of Nazi-Germany fuel fear and hatred towards a religious minority, and both reduce individuals to their membership within the minority. Can we thus make the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism? Let’s take a closer look at anti-Semitism in order to compare these two.

 Western Anti-Semitism Before and After World War II

The discrimination against Jews in Western, historically predominantly Christian societies is many centuries old. The term anti-Semitism, however, has been coined only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ever since, it has been used as a synonym for racial Judeophobia, i.e., the fear and hatred against the ‘Jewish race’. One can detect geographic, cultural, and temporal variations of anti-Semitism in the Western World. Anti-Semitism was at times merely a social issue, especially in the U.S. and Great Britain. At other times, anti-Semitism became a highly politicized issue, especially in Germany and France at the turn of the nineteenth century.

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The Daily Mail in 1938. By Huffington Post.

In order to compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, it is crucial to look at the different phases of anti-Semitism. History short: prejudice against Jews essentially evolved from the early religious (ergo: Christian) anti-Judaism over modern anti-Semitism to contemporary anti-Zionism. The modern and secular anti-Semitism racialized Jews by conflating religion and race and in doing so, constructed an essentialist Jewish identity. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Jews became Western societies’ most important constitutive Other. In other words, they became the cultural out-group (‘them’) that was opposed to the in-group (‘we French/Germans/Americans’). The atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust did not eradicate anti-Semitism. Contemporary anti-Semitism, however, does usually not appear as blatant racial discrimination against Jews. It rather appears in the form of anti-Zionism, that is the opposition to the state of Israel and its politics.

Comparing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

To begin with, the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism must be narrowed down. Islamophobia cannot be in itself the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ since we have seen above that the new anti-Semitism has a rather geographical focus. The claim only makes sense if we say that contemporary Western Islamophobia strongly resembles anti-Semitism in its content. More precisely, it resembles the racialized anti-Semitism of the pre-World War II era. This is because both Islamophobia and this racialized anti-Semitism conflate race and religious identity, and are directed against members of a minority – not against them as foreigners, immigrants, upper class, etc. They construct Muslims and Jews, respectively, as an essentially different and dangerous cultural Other.

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Anti-Islam protest in Cologne, Germany. By Jasper Goslicki.

Looking at how right-wing populists all over Europe and the U.S. use Islamophobia to push their hateful political agendas, it seems as if Islamophobia has similar functions as anti-Semitism had in the past, such as the construction of Western identity by creating a scapegoat for current issues and challenges. Hence, Islamophobia not only resembles anti-Semitism, but has also replaced anti-Semitism in public discourse.  Indeed, although anti-Semitism still exists in the Western World, it is publicly tabooed and sanctioned since World War II (especially, but not only in Germany). Islamophobia is a comparable form of racism against a religious minority that is nowadays acceptable in political discourse. This becomes apparent when observing European right-wing populist discourse such as by the French far right party Front National: whereas party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was an outspoken anti-Semite, his daughter, Marine Le Pen, has worked to distance the party from its anti-Semitic image. She for instance banned all anti-Semitic discourse from party communications. However, Front National merely seems to have substituted anti-Semitism by Islamopobia. Islamophobic paroles and slogans play a big role in many of her speeches.

We can conclude that Muslims might not be the new Jews, but Islamophobia can indeed be called the new anti-Semitism – not in the meaning of the concept itself, but in the functions that this form of racism has for right-wing populists in Western societies. The heated public debates about Muslims and Islam reveal a deeper negotiation of cultural identity and the perceived loss thereof in increasingly heterogeneous societies. Islamophobia has herewith become a tool for counter-cosmopolitan collective identity building both in the U.S. and Europe.

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Europe at a Crossroads: The Rise of the Right and Post-Truth Politics

 

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The EU is having a hard time. Photo by MOs810

Ben Krasa

Europe is at a crossroads and the coming months will determine its stability for the foreseeable future. The unforeseen victories for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise in populism makes us question how there is such momentum behind these campaigns. Therefore, the leaders who have grabbed headlines over the two years must be examined in order to understand how they have shaken the world.

“Post-truth” was awarded by Oxford Dictionary as the word of the year. Defined as “appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored”, it has led to escalation of support for populist leaders and a growing support of their beliefs. With anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment rising in Europe, there is an obvious shift in mentality as opposed to previous years, which mainly rests on the shoulders of the post-truth rhetoric. Various populist campaigns stemmed from post-truth and used emotion to escalate fear and incite hatred in various nations. Donald Trump’s stinging remarks about Mexicans and Muslims have been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes post-election, likewise in post-Brexit Britain. The leaders rely on fear and stirring emotion, rather than sense or logic, in order to gain a large following. In a pre-Brexit world, no one would have given Farage a chance, or have thought that Trump would claim the victory across the pond, nor that Le Pen may have influence in the French Presidential election.  However, the Brexit campaign spurred Trump to follow the same rhetoric and yielded a similar result. Post-truth tactics and hate rhetoric have grabbed Europe by the throat and won’t let go, so much so that talk of the demise of the European Union has begun to bubble up in public discourse.

Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are disturbing the political establishment of liberal Europe.

Throughout Europe, there is a growing urgency to discard the base of what has been guiding the political norm for the last decades. Moderate politics has typically dominated politics but we are witnessing a change in European sentiment. As elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands loom, Europe’s future could potentially be vastly different within a year. Marine Le Pen is making noise in France with a rhetoric that highlights the use of post-truth in politics, with much focus on the fear that a foreign ‘other’ will steal your job and earn more than you. This kind of rhetoric is hardly new, but as of late it has begun to feature more prominently in political discourse. Just last week, Geert Wilders was once again convicted of hate speech and also wants to ban all mosques in the Netherlands, is leading the most popular party in the country. He also relies on the tactic of post-truth and the manipulation of citizens’ emotions to gain popularity, rather than on logic and clear policy goals. Before the recent rerun of the Austrian Presidential election, a Holocaust survivor spoke out and pleaded with the public not to vote for the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, because the consequences petrified her and reminded her of pre-World War II Austria. This is a clear signal that surely it is time to think about which direction current politics is taking.

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Farage campaigned for Trump’s presidential bid.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit quoted as a stand up against the establishment and Donald Trump being carried as the ideal ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in the U.S. election. But for me it is difficult to confirm that they are truly ‘anti-establishment’. Trump resides in a Manhattan apartment “decorated in 24K gold and marble” and has a net worth of 3.2 billion dollars. It is hard to imagine why people labelled him anti-establishment despite having more in common with Hillary Clinton than many people would like to think. Prior to the election, he rubbed shoulders with the Clintons, their daughters are friends, and he had even donated money to the Clinton Foundation and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It would be foolish to think that Trump is anything but the ‘established’. Moreover, Nigel Farage who officially resigned as UKIP leader, but still receives 84,000 pounds salary as an MEP, immediately denied the NHS their supposedly ‘guaranteed’ 350 million pounds after the Brexit result. Since the Brexit campaign, he has stuck to Trump, like a remora fish on a shark. Pictures recently circulated of him at one of Trump’s parties in London. How are these men seen as anti-establishment since they reap so much from the establishment? Granted, there is disenchantment with politics, but those leading the opposition do not know more than those already in government. One just has to look at Farage’s disappearance act or Boris Johnson’s reaction post-Brexit. Just this week, a Tory aide was photographed with a notepad with Brexit plans which included “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it”.

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Green Candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, won the Austrian presidential election, twice. Photo by Ailura.

However, maybe not all is lost. In the recent Austrian Presidential election, the Green Party won the vote by a bigger margin than the original election in May. Moreover, in the Richmond Park by-election in London, the Lib Dem candidate unseated the Tory, Zac Goldsmith. This may just be a symbolic victory for the left, yet, it may be the penny dropping in people’s minds that unity and harmony will undoubtedly be more beneficial than discord. However, with papers and polls indicating that populism is here to stay, the more centred people must surely find a way to stop the post-truth tactic and potential destabilization and disintegration of the European Union.  

Ben recently graduated from Leiden University with a masters’ degree in International Relations. From Ireland, Ben graduated from University College Cork with a BA in Spanish and History and is currently interning in The Hague.

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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.

 Click here for more on Brexit.

Click here for more on EU politics.

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The Danger of Ridiculing Trump: Even if he loses Trump and his supporters cannot be ignored

 

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Trump and his supporters

Arne van Lienden

Ever since Donald Trump announced that he would run as the Republican Presidential candidate he has been a constant supplier of sensational media headlines. Never before in modern American history did a Presidential candidate attract so much controversy and had so little support from the establishment of his own party. With every shocking statement he has made so far – from calls to ban Muslim immigration to virulent misogynistic remarks – commentators predicted that it would be the end of his campaign. But for Trump it seems that nothing can harm him. He continues to generate support while liberal media are left fazed. His actions made the persona Trump into a constant subject of ridicule, almost a laughing stock. But laughing at Donald Trump distracts the attention from the deeper laying socio-economic issues influencing his supporters. As long as these are not heard or taken seriously, Donald Trump may just be a harbinger of things to come.

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Trump rally in Cincinnati

Recent polling has shown that is rather unlikely that Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States. The leaked video with Billy Bush came at the worst possible moment for his campaign. For weeks he tried to appear more reasonable and substantive in interviews and press conferences in order to gain support among white middle-class voters. But where some middle-class voters just might have started to believe he was not that bad, the video leaked and established Trump’s image as a misogynist once again. The result is that demographically Donald Trump just does not seem have enough support to win the Presidency. Besides having a lack of middle class votes, Trump also lacks support in other parts of the population. Whereas Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 won 6% of the African American votes, polls show that Donald Trump has around 3% support among African Americans. Although these percentages seem both shockingly insignificant one should only remember the Presidential elections of 2000 to see that in American Presidential elections the margins are often incredibly small. In recent years the Republican Party has also aimed for the Hispanic vote as Hispanics are overwhelmingly Catholic and could align themselves with the Republican views on abortion and gay marriage. However Trump has antagonized many Hispanics with his derogatory remarks on Mexicans and consequently this election they seem to favour Hillary Clinton over Trump.

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Trump’s campaign slogan. Photo by Gage Skidmore

While numbers may suggest that Donald Trump is running behind it seems that no one takes any reassurance from this. This election has never been about numbers or statistics because they have been against Trump from the very start. Jeb Bush and Marc Rubio were seen as the golden boys in the Republican Party but they were forced to withdraw their campaigns within months because Trump constantly exceeded every expectation. Donald Trump has gone beyond the statistics and numbers that always dominated the media coverage on the Presidential elections and has done so by mobilizing a group of voters that in recent years has been structurally underrepresented in the vote because they felt no candidate recognized their position. It is the ‘hidden group’ of working-class white Americans that suddenly rose to the surface as an important force during these elections. In areas that have been negatively affected by globalization and ‘trickle-down’ economics Trump is seen as the candidate who can turn America back into the manufacturing superpower it was before. With the newest round of the Clinton email scandal hurting her polling position, a Trump presidency is not impossible.

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Host of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver. Photo by Steve Jennings

Popular liberal TV-shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight have in the meanwhile started a media offensive against Trump and his supporters. Donald Trump is the perfect persona for ridicule and satire. His inconsistent speeches, outright racist and sexist statements, and his remarkable debating style have been the subject of satirical items that gathered millions of views on TV and YouTube. Also the supporters of Trump are often publicly scorned. There is an overload of videos where Trump supporters are exposed as violently racist and/or sexist. It is important in any free society that people can get mocked and that politics can be the subject of satire, but the current media coverage on Donald Trump uses a dangerous framework to depict him and his supporters. To see the successes in his campaign as a sudden eruption of collective stupidity and racism in American society overlooks the fact that his supporters “may not have it worse than some other demographic groups in America today, but they have fallen the furthest”. The racial and sexist dimension in the Trump campaign should never be overlooked, but neither should the fact that the white working class is the demographic group in America that lives in a worse economic situation than their parents did. Globalization and neoliberal economics have left certain areas in the United States riddled with unemployment, poverty, and a dangerous disgruntlement.

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This Trump supporter at a Cincinnati highlights the deep distrust of his supporters hold for mainstream media

In recent years the main focus of the Democratic and Republican Party has been to gain the middle class vote. The white working class voter is deemed to be aging and to be slowly becoming a relatively small demographic group. So in the Presidential campaigns the Republican Party focused more on the wealthy part of society with promising tax cuts, and the middle class families who were also promised a rise in purchasing power. The establishment of the Democratic Party, traditionally the party for the white working class, has shifted its main focus to social justice for minorities. Although Bernie Sanders did voice the discontent of the white working class, Hillary Clinton is seen as the epitome of middle-class liberalism with no regard for a struggling working class. It is no wonder then that the white working class voter did not feel represented in the establishment of both parties. Whereas usually this does mean that they would not vote, this year’s election is different. Donald Trump presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate who would completely change the partisan and bureaucratic government in Washington. His populist rhetoric and promise to ‘make America great again’ resonate in the areas where the white working class is still the largest voting group. For instance in the Rust Belt – a formerly heavily industrialized area in the Midwest – unemployment is structural after most industries left the area. Trump’s rhetoric to bring manufacturing back from China is hugely popular in these areas that ever since the Reagan presidency have only been in decline.

Framing Donald Trump’s campaign solely in terms of racism and sexism overlooks the fact that 42% percent of the American electorate is nonetheless likely to vote for him. Ridiculing Trump and his supporters will only contribute to further polarization and antagonism between liberals and conservatives in the United States. It is disturbing enough in itself that a substantial demographic voter group only finds itself heard in a megalomaniac and populist candidate like Donald Trump. The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight’s success comes mostly from poking fun at channels like Fox News, but the audience of Fox News is not likely to be open to other views or other channels if they find themselves the subject of scorn there. It rather works to reinforce the polarized media landscape in the United States. It should be the task of liberal media to look deeper into people’s motivation to vote for Trump and to make their concerns more accepted in the discourse surrounding the elections. Also Hillary Clinton’s debate strategy of constantly reminding people of the controversies surround Trump is futile as long as the deeper socio-economic worries of the white working class are being ignored. A more inclusive discourse should begin with the media and politicians that propagate a liberal ideology.

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Trump has many devoted supporters. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

If numbers and statistics can be trusted just this once in these elections, then Hillary Clinton will become the first female President of the United States. This will be a huge milestone for gender equality in United States, just as the 2008 election of Barack Obama was one for race equality. But it should not ignore the fact that Donald Trump has made it so far in the American elections. It should not be considered as a deviation from normalcy in politics or as a unique collective misjudgment. The success of Donald Trump has revealed the discontent of a ‘hidden group’ of voters who previously have been structurally ignored in American politics. The only way to prevent a normalization of populism in American politics is to be more open to the struggles of this group of voters. If they will be ignored again than Trump will prove to only be a harbinger for things to come in the American political arena.

Click here for more by Arne van Lienden.

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