A single issue is disturbing established patterns of politics throughout the Western world. It takes different forms in different jurisdictions but can be seen as a common thread tying together voter behaviour in Europe and the USA. This issue of voter dissatisfaction appears to be a significant contributory factor to rising euroscepticism and the increasing fragility of the EU, as we have reported elsewhere (see Evidence of Fragility (Summary) and related posts).
Citizens are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the EU because it is not delivering its promises of growth, jobs and stability. Disaffection is increasingly obvious from the swift rise of fringe political movements that are successfully challenging long-established parties. However, EU mandarins remain in denial, determined to continue the Project’s unnecessary and unwarranted pursuit of ever closer union, whatever the cost, to itself and to its member states and their citizens.
There are many signs that a large number of citizens in our ‘liberal’ democracies are disgruntled and, given an opportunity, will choose to take action to upset economic and political developments that are valued by those who benefit from them; such as the EU, political parties and trade agreements. It seems that those who are OK with things as they are do not understand – and perhaps do not care to understand – the feelings of those who do not believe they are benefitting from economic growth, globalisation and other ‘successes’ of our developed democracies, the not-OK. It has been argued – and contradicted – that the British version of these feelings was, in part at least, responsible for the referendum result. This post is not specific to EU/Brexit matters but we want to highlight how EU chiefs dismiss the views of ‘their’ citizens and the risks they take by doing so.
Mrs May, the British Prime Minister, has acknowledged that there is a problem and that it is not going to go away without attention and action. In her recent Mansion House speech she said, among many other things:
“Change is in the air. And when people demand change, it is the job of politicians to respond.
“But it’s also the job of all those in positions of influence and power – politicians, business leaders and others – to understand the drivers of that demand too.
“And I think that if we take a step back and look at the world around us, one of the most important drivers becomes clear – the forces of liberalism and globalisation which have held sway in Britain, America and across the Western world for years have left too many people behind.
“[W]e can’t deny … that there have been downsides to globalisation in recent years, and that – in our zeal and enthusiasm to promote this agenda as the answer to all our ills – we have on occasion overlooked the impact on those closer to home who see these forces in a different light.
“They [the disaffected] see the emergence of a new global elite who sometimes seem to play by a different set of rules and whose lives are far removed from their everyday existence. And the tensions and differences between those who are gaining from globalisation and those who feel they are losing out have been exposed ever more starkly through the growth of social media.
“If we believe, as I do, that liberalism and globalisation continue to offer the best future for our world, we must deal with the downsides and show that we can make these twin forces work for everyone.
“Because when you refuse to accept that globalisation in its current form has left too many people behind, you’re not sowing the seeds for its growth but for its ruin.”
This is a realistic perception of current experience and Mrs May does well to point out the risks of neglecting the problem. However, she is unusual in acknowledging what is going wrong. And, of course, she is suitably vague about how things can be remedied.
On the other side – failure of recognition – we have, for example, European Council President Donald Tusk, who has asserted that “if you are not able to convince people that trade agreements are in their interests…we will have no chance to build public support for free trade, and I am afraid that means that CETA … could be our last free-trade agreement”.
It is difficult “to convince people that trade agreements are in their interests” unless they are. At least he acknowledges the problem even if he doesn’t understand it.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, with his usual arrogance urged the 28 EU member states to “fight against stupid populists”. By which we can assume he means those who do not feel the benefits of existing and proposed free trade agreements and so will continue to oppose TTIP and do the best they can to thwart developments that are widely agreed to be a ‘good thing’.
Blinkered by their ideology and in thrall to their own propaganda, the EU mandarins cannot understand that those who don’t get the ideology hear the propaganda rattling hollowly. Even Donald Tusk flips back his blinkers some days. He has said that the UK referendum result was “a desperate attempt to answer the questions that millions of Europeans ask themselves daily.” However, on a bad day he suggested that Brexit could be “the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety.” Unlike Mrs May, he doesn’t seem to understand why this could happen.
Growing anti-trade sentiment is not just a frustration for EU politicians. The US election has seen trade under attack from both Left and Right, especially from Donald Trump, who has said he will pull the plug on potential upcoming agreements, such as TPP, and also to renegotiate previous deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He claims that he understands the reluctance of ‘ordinary’ people to support the status quo, though his response is to take down the status quo rather than to fix it.
Of course we cannot be sure that President-elect Trump, when he takes up his post in January, will keep his promises to those who elected him, among whom are many who, he and they feel, have been left behind.
We’ll leave the last word with the Prime Minister, “When you fail to see that the liberal consensus that has held sway for decades has failed to maintain the consent of many people, you’re not the champion of liberalism but the enemy of it.
“And there is no contradiction between embracing globalisation, and saying it has to be managed to work for everyone.”
“Indeed, as anti-globalisation sentiment grows, it is incumbent on those of us in positions of leadership to respond: to make sense of the changing world around us and to shape a new approach that preserves the best of what works, and evolves and adapts what does not.”
We hope she means what she says, and can deliver on it.