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21st Feb 2020

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Column The benefits of being unpopular
Oslo, 11. Sep 2019, 09:03
Recently the French radio station France Culture invited a German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, for a two-hour breakfast interview.

The entire conversation was about Europe, one of these nice tours d'horizon European broadcasters hardly ever do anymore.

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  • Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
They talked about the notion of 'Europe', the European elections, the Franco-German axis, the 'yellow-vest' protests, and the future of European welfare states.

Towards the end the interviewer asked how important it is for the EU to become more popular.

He probably expected Sloterdijk to say: very important, without more public support the EU may implode – or something like that.

Instead, the philosopher replied: "Well, paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but to a certain extent this is good. When emotions are running too high in politics, hotheads may take over. This can lead to revolutions and wars."

He has a point.

Of course it is important that European citizens understand what the EU is about, what it does and what is has achieved; it is deeply problematic that many citizens have no clue or don't seem to care.

Moreover, one of Europe's biggest handicaps is that national governments never invest enough in the EU to make it perform well, and afterwards blame 'Brussels' for mediocre outcomes.

But then – and this is of course what Sloterdijk was getting at – look at the unfolding Brexit saga in the UK: if emotions and utopian scenarios start dominating politics the result can be far more disastrous.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French philosopher and essayist who grew up in a world torn by religious struggles, used to say that improving the world is wonderful, as long as you do it one small step at the time.

As a child, Montaigne had seen a man being lynched by a mob. His family had to move to safety several times.

As a result he strongly disliked zealots and revolutionaries, whatever cause they championed. He distrusted anyone advocating a radical overthrow of the existing order.

It is better to change society gradually, Montaigne argued, on the go - evaluating achievements and mistakes periodically, making adjustments along the way.

To him, good politicians must be patient and realistic, possess a healthy dose of self-doubt, and believe in compromise. In countries with such leaders, citizens often have better life.

One wonders what Iran would look like today, had Iranians used some of this wisdom back in 1979. Many opponents of the current regime are still traumatised by the revolution, wanting to avoid another one at all cost.

Pragmatism vs Perfectionism
No one can better explain how catastrophic the 'Nirvana fallacy' is – the deceptive belief in paradise on earth – than the citizens of Iran.

But the Brexit story is becoming rather instructive, too.

The story of how a nation was taken for a ride by a small group of free-market utopians, whipping up popular sentiment with lies and fairy tales, will keep political scientists busy for decades to come – not to mention the management of the inevitable hangover.

For the dream of a fully sovereign society, free from interference from Brussels, will be impossible to realise.

The UK is at the doorstep of the largest market in the world. 50 percent of the country's exports currently goes to the EU, compared to just 16 percent to the US.

If London stops following EU internal market rules for food, plastics, chemicals, etc, its major trade flows will be disrupted immediately.

This is when the famous 'soft power' of the EU comes into play: its regulatory power, also known as 'the Brussels effect', is recognised and feared all over the world.

Third-countries like Switzerland, Norway, or Turkey copy a raft of EU regulation over which they have no say. Full sovereignty, for them, is confined to a few carefully chosen areas.

By leaving the EU the UK doesn't gain more sovereignty. Rather the opposite: it will lose sovereignty because it will no longer be able to influence or block the European policies it must implement.

This may not be exactly what 'the people' want. But it is what life as a third country outside the EU is like. If the UK leaves the EU on October 31st without a 'deal', it will probably come knocking at its doors quickly again to avert further disruption to trade, the economy and public services.

Perhaps Sloterdijk was wrong.

Politics needs emotions and some drama, otherwise citizens cannot engage. It is good news that the European elections were more widely and hotly debated than ever, and that turnout was a lot higher than last time.

But the wider point the German philosopher was trying to make still holds true. When emotions are running too high in politics, hothead revolutionaries in pursuit of an ideal world may take over. The main lesson of Brexit is that this ideal world does not exist.

  Author bio
Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

  Disclaimer
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

, your membership gives you access to all of our stories. We highly appreciate your support and value your feedback. If you have any thoughts on this story, we would love to hear it. 

UK: light goes out in House of Commons 10. Sep 2019, 09:10
British MPs again rejected Boris Johnson's call for an early election, as the parliament began its five-week suspension period. The prime minister said he would refuse to ask for a Brexit delay - despite the law demanding it.

Johnson defeated as MPs push anti no-deal Brexit bill 5. Sep 2019, 09:25
MPs took control of Brexit after pushing through a bill aimed to prevent a no-deal Brexit, while Johnson's call for early elections has also been defeated.

Macron and Le Pen compete for 'yellow vest' votes 14. Jan 2019, 09:26
French leader Macron and far-right leader Le Pen have reached out to 'yellow vest' protesters, as debate on the EU elections heats up in France and Germany.

Column Keep an eye on the Swiss! 4. Dec 2019, 08:49
So many things are happening in Europe that many of us will have missed the small political earthquake that took place in Switzerland recently.

Column Why nations are egomaniacs 8. Jan, 07:05
A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Why Miroslav Lajčák is the wrong choice for EU envoy Today, 07:08
The EU could blow up the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations' reset. Should Miroslav Lajčák indeed be appointed, the two senior EU diplomats dealing with Kosovo would both come from the small minority of member states that do not recognise Kosovo.

News in Brief
  1. Today, 18:06 Bulgarian PM investigated over 'money laundering'
  2. Today, 16:46 Greenpeace breaks into French nuclear plant
  3. Today, 16:29 Germany increases police presence after shootings
  4. Today, 15:30 NGO: US and EU 'watering-down' tax reform prior to G20
  5. Today, 07:27 Iran: parliamentary elections, conservatives likely to win
  6. Today, 07:26 Belgian CEOs raise alarm on political crisis
  7. Today, 07:18 Germans voice anger on rise of far-right terrorism
  8. Today, 00:13 EU leaders' budget summit drags on overnight
The bright side of 'Brexit Day' for the rest of the EU 27. Jan, 07:00
Britain's withdrawal from the Union on the 31st of January is a good thing for the EU, even if Brexit as such is not.

Second-hand cars flaw in EU Green Deal 24. Jan, 07:34
The moment Europe revels in its carbon-free transport system, most of the cars that emitted too much for EU standards will still be driving around for years somewhere else in the world.

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