Populism vs. European Union

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While the ongoing financial crisis slowly destroys the dream of Jean Monnet, the chief architect of the European Coal and Steal Community (i.e. the predecessor of the European Union), more and more European leaders and parties turn to populism rather than pragmatism when talking about the future of the Union. In this regard, clearly Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orban and the UK Conservatives are among the ones to watch.

The United Kingdom, to put it mildly, was never a keen proponent of the European Union. This is even more true when one talks about the UK Conservatives. (A funny fact though is that the country joined the European Community under a conservative PM, Edward Heath.) But since then the British right has been trying its upmost to force the UK’s departure from an Ever Closer Union. Of course, it is obvious that their efforts were not successful. However, it would be foolish to say that their ideas and beliefs did not resonate with the British public; because, quite frankly, they did very much! To take just one notable example, last week The Daily Telegraph published Mark Pritchard’s (conservative backbencher) intriguing article on the EU, showing euroscepticism at its best.

In it, Mr Pritchard derives two important conclusions: 1) the UK should leave the European Union because it effectively occupies Britain and thus destroys its national sovereignity; and 2) the EU forces British tax payers to finance debt-riden Greece and other Mediterranean member states. Mr Pritchard thinks that his explanation and conclusions are credible but in my view, they are not. I am not saying that he is wrong in everything what he says. For example, I can surely support the UK conservatives when they say that the EU is running a huge democratic deficit and because of this, clearly, it is sometimes out of touch with the problems of its citizens. But to say that the EU is occupying the UK and that British tax payers are handing out money to lazy Greeks is simply not true. First, the UK is not financing Greece because it is not included in the European Financial Stability Facility. Second, it is not loosing its sovereignty because of the EU, it only looses it because it voluntarily joined the Union back in the 1970s.

It is also worth noting that many well known anti-EU MPs (like Daniel Hannan) are saying that UK exports to EU member states can be replaced by exports to booming emerging markets. In fact, this particular explanation is false as well because EU exports cannot be substituted with emerging market exports: just consider that the UK’s trade volume with Ireland alone is bigger than with the BRIC countries combined. Notwithstanding that, it seems to me that British politicians will never be sympatethic to the EU, even if the facts (all of them) would lie on the EU’s side. Quite interestingly, however, a ComRes/BBC2 poll published in the latest issue of Total Politics, a British current affairs magazine, found that 55 per cent of the UK public supports the countries membership in the EU. Ooops.

Now let us turn our attention to Hungary and Viktor Orban. Formerly a liberal leaning politician, now turned conservative, Mr Orban is one of the key bashers of the EU on its Eastern borders. Hungary’s PM was not always like this as his anti-EU rethoric only emerged during his period in opposition (between 2002-2010); before that, he was a champion of EU / NATO membership. Of course, one can say that politics is not for the faint-hearted. But I believe, most of todays problems on the EU’s side is largely caused by a helpless European political class, painfully short of politicians who are willing to act, and willing to tell the truth to their citizens. In this regard, Mr Orban is no exception because he is trying, like many of his counterparts, to blame all the problems of his country on the EU and the previous (Socialist) government. In the latter case, he is quite right. But in the former, he is wrong. Firstly, because Hungary’s existing economic and political agony is also caused by the mismanagement of the current cabinet (i.e. they do not have a clue how to solve the previous government’s fault or if they do, they are hiding it from the public eye). And secondly, because putting the blame on the EU only makes Hungary look bad as everybody knows that we, not Brussels screwed it. So one can only ask EU leaders for less populism and more pragmatism, because without it, they may well destroy a peaceful future that Jean Monnet tried to build for us all.

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