The EU needs more than an information campaign to beat populism


Picture of Corrado Pirzio-Biroli
Corrado Pirzio-Biroli

Executive Chairman of the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE) Foundation and former European commission official

Corrado Pirzio-Biroli is a former European Commission official who served in the private offices of Commission President Gaston Thorn and Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler. In the occasional series of ‘Counterpoint’ articles, he responds to Giles Merritt’s Frankly Speaking column on defeating populism. Read the original article here

To defeat populism, the European Union is undoubtedly in need of an information policy that is more relevant to its citizens. However, the outcome of implementing such policy, even with the right amount of emotion, is not guaranteed.

This information policy-focused approach has two key obstacles. First, as Giles Merritt rightly points out, the EU institutions operate in a very discreet and reserved manner. This does not constitute a fertile breeding ground for a more open, emotion-based information strategy which puts citizens at its core. The Commission has been notably fearful of allowing its staff to talk more freely and informally, in particular due to the risks of being criticised by the member states. I tried to convince a Commissioner in charge of information before, to mention the need for a new style of delivery in a report on information but in vain.

The second obstacle in the fight against populism is not any less significant. The growing socio-economic gap between citizens – between the haves and the haves not – in member states and in Europe in general is disgraceful, to say the least. Quoting Giles Merritt, the term ‘populism’ was coined in the 19th century rural America, when farmers were protesting against banks and capitalism. It was the depredation of these “Robber barrons” that created populism in the first place, and the same thing is happening again now in the 21st century.

Information policy-focused approach to defeat populism has two key obstacles

The key difference between today and the 19th century is the lack of leadership. Otto von Bismarck’s rule and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal project are just some examples of past actions in times of crisis. We do not have such leaders anymore. And while populists can offer no real solutions either, they inevitably prosper in the current political context, and not just thanks to the role and significance of the internet.

Unless the EU publicly admits its weaknesses – necessary to more credibly sell its strengths –, returns to a form of ‘soziale Marktwirtschaft’, market economy with welfare state elements, and distributes income following the example set by the 1970s-style capitalism, trying to “better explain” the EU and its achievements will be of no help in defeating populists. Those of us who believe in free trade must open our eyes and understand that we have to also deal with the sometimes negative social consequences of further trade liberalisation and acknowledge the scandalous riches of the modern-day digital companies. Failing to do so will ring the death-knell to our democracies.

Pursuing negotiations for an EU-MERCOSUR free trade agreement is a policy of yesterday. If we want to avoid returning to protectionism, we must set a moratorium on any additional free trade agreements. But as most supporters of free trade fail to understand this, they are shooting themselves in the foot. Criss-crossing the world with more and more similar products has serious consequences in terms of emissions, to say the least.

Politics is the art of the possible. It should seek compromise between the positive and the negative. If we ignore the latter, we are heading towards an eventual political suicide for democracies and non-democracies alike, with one difference: autocracies will last longer thanks to the element of control, but eventually, they will face a revolution of their own too.

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