Populism is undermining international cooperation, not only in Britain

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by Hans Dembowski

Why Brexit would hurt international development

The citizens of the United Kingdom will vote in a referendum this week on whether to stay in the European Union or not. For several reasons, leaving the EU would hurt international development.

The EU and its members are the most important donors. Their efforts could be coordinated better, but they could also be much more incoherent. In the past two decades, Britain has been an important force for raising aid levels and improving aid effectiveness. If the British government no longer played its part in European policymaking, more fragmentation and less focused action seem likely.

Brexit would be detrimental in a more profound way as well. Sovereignty is a notion that does not fit well with the many challenges humanity is facing. No national government can tackle climate change on its own. Other issues that require international cooperation include infectious diseases, terrorism, organised crime, tax evasion, global financial stability and peace. All these areas of policymaking need collective action just as badly as efforts to fight hunger and poverty.

After World War II, regional integration in the EU has set an example of making peace by pooling sovereignty. By letting eastern European nations join, the EU has contributed to managing the transition for Soviet style communism peacefully. Letting this continental order unravel now would send the wrong message to a world that needs more international cooperation, not less. It would feed the romanticism of nationalist populism instead of promoting sober-minded analysis and compromises for the sake of the common good.

Populism, according to the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, is an ideology that pretends that there is such a thing as a homogenous people who make up a nation and who know what is normal and how things should be. This nation, it is assumed, is not affected by internal conflicts of interests, but is exploited by elites who have teamed up with undeserving minorities and the anti-social underclass. Populists, according to Müller, claim to represent the people’s will directly and dispute the legitimacy of all other political forces.

I’ll be writing more about Müller and the way he deals with anti-pluralistic and anti-democratic populism soon. At this point, I only want to point out what kind of populism is currently affecting many countries. Donald Trump in the USA or Marine le Pen in France are examples, and so are Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Narendra Modi in India. Germany’s AfD, Austria’s FPÖ and Poland’s PiS are parties that thrive on this kind of ideology as well. They all have in common that they do not engage in reasoned debate with opponents, but prefer to demonise their opponents and make promises of national grandeur that don’t give scope for cooperation with others.

In Britain, the Brexit camp does not have a single charismatic leader. It does not need one. The proponents of leaving have nonetheless created a climate of fear and anger. It is true that none of their prominent political leaders wanted Jo Cox, the pro-EU Labour MP who was murdered last week, to be killed. But they must accept some blame for making many Britons believe that their freedom is at risk. Asked to say his name in court, Cox’s killer answered: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” The mere idea that someone who has a different vision of Britain’s future is at traitor is anti-pluralistic – but typical of populism.

The EU is not a perfect union. It has serious downsides. It could perform better in terms of living up to human-rights principles, for instance. Moreover, instead of ensuring social protection for all its people in times of need, member states have been forced to dismantle welfare institutions in the course of the euro crisis. No doubt, the EU needs reform. But it is odd that anyone should really believe that weakening the EU could somehow boost human rights or welfare-state institutions anywhere in the world.  

Source: Jan-Werner Müller, 2016: Was ist Populismus? (What is populsim? – only available in German) Berlin: Suhrkamp.

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