It is a phantasy to believe national sovereignty can apply to everything

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by Hans Dembowski

Why populists struggle to form cross-border alliances

Insisting on national sovereignty is not the key to solving international problems. That is evident in world regions as different as Europe and the Middle East. While right-wing populists are good at challenging the status quo, they do not offer long-term solutions. Let me explain.

The British government and the EU have now reached a formal agreement on how Britain will exit the EU. Nobody in Britain likes it. The Brexiteers had promised to “take back control”, especially of their borders. They obviously failed to consider the logical implication of the EU taking control of its borders too. The promise to the British public was to keeping all the benefits of EU membership (especially the single market) whilst getting rid of all the downsides. That was always nonsense.

The underlying issue is that no country can handle all major challenges on its own. Trade policy requires partners, and partners have ideas and interests of their own. Britain’s Remainers are right to point out that the Brexit agreement reached now is detrimental to British interests compared to the status quo. For the time being, their country will have to follow rules that it has no influence on, and that will stay that way until the EU and Britain conclude a new trade agreement. And no, that new trade agreement will not set Britain free to do as ever its government pleases at any given time. There will again be common rules that bind all partners, and once again the EU will prove to have the stronger hand in the negotiations.

The right-wing phantasy of national sovereignty applying to all matters is indeed a phantasy. It is shared by many populists internationally, however, and some observers believe they will somehow all team up. I don’t think that will happen. The obvious thing is that the vision of populists from one nation will clash with those of its neighbours. Its already happening in the EU context.

Germany’s political parties are preparing for the European election next year. Some argue that the respective parties from various member countries will join forces, and the populists themselves love to pretend they will do so. I recently heard a leader of Germany’s AfD on the radio. He said he was looking forward to cooperating with Italy’s Lega party, arguing that it had a similarly “modern approach” to European affairs.

In truth, the two parties are worlds apart on an essential issue. The Lega is part of the coalition that is currently governing Italy, and it wants to increase the nation’s deficit spending in order to end the economic slump. The AFD, by contrast, is fundamentally opposed to any member of the euro zone borrowing more money. The Lega and AfD may agree that they don’t want people from Asia or Africa to come to Europe, but that is about it. They do not share a vision concerning Europe’s future.

The Lega, moreover, is involved in a tough dispute with the FPÖ, the Austrian populist party. The reason is that the FPÖ wants to grant the Austrian citizenship to the members of Italy’s German-speaking minority. Of course, the mere idea offends Italian populists.

There are many more such frictions in Europe. Poland’s populist PIS government wants the rights of Polish migrants to be protected in Britain, but masses of Polish migrants were one reason why British populists voted to leave the EU. No, the PIS will certainly not forge a lasting alliance with Brexiteers. By the way, neither the Polish government nor its equally populist Hungarian counterpart really want borders to be closed. That would stop masses of young people from  migrating from their countries. Oh, and a majority of Polish people actually appreciates the EU very much and are proud of their country’s membership. 

Germany’s AFD, moreover, tends to belittle our country’s disastrous Nazi past. The crimes committed by the Nazis, however, are perhaps the most important reason that allows the PIS to claim that its country is entitled to European subsidies. Xenophobia simply does not constitute a shared agenda, especially when mutual resentments are becoming spelled out more frequently.

The great challenge today is to draft international policies in ways that serve the interests of all nations. And yes, nations actually share many interests. We all need peace, for example. Another global financial crisis will hurt everyone, and so will unmitigated climate change. Putting the national interest first, does not solve any of these problems. International cooperation can make a difference, however, but it won’t work with everyone putting narrowly understood national interests “first”.

This is not only true in Europe, of course. If it weren’t so serious, it would actually be amusing to watch the confusion US President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach is causing in the Middle East. Claiming to fight Islamist terrorism, he reinforced the USA’s Alliance with Saudi Arabia. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian monarchy has a history of sponsoring Islamist terrorism. That served its national interest as understood by the monarchy. Trump’s insistence that Iran is the hub of Islamist extremism is wrong.

Iran is merely centre of Shia fundamentalism, whereas Saudi Arabia is historically the centre of a specific kind of Sunni fundamentalism. It is true that it has, in recent years, disowned Al Qaida and ISIS, but we should not forget that it was the Saudis’ extremist Wahhabism that spawned them.   

Making matters more complicated, the Wahhabism ideology is at loggerheads with the Muslim Brothers, who promote the other important kind of politicised Sunni Islam. Before the Arab spring, the Saudis were happy to support the Muslim Brothers, but the monarchy was terrified when they actually rose to power in Egypt. The reason was that the Muslim Brothers do not care much for Saudi Arabian claims to faith leadership. They have their own reading of the Scriptures, know their region’s colonial history and winning elections made them self-confident. By contrast, the Saudis insist on running a monarchy by Allah’s grace rather than thanks to voters’ choices. The resent the mere idea of elections.   

The Muslim Brothers were only in power for one year in Cairo. They were then toppled by the military, and the Saudis supported that coup. The Muslim Brothers were declared terrorists, and some of them have since indeed joined extremist militias. It is nonetheless absurd to claim that all Muslim Brothers are terrorists.

Making matters more complicated, Turkey’s governing party AKP has its roots in the brotherhood. President Recep Tayyep Erdogan is just as fond of displaying his solidarity with the victims of Cairo’s coup as he is proud to demonstrate his distance from Saudi Arabia. The national interest of Saudi Arabia in Syria’s Civil War is to topple or at least diminish the power of president Bashar Assad, who belongs to a sheer minority. Erdogan’s priority is to keep the check on the Kurdish minority in Syria, because he feels threatened by Kurdish nationalism.

Long before Jamal Kashoggi, the exiled journalist, was murdered in the Saudi Embassy Istanbul, observers knew that Turkish and Saudi interests are very hard to reconcile, and that the shared Sunni religion does not make a difference. The atrocious murder has nonetheless made it obvious that the Saudi government has no intention of respecting American values such as the freedom of the press. Given that Kashoggi was a legal resident of the USA, killing him was a sign of disrespect towards Washington. President Trump is facing serious criticism because of it now, and he is being ridiculed for still insisting that he is putting America first while refusing to take a stand on what happened in the embassy. Does anyone really believe encouraging dictators to perpetrate murders in NATO countries serves the interests of the USA?

I could go on like this for a long time, pointing out why Qatar and Turkey get along quite well with one another, and why their approach to Iran is totally different from Saudi Arabia’s. Discussing to what extent Turkey, a NATO member, has become a difficult non-democratic ally, would be interesting too. Another relevant aspect is that it is now the Russian government that all Middle Eastern countries can relate to. That used to be the role of the US administration. All of these issues are quite complex and interrelated, but I guess you get my point anyway: Simply putting the “national interest” as imagined by leaders first, does not lead to lasting solutions.

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