Caught in the Middle

For a small two decades now, Russia has been ruled by Vladimir Putin. During this reign, he developed from a rather uninspiring, quiet bureaucrat into a strongly nationalist president with the tendency to blame all that goes wrong in Russia on the West.  For just over a month now, Donald Trump has been the new president of the United States. While Putin and his government took a good ten years to develop an exclusive nationalist doctrine, Donald Trump immediately presented the world with a same type of nationalism in his first month. Europe is – almost traditionally – caught in the middle. The question is, is Europe on the same route as the US and Russia as far as nationalism is concerned?

Borders slowly diminished, relative distances became much smaller, and the world is down at our feet. For well-educated, relatively wealthy people (the elite), the globe is our playing field and travelling half a year through Latin America or Southeast Asia is simply a ticket away. We buy products fabricated in Asia because production there makes the products cheaper. We are cosmopolitans and see, through travel and education, how the world works, which structures are in place, how different people live and how civilisations have developed. In other words, for educated people, travelling across the globe, this world knows very limited borders and holds many opportunities. In other words, the elite is the so-called winner of globalisation. There is, however, a completely different tails-side to the coin of globalisation. The side that represents the ‘losers of modernity’ as they are called within the political sciences. For them, globalisation has led to a loss of jobs, loss of identity and loss of security.

In a matter of half a century, the borders within Europe were cut away, first economically, later politically. This means a significant amount of political and economic decisions are not taken on a national level anymore but on a general European scale. The variety in types of decisions made by Europe is too big to sum up and also not that relevant, but the point is that national governments have given up a part of their sovereignty in order to make the European Union function as it does now. The problem here is that for many people Europe or the European Union is a very abstract institution, one that doesn’t seem to be held accountable for the decisions it makes. Despite the fact that the European parliament is democratically elected, not many feel represented by the people in that parliament. A fact that resurfaces every time during European elections, since by far not as many people vote in these elections as do in local, regional or national elections.

For many people, the borders within Europe have not diminished at all, at least in their minds. For instance, the Dutch people perceive Germany as Germany, not as another part of the same Europe. For these people, Germany or Belgium might be similar to the Netherlands culturally and historically, to a certain extent. But when it is about Poland, Hungary or Romania, these people feel disconnected from what they are supposed to perceive as one of their own. The Kantian idea of the European project is that by breaking down borders, trade would make differences within Europe go away and bring perpetual peace to the continent. An appealing idea for a continent which has been war-torn its entire existence. However, the fact that Polish or Romanian people do the same job for half of the Dutch salaries, means that a lot of jobs, offices and opportunities – especially for lower educated work – have been outsourced. The logic behind this is simple, businesses look for the lowest costs and highest revenues. If a Polish person does the same job for half the price, why wouldn’t you move production to Poland? What is left in the Netherlands is a workforce of low-educated people who cannot compete with their Polish colleagues, while still having to pay for the high cost of living in the Netherlands. In that light, it is no wonder they perceive breaking down borders as something damaging. The coming of Polish craftsmen, the outsourcing of administrative jobs to that same Poland and Hungary, it is all made possible by the freedoms granted to businesses by the EU. For the people who saw their offices move from Woerden to Budapest, who saw their neighbour hiring a handyman from Gdynia instead of Kerkrade, a Trumpian wall between Germany and Poland might not even sound like such a bad idea.

Seeing your wealth being taken away, seeing villages empty out, not being able to pay your monthly bills anymore, it doesn’t make you happy. More likely you are angry, but you cannot put your finger on who is to blame. Until there is a woman or a man, who speaks in your language – simple, and not how politicians usually speak. They tell you that they will bring the borders back again. Jobs will come back for the normal people, not just the rich bastards from the wealthy big cities. It will be harder for Polish or Romanian workers to come to the Netherlands again to ‘take our jobs’. Such promises, such perspectives give hope. It is the appeal of nationalism.

The election of Donald Trump showed many people that politicians actually can govern effectively. A lot of people look at Trump and Putin, and whilst maybe not agreeing on their policies, they see two leaders who get things done. These people see in Wilders or Le Pen the same type of leaders, people of action rather than words. The fact that Trump and Putin can rule by Presidential decree, and Wilders and Le Pen would have to form political coalitions with other, far less radical parties seems just a minor detail. Either way, Trump and Putin have inspired people in Western Europe to vote against the European Union. They did so despite the fact that a vote for a Wilders or Le Pen is far less effective as the same vote for a Trump or a Putin. The message is the same though: for many people globalisation, and the EU specifically, has been a curse, rather than a blessing. It would be good for the elite to pick up on this before people like Wilders and Le Pen decide to take their movements out of the democratic process and start fighting their causes in less favourable ways.

– Martijn Groenewold


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