Electrifying Europe to win over populists

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

People hold burning flags of EU and NATO during a protest against the EU in Sofia, Bulgaria 11 January 2018. [EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV]

Some years ago, Europhobes were a few solitary but loud people who said they wanted to wipe out the European Union. Things have changed: now they are many more and became more ambiguous about their wishes, writes Beatriz Becerra.

Beatriz Becerra is a Spanish MEP sitting with the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). She is vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament.

The reasons? The chaos caused by Brexit may be one, but there is actually another, more powerful one. The Eurobarometer reveals that a majority of European citizens do not want to leave the Union.

This is the case even in countries governed by national populism such as Hungary and Poland. In the last French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen dropped her proposal to abandon the euro.

Does this mean that Europeanists can relax? Not a chance. Populists still want to destroy the EU from the inside. How? Distorting it. Making it cease to be the great liberal pact, based on the rule of law and cooperation, inspired by human rights and heir to the Enlightenment. Weakening it until it no longer makes sense.

Therefore, they will not jump in the electoral arena screaming, “Let’s end the EU.” They will use immigration as their weapon. They pledge they are only against illegal immigration, while the likes of Macron and Merkel are encouraging what they claim is an invasion that will end traditional values.

A crooked and false framework does not deceive anyone, but morally sustains those who do not want to recognise themselves as racist or xenophobic.

They will try to make the 2019 elections about immigration. They believe it will maximize their outcome, and I fear they may be right. For a clear reason, Europeanists do not have many arguments to respond. We will appeal to the values, uncover their lies, we will call a spade a spade, but let us not fool ourselves: In these times none of this is a guarantee for success.

The fact is we have had five years to change migration policy, to reform the Dublin System and to make all member states jointly responsible, and we have not succeeded. This unfortunate failure can be attributed to national governments.

I will not say that us pro-Europeans should keep quiet about immigration. We must talk about this and any other issue. What I am saying is that our public discourse should already be revolving around a strong idea, a powerful message capable of moving, activating and mobilising the electorate.

Something that allows us to go on the offensive. The electoral race is not decided by who has the best arguments on each issue (if so, the populists would always lose), but by who decides what the debate is going to be about, what is going to be debated and on under what terms.

So what is this topic or idea that would put us at the head of the race and our electorate would respond to? In my opinion, we should put forward to Europeans that the Union must claim leadership of the free world, that it becomes a democratic giant.

That it takes over the role that United States president Donald Trump, has decided to vacate following his short-sighted nationalistic protectionism, without even realising all which his country is giving up on. Our goal must be to make Europe a great power during the next decades. Make this era a European one.

Needless to say, that to get to this strong and leading Europe, specific policies would be needed. We should be discussing a common security and defence policy, which would help us bypass American supervision, obtain political weight and avoid, in the future, the tragedy of war which has repercussions on our territory and throughout the world.

We should talk about eliminating the unanimity rule on matters related to foreign policy, so to stop the need for impossible consensus in order to make our voice heard or be held hostage by governments too close to Moscow.

And we should be talking about free trade while remembering Brussels’ ability to get business giants to contribute to maintaining the welfare state. The model we would offer to the world would be that of liberal democracy, the prosperity that trade brings and economic security for citizens.

Our attention is focused on populist politicians such as Salvini and Orbán, but beneath these figures, their pacts and their invectives, there have been others that are much more constructive. Just a few days ago, half a million people demonstrated in London to demand a new referendum on the terms of Brexit.

A year ago, Emmanuel Macron won the presidency standing on the base of a new organisation that was nourished mainly by young pro-Europeans and liberals. Emerging organisations such as Volt have the same profile, which seeks to present itself throughout the Union as a pro-European party and against populism.

I have been surprised by their strength and their capacity for growth.

The vast majority of voters know that small European countries have a very grim future if they act on their own in this world of belligerent giant players. If they opt for the retreat which the nationalists advocate, is because they see no better option.

It is not a matter of forgetting traditional European realism, quite the opposite: if we read reality correctly, we will understand that our citizens are crying out for a Europe that is as strong as it is democratic and that gives them hope, pride and security. Now is the time to offer it to them.

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