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2 November, 2018  ▪  Philippe de Lara

Populist panic

Do we see an understanding of the Russian threat in the European Union?

In previous articles for Tyzhden, I expressed concern for the gross underestimation of the populist disruption among EU’s elites until recently. This mood has dramatically changed, and populism is now at the center of the agenda of UE politicians and public opinions. The anger against elites unable to protect their society from growing inequalities, cultural insecurity and the flaws of the integration of migrants, once considered as irrational fear and discontent of the populace, is now taken seriously. For obvious reasons. Governments and even the political institutions of EU and of several member states are in great jeopardy: Germany, Austria, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, without forgetting United Kingdom which, despite Brexit, still belongs to the family. Populist parties not only came to power in some member states (Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy), but have gained a disruptive power in all of them: they block the formation of moderate majority or coalition, or destabilize from the inside traditional parties, notably the Tories in UK and the center-right Les Républicains (LR) in France, both on the verge of explosion. 

So acute awareness of the crisis came after neglect, but it might not be an improvement. EU leadership is now actively taking care of this situation, but in a frantic and disorderly manner, which I would like to call a populist panic. In August, after the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, EU’s governments seemed for a brief moment willing to improve their coordination to cope with strategic issues: European defense, migration crisis, Russian threat, Euro policy. But EU’s governance is now in disarray, plagued by inner divisions (rather, inability to cope efficiently with divisions) and by pusillanimity towards Russia, sometimes a major threat, sometimes an inescapable partner.

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The cause of this situation is not mysterious. The rot starts at the top. United States are not anymore what they used to be, the leader of the Western world and the cornerstone of European security. American democracy is in crisis. Trump’s election is more than an accident. American pluralism has turned into radical oppositions on public interest and on values: inequalities, women’s rights, race and minorities issues, role of the State, free trade, etc. Radicalized and marginalized, the two great parties and the Congress itself are no longer able to check and balance a president spreading post-truth politics, daily attacking press and justice, two pillars of American democracy, to protect his corrupted associates and himself from various criminal charges, notably the “Russiagate”. Even moderate and hard-boiled analysts incline with good reasons to the darkest predictions, like Paul Krugman: “I don’t think most political commentators have grasped how deep the rot goes. I don’t think they understand, or at any rate admit to themselves, that democracy really could die just a few months from now.” (New York Times, August 18). The noose of the Russiagate is tightening, yet America’s drift towards illiberal democracy seems irresistible. “The more we prove this guy is an asshole, the more assholes love him”, says a satiric drawing by Xavier Gorce in Le Monde

US situation goes along with a constant growth of populist parties in Europe, which has proved devastating in recent elections (Germany, Sweden) and which could be even more devastating at the election of the European Parliament in May 2019. Even in France, where Macron’s election seemed to be a defeat of populism, Macron’s party LREM (La République en Marche) is beaten in pools by the Far Right: LREMand RN (Rassemblement National, the former Front National) are roughly even, 21,5% and 21%, but with RN’s ally Debout la France (DLF), and two small anti-European parties, the Far Right is close to 30%. All these parties are of course overtly pro-Russian, as well as the leftist LFI of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at 12,5%.

No wonder if Europeans lose their senses. But “fear does not avoid danger” and EU governments are jumping into it. The two major symptoms of EU leadership’s disarray are its unfortunate reaction towards illiberal member states and its desperate attempts to normalize its relations with Russia. After years of blindness and complacency towards illiberal Austria, Hungary and Poland, and corrupted Rumania and Bulgaria, EU suddenly adopted a clumsy policy of threat and humiliation which is bound to have the reverse effect and further weakens EU’s governance. If EU is not able to reason with its black sheeps through discussion and efficient pressure, what is its point? Significantly, Merkel rightly disapproved Macron’s attack against Orban, but she is herself impotent in front of the NS2 disaster, although she is well aware of its corrupting effect on German establishment and on Europe’s independence. Too rough with its black sheeps, too soft with Russia, EU display unreasonable naïve expectations, as if normalizing relations and be friendlier with Russia could be a remedy to its problems. For example, president Macron claims that it would be a smart move to involve Russia in the cyber-security challenge. His point is that a wider coalition of countries is essential and that it could bring Russia to a more virtuous attitude and slow down its unbound use of cyber weapons. Who can seriously believe that? Naturally, Ukraine is the main subject and victim of this realignment. It is becoming conventional wisdom, beyond traditionally pro-Russian circles, that the sanctions do not really hurt Russia and spoil Russia-EU relation in all domains without counterpart, and that we should try something else. “Let us talk with Russians” as they say, let us admit their regional concerns and their legitimate pride to bring them back to the table. It is better to be Russia’s client than its enemy. Paradoxically, the more EU leaders realize that we are indeed facing a new Cold War, the more they react cowardly. Since the Russian aggressions against Georgia then Ukraine, this tendency has always existed among Europeans and has mitigated the policy of support to Ukraine and of sanctions against Russia. But it is now amplified by the populist panic, which literally forces EU leaders into the arms of Putin, in a blend of submission and unreasonable hopes of normalization.

The Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol), a foremost French think tank, titled its last event “The Leap Forward”, asking, with a somehow desperate tone, for a “burst of liberal democracies toward a new transatlantic alliance”. Fondapol published an interesting opinion survey for the occasion on “French people in front of the democratic crisis”. Significantly the focus is on the trust vis-à-vis the United States, compared with other countries. Asked if they consider a country as “an ally or a reliable partner”, respondents give to Germany a score of 89%, 61% to United Kingdom, 44% to the US, 22% to Russia. 50% consider Russia rather unreliable, 28% unreliable at all. Evolutions in time are eloquent: Germany had a 65% reliability rate in 1994, 81% in 2017: French people rely on Germany more than ever, despite recent political disagreements. UK was at 68% in 2014, 46% in 2017 (after the Brexit), but climbs back up to 61%. United Sates drowned from 77% in 2014 to 38% in 2017, and slightly recovered at 44% in 2018. Russia had a 38% trust rate in 2004, 12% in 2104, 18% in 2017 and 22% now, a mixed but not disastrous result. Predictably, sympathy for Russia is much higher among far-right voters: 32% for RN, 45% for its ally DLF. It is above average for the center right LR (28%), meanwhile leftist voters do not follow their outrageously pro-Kremlin leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at 19%. LREM and all left voters score under the average. In France, pro-Russian bent is nowadays a conservative and far right thing. The red-brown pro-Russian connection seems less effective than in other countries. To the question whether America is a friendly or unfriendly country for coping with Russia, answers are even. The same to the question of the reliability of USA for the security of NATO members. These results are by and large representative of public opinion in other Western Europe countries. To put it in a nutshell: people do not share political leaders’ populist panic but seems equally uncertain about Russia. The former do not see the de facto state of war between Europe and Russia, the later finally realized it but react as scared children instead of statesmen. 

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In the meantime, Ukraine remains desperately under the radar of Western Europeans, chiefly because Russia propaganda managed to give to a nasty and cruel war the appearance of a truce. Once again, Ukraine is the place where the fate of Europe is at stake: the temptation to respond to the populist panic by yielding to Russia is fueled by the ignorance or denial of Ukraine’s existence as a genuine nation and therefore of the violent tragedy that would follow from Ukraine’s relapse under Russian domination. Conversely, a breakthrough in reforms and efficient government in Ukraine would be vital to strengthen not only interest and support for Ukraine, but also the awareness of the new Cold War and the determination of EU to face the enemy. Once again, a huge weight bears on Ukraine who already pays alone blood money for the freedom of Europe. It is immensely unfair, but this is how things are. 

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