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The EU and populism

My Europe: It's time to make Europe great again!

Europeans should get their continent back before the likes of Steve Bannon take it, writes Romanian analyst and consultant Radu Magdin. He believes the key ingredients are courage, emotion, empathy and responsibility.

With balance a European virtue, one cannot help noticing that the world seems more unbalanced than ever, at least by the standards of the last 30 years. Allies are called foes and diversification is on everyone's mind due to the feeling of global uncertainty in the air. Improved European capabilities and sovereignty are increasingly the talk of the town, in Brussels and other European Union capitals.

It is also rare to see such overt provocation around the European project, with US President Donald Trump's "exit" encouragements and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon's recently announced plans to establish a foundation in Europe that he hopes will fuel the spread of right-wing populism across the continent.   

It's time for Europeans — and particularly mainstream EU statesmen and women — to make Europe great again, and get their continent back, before the likes of Bannon take it. In May 2019, the three main political families in the European Parliament — the European People's Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) — will be faced with EU-wide elections. This makes any European mainstream comeback even more pressing.

Europe needs to clearly position itself: Are we defenders (as opposed to disrupters) or reformers of the current world order, under assault from Trump, Vladimir Putin's Russia and other countries? In the famous words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change," so embracing "reform" is a must.      

Mainstream European players need to regain their ability to control the political narrative and doing it will require an integrated strategy that involves three "Rs:" rebuilding, reframing, and rewording.Regaining moral ascendancy and reclaiming and redefining the new political common sense will take political imagination and courage and, in the end, a smart containment strategy that will cut off the sources of growth for fringe politics.

Watch video 01:59

Steve Bannon addresses France's far-right party congress

Read more: Opinion: Steve Bannon attacking the EU from the right 

Rebuilding: We need a new social contract

The time has come for the EPP, S&D and ALDE parties to acknowledge what is needed to reshape the political discourse and direction the EU is headed in, and translate that into effective policies. The fact that each election is fought under the threat of slaying the sacred cows of liberal democracy and neoliberalism should trigger not only a political readjustment, but a total rethink of how our democracies incorporate citizen feedback. The voters are disgruntled with how the benefits of globalization are distributed and with how internationalization and the free movement of capital has shrunk social safety nets. Inequality is more than a buzzword, it is a reality and those who continue to ignore it at the political and policy levels will pay a hefty price.

Putting in place the mechanisms of a neo-embedded liberalism, thus finding a new working equilibrium between market forces and society, is potentially the first and most important step in rebuilding mainstream politics. Addressing the issues that are on people's minds — how to make sure that globalization works for all, how to imagine better immigration policies able to diffuse economic and cultural fears, how to reach a working relationship between internationalization and economic nationalism — is not a luxury, but a necessity.

We need a new social contract. The mantra of a "Europe that protects" can work if we consider that an attack on the fringe is the best strategy. Idleness will otherwise make the populists score points with "Fortress Europe."

Reframing: Being popular, not populist

The often simplistic answers that radical parties have proposed to today's national and international predicaments expose a lack of differentiation between the left and right. The space of political competition has become very narrow and mainstream politics has lost the ability to tell big and relevant stories. Out of the public space, politics has found refuge behind closed doors, it has become technical, soulless and emotionless, subject to enhanced control by (sometimes illegitimate) interest groups. One of the key lessons of the last two decades is that politics has to regain its relevance in the mind of the voters and this cannot be done without mainstream parties abandoning the comfort of the old consensus and putting forward visions and policies that are not only coherent, but also distinguishable from what the other political forces are proposing.

Frankreich Steve Bannon und Marine Le Pen in Lille (Getty Images/S. Lefevre)

Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen: What can be done to counter populism?

We need more principle-based and value-based politics — in a nutshell, re-ideologization. It is not easy to re-politicize issues that have been taken out of political competition and handed over to experts, while at the same time, making sure that they don't destroy the minimum consensus required for us to function as democratic societies. Conducted properly, this strategy will allow the isolation of populist and nationalist forces and will direct the attention of the voters towards a new center. The objective is for mainstream politics to be popular without being caught in the trap of populism.   

Read more: The problem is populism, not just Italy 

Rewording: A new language, more emotions and stories

A new politics would not be complete without repackaging, without a new language and a new vocabulary. We should pay more attention to how the political brain functions, to how fundamental emotions, myths and stories are to everyone's attempts to be part of the political conversation. More than ever, we need a balance between narrating the complexity of the world we live in (by complicating the narratives and by finding new angles to tell stories and to solve conflicts) and the good old KISS ("Keep it short and simple!") strategy. The new equilibrium won't be possible without key ingredients such as emotion, empathy, courage, assuming responsibility and taking ownership. 

To remain relevant and to overcome the rise of populism and nationalism, the new mainstream politics is required to align substance, spin and style. Many would stop after coming up with the appropriate policy solutions to the issues that cause so much tension and unease among voters, but this would not be enough. Unless seduction and hope is part of the recipe (what Emmanuel Macron accomplished to get elected French president), the politics of fear will prevail. Certainly, a different path is possible in rekindling the relationship between mainstream politics and voters. European elections will prove the key battleground in this sense. EPP, S&D and ALDE need to get things right if they want to remain the leading political families in Europe.

Radu Magdin is a Romanian analyst and consultant. He worked as an honorary advisor to the Romanian prime minister (2014-2015) and also advised the Moldovan prime minister (2016-2017). Between 2007 and 2012, he worked in Brussels with the European Parliament, EurActiv and Google. He is a Forbes Romania Trendsetter and a NATO Emerging Leader with the Atlantic Council of the United States. 

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