15. März 2016

Let’s not rationalize the irrational

Taking European citizens’ concerns about “the foreign” seriously does not imply to uncritically adopt them. It is important to confront citizens’ fears with facts. By accepting the narrative about “benefit tourism” in the UK, both the British government and the Commission have taken the wrong lesson from a European upsurge in right-wing populism.

A comment by Julian Zuber


No doubt, the European Union is a privileged imposition. With its 24 official languages or its complex institutional frameworks, even for pundits the European Union remains an object of continuous study. This complexity rarely translates into interested surprise but often into frustrating confusion. Europe remains misunderstood.

Whereas the legal complexity of the EU is often seen as a necessary evil to match a politically heterogeneous landscape with the preservation of national sovereignty at the heart of the debate, cultural complexity is seen as a core value of Europe. It is no coincidence that the official motto of the European Union reads “United in diversity”. From a macro-level perspective, cultural complexity is not a problem that needs to be overcome, but its preservation is considered one of the main achievements of European integration. In short, citizens being troubled by cultural complexity are not part of the mainstream narrative on European integration.

But do we really think that this is true? Are we really convinced that there is no burden of pluricultural complexity accompanying European integration? Problems arise when the nature of political decisions becomes more European without citizens perceiving themselves as part of a European polity. In particular, increasing levels of inner-European migration reveal if citizens have embraced living in an integrated Europe, since labour mobility makes European integration tangible.

If at all, European integration has produced European or post-national identities among professional elites as well as younger, transnationally-oriented citizens. For others, the idea of open borders remains a potential threat to one’s own cultural or national identity. For such milieus, citizens from other European countries are still part of “the other” and not of a larger European demos. The rise of populist movements across European countries probably shows that the burdens and benefits of European integration within societies are still unequally distributed. The real challenge for European integration might not constitute the mediation of power relations between nation states but rather social bargaining within them.

The main lesson that national governments in Europe seem to have taken in order to deprive populism of its breeding ground is to take European citizens’ concerns about “the foreign” seriously: besides all the questionable narratives about refugees over the last year in Germany, Poland, France, or Hungary, the British government’s attempt to renegotiate UK’s terms of membership of the EU serves as a good example to illustrate the debate about inner-European migration. It shows that deep-seated concerns even about the European “the other” might pose a central challenge for a united Europe.

Of all issues that David Cameron raised in his letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the treatment of EU citizens in the context of the UK’s welfare benefit system is the one that has attracted the largest amount of media attention, both in the UK and beyond (Dimitrakopoulos 2016). However, evidence for this so-called benefit or welfare tourism does not seem to exist. When the European Commission was demanding empirical evidence for “benefit tourism”, the response of the British government was: “We consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence”. Apparently, the main problem that the British Government has identified is the wrong perception of its citizens on many policy fields such as migration. However, instead of actively fighting such stereotypes, the British government has adopted narratives on “benefit tourism” that lack any empirical basis. This strategy is truly populist, since it rationalizes the irrational without resolving the underlying policy problem.

Of course, one could argue that the problem solved is that citizens’ concerns have been taken seriously – but at what cost? Since the European Commission has backed down from its original demand to receive evidence for benefit tourism, European politics is supporting a factually wrong narrative about inner-European migration and thus about Europeans. Leaving the field of evidence-based policy in such central policy areas might be a short-term win for comforting national narratives, but establishes an image about European citizens at the highest level which endangers the establishment of a European demos.

The causes for re-emerging “little nationalisms” are of course more complex: the lack of a truly democratic European polity as well as the neglect of a European social agenda by many European players are certainly two dimensions that relate to this problem. Moreover, as long as we are only concerned about the abundance of lobbyists in Brussels and not about the absence of a lobby for Brussels in European capitals, we only partly capture hurdles for European cooperation. As long as the Brussels-bashing narrative of a technocratic apparatus remote from everyday life works smoothly with almost no political costs for national governments, the populist temptation will remain large.

As long as such imbalances prevail – and they will for the near future – citizens’ concerns about “the other” are and will be a central element European politics has to deal with. It is neither helpful nor respectful to degrade such concerns as racist, nor is it wise to uncritically adopt them. We need to confront fears about the “foreign” with evidence in the context of a respectful dialogue while passionately advocating for a Europe we truly want. If we start to uncritically adopt emotionally understandable concerns that nonetheless fly in the face of reason, we disrespect such concerns. No one would argue that a doctor does her job when she is only concerned about symptoms of her patients and not about its causes. No one would argue that we respect one’s opinion if we do not try to understand its underlying arguments. Too often, tolerance has been confused with indifference.

We need to respectfully disagree in personal dicussions with citizens that do not live in cosmopolitan hubs, have not developed transnational social networks, or do not belong to pro-European professional elites. At the same time, we need to make benefits from European integration more visible and critically question whether such benefits have been distributed equally in the past. Discussions about Europe have been both too moralistic and too technical. One step into the right direction is to accept that multicultural complexity is a challenge for many citizens who have not developed a European political identity.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors‘ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. 

Image via pixabay

This very blog post is also published on Hertie School of Governance’s „The Governance Post“.


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