(Extended Version of a talk given at European University Foundation Board of Directors meeting in Vienna in March 2017)


Nationalism and Populism

The rise of nationalism is not a specific European phenomenon. It is not even a phenomenon only of the developed, industrialized, service oriented world. But certainly it has its specific character and expression in the world of high developed industry and service sectors, that is in the richer part of our world.

Populism and nationalism go hand in hand in their fight against the cosmopolitan elite and they have both a very nostalgic orientation. Both, nationalism and populism deny – in public utterances and propaganda – the complexities of economic, social and political issues. They offer simple answers and solutions and very often target one or several enemies inside and outside their country.

Populists and nationalists need always enemies or at least people they can look at from above. Even when they give their approach a humanistic touch their policies result in a „humanism“ that is always limited to citizens of the country they are political active in and sometimes only to the „true“ citizens of their country.

Attack on „foreign cultures and influences“

A particular characteristic taken from many dictatorships and authoritarian regimes is the attack on foreign funded foundations. They are definitely not part of the true national society. They represent cosmopolitan and international influences and values. And depending on the country they are specifically targeted. George Soros is one main target today in many Eastern European countries.

This especially true in Hungary, but in Slowakin being a Hungarian, is an additionally argument for the rejection of Soros. As the Slovak representative of the Open Society said recently: „George Soros brings up all the stereotypes we have lived with all our lives – about Jews, bankers and, in Slovakia, also about Hungarians.“

The attack on foreign funded foundations is also part of a nationalist cultural policy, whereby only those cultural activities are accepted and are open for support which enhance the nationalist political orientation and policies. Diversity is an enemy to all nationalists and populists.

Of course, the nationalists and populists of today are also part of the elite, even if they deny it. But they want to „nationalize“ the elite and its orientation. It is the national well being they care for, the well being of the true Americans, Germans, Finns, Austrians etc. international trade, development aid, immigration and foreign cultural influences etc. are seen primarily as dangers and threats to the national interest.

Not fulfilled promises and lack of respect

But why did it come to these changes in our policies. Certainly, the promises of economic growth and development could not be realized. Insofar the present elected politicians were not fulfilling people’s expectations. Too much was promised and not enough was done to meet these promises, especially for the lower and middle classes in our societies.

In many countries the income and wealth gap was even rising instead of decreasing. The concentration of the wealth at the very rich echelons was and is seen as a scandal. And this wealth and income concentration is in contrast to the reduced chances for the middle classes to climb up the social ladder as it was happening in the recent past.

In addition migrants and refugees are seen as new competitors eating from the same cake which is smaller today or at least not growing as in the past. The same is seen for international trade. Here we have the grotesque situation that a possible trade agreement between the US and the EU (TTIP) is interpreted as negative by many people in the US especially the new president on the one hand and many people in Europe on the other hand – at the same time.

The nation state, Europe and the globalization.

The European Union had its origin and reasoning in overcoming hatred and war mongering in the big European nations. It should present an alternative to nationalism, which in the words of former French president Mitterand is always leading to war.

But more and more the EU was also presented as a shield protecting the different nations and their populations against insecurities and threats coming from an uncontrolled globalization. It was seen as an instrument of promoting human rights and environmental policies globally – to the benefit of all.

In this respect Europe was partly successful. But very often it stood alone and the US was no reliable partner. And both the US and Europe were seen by the „others“ especially in the Third World as trying to preserve its prerogatives in selling their products and in preserving their healthy environment after polluting the world enormously during centuries.

But Europe’s population on the other hand was seeing the EU’s policies also with skepticism, but out of different reasons. The EU’s position and policies were seen as too timid and as caring more for foreigners especially refugees and immigrants than its own – national – population. In addition many bureaucratic decisions and procedures gave the impression of a Brussels monster and that opinion was eagerly spread by right wing and sometimes left wing nationalists and populists.

But the main issue remains how to represent and promote „our“ national interests, a balance and fair distribution of economic and social benefits inside Europa and at the same time design a fair and just global trade, environmental and economic policy.

European politics have to start a sincere dialogue with those who have been „left out“ in our societies and give them „back“ (?) or establish the first time respect and a chance to participate fully in the economic and social development of our societies. And that would include the closing of the rising wealth and income gap. And as the referential political frame is very often still the nation state we need to see results on the national level.

But on the other hand we have also to promote such policies on a European scale and that means between the different member states. As we see with Brexit and many similar discussions about „foreign“ (EU) employees in different member countries, just and fair policies domestically do not always overlap with just and fair European policies. They are sometimes difficult to design them compatible.

How can we defend social and economic achievements gained for all Germans, Austrians etc, that means all the relatively well to do population inside Europe but also raise job opportunities for the Romanians, Bulgarians etc.? Free movement of labour does not do it automatically especially if it is misused to undercut wages and social rights.

In addition to these two sometimes contradictory „domestic“ – national and European – policies we have many global injustices often created by the former colonial powers from Europe. But this is not only a question of the past when we think about illegal or poorly justified military interventions or even when we consider trade-, agricultural- and fisheries policies of the EU.

There is no magic key with which we can open the door to a comprehensive and consistent fair and just policy meeting all the desires and demands from individual countries, the European Unions and our global partners. But at least we should openly speak about these contradictions and incompatibilities.

A competition between middle classes

Recent studies especially the most recent one from the Brookings Institution with the title „The unprecedented expansion of the global Middle Class“ made the new global situation very clear:“The global middle class is now clearly bifurcated: a slow-growing developed country middle class, and a fast-growing emerging economy middle class with growth in both instances measured in terms of either numbers or total spending“ And it notes: „Big geographic distributional shifts in markets are happening, with China and India accounting for an ever greater market share and European and North American middle class basically stagnant“.

And very often it is the traditional – white – middle class who feels this trend most. Members of this class feel themselves discriminated by support for minorities including migrants. They feel themselves left alone and excluded from receiving support and benefits by their government. And they long for more job-security.

It is important to reverse this trend and transform economic development also in Europe into a win-win situation. We need inclusive growth for the developed countries without loosing the benefits of globalization and reversing the trend of more global equality with benefits for the emerging countries.

Regarding the challenges of automation and the increasing introduction of robotics we need even more sophisticated policies to distribute the gains to all citizens and not only to companies who introduce automation in their factories etc. Sharing these gains will be an important aim of political decagon. It is not about preventing and forbidding but for just and fair distributions of the benefits.

The role of universities and students

Exchanging scientists and students, knowledge and experiences is one of the main elements of promoting common understanding and respect. To understand the „other“ position and to develop respect does not automatically mean to agree with it. It does not result in refraining from representing ones „national“ interests. But it creates the chance of finding compromises and solutions which can meet different interests in an acceptable way.

The students can use the knowledge acquired in different countries at different universities to challenge some of the dogmas and fake news promulgated by nationalists and populists. They can engage in public debates and offer their experiences. Of course science does not substitute values and cultural orientation but also here international experiences can offer different views and approaches. And they can learn to live with the complexities of all the publicly debated issues and learn how to present them in an understandable way without falling into the trap of the populists.

Human Resources to establish a new Europe – behind nationalism and populism

These students and later academics are the new generation which could restart the European project. Recently the EU Commission published a so called „White Paper on the Future of Europe“. It includes many good ideas as many other papers and proposals. But we need also the citizens who are ready and capable of implementing the necessary reforms. We need the spirits of those who are ready to unconventional ways and bring forward innovative ideas and concepts. Neither these people nor these ideas are born only in one country. They need competition, confrontation and cooperation inside Europe but also from outside of our continent.

Only recently, the French president Hollande warned that the EU might explode if we do not reform it. Explosion will not help the European citizens, but neither will only small and timid reforms help. Only thinking is new terms and having courage to re-invent the European Union might save it and may combat nationalism and populism.

Finally, universities – what ever their orientation and institutional form – have been and should always be not only places of transfer of knowledge and skills. They must be places of disputes about values. Especially in times, where more and more Big Data and algorithms guide or even determine our lives we have to find a new form of humanism which is preventing us becoming the slaves of robots and the „internet of things“.

There is no one place where we can find answers to that challenge for our humanity. But in Europe at our universities we have many places where we can find parts of an answer. Let’s hope that students traveling and studying in different European countries can collect these pieces and assemble them to some interesting and helpful answers. And let’s hope that EU programs like Erasmus will be extended and young people’s participation will be even more facilitated.