Europe is thus closed off from its own history and has reinstated its internal borders externally. But it also attempts to consolidate a certain political ethos, while expelling its evil twin in the same gesture. Or, if as we have seen Donald Tusk put it, we must not submit to populist arguments[1]. In Laclau’s affirmative analysis, populism becomes the name for the rejection of police: it is the forging of a chain of equivalences that cannot be absorbed by existing institutions. But the usual view of populism casts it as a simplistic or cynical distortion of ‘real’ politics. As we have discussed, this usual view is a form of localized depoliticization critique, which itself produces depoliticizing effects: while viewing part of the political landscape as improperly political, it does not question the underlying ontology and leaves open the possibility of foundationalism. For Rancière, dismissing populism on principle suggests that there is still a people out there that has concerns worth taking seriously (just not this people), in reality the dismissal simultaneously masks and reveals complete and unwavering allegiance to the status quo[2].

This is certainly reflected in the White paper on the future of Europe. In its discussion of the drivers of European future, right after a picture of people celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and a graphic showing the twenty-five most peaceful countries in the world by ‘state of peace’ (Europe: high to very high), we are introduced to what is called the ‘questioning of trust and legitimacy’. Exceedingly dark language is employed there.

The various changes affecting the world and the real sense of insecurity felt by many have given rise to a growing disaffection with mainstream politics and institutions at all levels. This often manifests itself through indifference and mistrust towards the action of public authorities. And it also creates a vacuum too easily filled by populist and nationalist rhetoric. (European Commission 2017, 27)

This is the one mention of populism in the White paper. Immediately following this paragraph, there are references to “blaming Brussels”, “lack of ownership for joined decisions” and “the habit of finger-pointing at others”: we are informed that these strategies have already “proved damaging” and that “Europeans are not immune to these stark images of disunity”[3]. The implications are clear: the fait accompli politics of European integration and ‘unity’ are reinforced, and populism is a form of rhetoric that fills a ‘vacuum’ left behind by a growing disaffection of citizens with ‘mainstream’ (non-populist) politics and institutions.

Having considered institutional pressures and blockages in the previous sections, we are now in a position to add a further element to our preliminary analysis of aspects of depoliticization in European politics. By moralizing its commitment to peace, human rights and the expulsion of populism, the EU has created a version of Mouffe’s cordon sanitaire. Within it, the European project alone counts as providing a well-intentioned and morally upright future for the continent. We may speculate that populism has displaced the ‘threat from the East’ as a countervailing danger that requires the EU to remain committed to its goals. What is clearly visible, though, is the simultaneity of the two moments that characterize the cordon sanitaire: the shutting out of the populist, warlike, anti-human rights adversary, which does not need to be argued against, but is obviously heinous and unwanted. We need only remind ourselves of this from time to time. Second, the unification and justification of the disparate field of allies: the EU needs to exist to counteract them and to lead by example. It should be clear that this completely depoliticizes the identity of the other (as ‘evil’), as well as one’s own identity (as ‘good’), and the relation between the two.

But there is a further option still. Perhaps the EU has managed to develop an alternative to submitting to populist arguments, which simultaneously takes the people into account in a serious way, thus addressing the concerns of input legitimacy with which we started our investigation. This would then come in the form of what Vivien A. Schmidt has termed, in an extension of the already invoked ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, government with the people.

[1] Tusk 2017

[2] Rancière 2007a, 79

[3] European Commission 2017, 27

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