Debating The European Model As Far-Right Parties Gain Strength
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's try and make sense of a tumultuous year in Europe. 2016 brought a vote in Britain to leave the European Union, a series of terrorist attacks, fears of migration and efforts to tighten borders. Many mainstream politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are facing opposition from far-right movements that are gaining strength. All this week we're asking what 2017 might look like in different parts of the world and we spoke about Europe's future with David Rennie of The Economist magazine.
DAVID RENNIE: So apart from anything else, 2017 is a year of elections in very important countries, starting with Germany, in France, in the Netherlands. And in each of those countries you have a populist policy, particularly two of the populist leader is a demagogue who's saying that the European Union is to blame for everything that people feel is going wrong.
GREENE: Strong term demagogues because I think supporters of some of these right leaders who are responding to some of these fears certainly wouldn't describe them as demagogues, right?
RENNIE: Well, you go country by country. Look at the Netherlands, you have Geert Wilders who's just convicted of hate speech in a Dutch court. He's a man who's paved the way for linking the idea of globalization, Islamic terrorism, immigration, bundling them all together into an argument that if you feel that the country has been taken from you, there's a kind of global elite that is to blame. That's pretty demagogic. In France you have Marine Le Pen, very interesting figure whose party comes from the really extreme right but she has brought it more towards the mainstream. She's dropped some of the earlier years of sort of Holocaust denial. Now it's much more of a kind of anti-immigration, anti-globalization policy. But her agenda, which would be to start by leaving the European single currency and then to have a referendum on France leaving the European Union, that's pretty much the end of the European project.
GREENE: We've dug into the term demagogue a bit on this program and some have argued that there are some positive aspects of it, that sometimes a country needs dramatic change and political upheaval to go through that process. Is there an argument that this might be an important moment in the evolution of Europe and that some of these big questions about openness should be debated and it's not necessarily a bad thing?
RENNIE: I think the difference between someone who is listening to the concerns of those who feel left behind and a demagogue is whether what they are promising can actually be delivered. And I think the tragedy which we've seen with the Brexit vote in 2016, some might say some of the vote for Donald Trump here, is that there are promises being made that we for example at The Economist just don't think can be met. We think that actually people are going to lose their factory jobs because if you erect these barriers, you know, trade wars or you leave the European Union, they're actually the first ones who are going to suffer.
I think one of the really dangerous things we've seen in politics the last year and maybe next year is people like us, The Economist magazine, we go to these voters and we say you've got something to lose. Don't take this rash decision. Don't vote for this demagogue. And they say, we have nothing to lose. We have nothing to lose. We're so desperate, we'll take any risk. And what's more, you, The Economist magazine or you the experts or you the elites, you look like you're doing pretty well so you're not a legitimate judge of what I do and don't have to lose.
GREENE: Is it possible that your models are wrong and that closing borders and doing some of the things that some of these right-tendency parties are suggesting might actually be good for countries, might actually create prosperity or at least not cause the calamity you're talking about?
RENNIE: Look, 2016 I hope has made all of us who kind of pontificate for a living a bit more humble. But I can tell you is that...
GREENE: Humble because predictions have been completely off?
RENNIE: Yeah, because we've been proved wrong and also we did misjudge just how kind of angry and unhappy a lot of people were. But here's the thing, history gives us some guides and Europe particularly can offer lessons here. Europe was very, very open borders, very, very open free trade. And then in the 1930s, Europe enacted all kinds of protectionist policies. France expelled by force with soldiers and rifles tens of thousands of Polish coal miners for example because they had an anti-immigrant sort of panic. We know what that led to, that led to an economic calamity. We can't have a fortress Europe. We can't have a fortress Britain. It's not possible. So these people are peddling short-term illusions.
GREENE: We've seen some reporting in The New York Times about Russia's president Vladimir Putin and his seems like direct involvement to support some of these fringe very right nationalist parties around Europe. What is Vladimir Putin up to? What is his goal here?
RENNIE: Yeah, this is something that American officials have been saying privately to journalists for a long time and they've been proven right in some cases. You've had bank loans from Russian banks to the Front National, to Marine Le Pen's party in France. We know that there's Russian money involved in the far-right in lots of countries. Even the anti-fracking movement in Germany, there's Russian money floating around there because Russia has an interest in selling gas still. They don't want competition.
But more than that, I think what is really scary is that Vladimir Putin to some in the far-right in Europe and even here stands as someone who has the right idea about Muslims, the right idea about immigration, is a kind of nationalist Christian kind of authoritarian strongman. And that model has tremendous appeal and that is a really scary development that the West needs to stand against.
GREENE: Why scary?
RENNIE: Because take just the Muslim piece of that. You cannot just wish Muslims out of Europe. There are tens of millions of people living in Europe who have no other home and no other nationality and they live there. Now, I'm not blind to the fact that there's a big problem with radical Islam in European cities. But if you think that the solution is to just pick a fight, a rhetorical fight and just make Islam the enemy and have that kind of bring it on mentality that I think you do hear sometimes from Russian politicians. You know, that kind of rhetorical fight is a disaster.
GREENE: Let me just finish with this. I mean, one of the foundations of democracy is that the people decide. Some of these parties that tend to be more nationalistic in Europe are gaining ground because people like the message, that that's what they want right now. What do you say to many of these voters who are crying out and saying I want something dramatic and different because I'm just not satisfied with my life right now?
RENNIE: I totally understand that. But I think what I would say to those voters is if you vote for those policies that sound like they will be kind of emotionally satisfying, that sound like they punish your enemies, you can do that. You can vote for that. That's your democratic right. But understand that that could come with costs. Understand that perhaps some of these demagogic leaders in some countries are promising you things that A, they can't deliver and B, will have costs that you don't yet understand. Because, you know, you can thump the table. You can be selfish. You can be much more aggressive. You can raise barriers, build walls, but there are costs behind those actions.
GREENE: And what's the number one cost you would bring up if you were having a conversation with a voter like that?
RENNIE: Your job. If - I mean, the number one thing that all those voters bring up with all of us reporters who cover politics is good jobs and a better future for their kids. And that's exactly what I think is imperiled by this false promise of closure and closed borders and walls.
GREENE: David Rennie, thanks for coming by. We appreciate it.
RENNIE: Thank you.
GREENE: David Rennie is the Washington bureau chief for The Economist magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.