Selling the Abstract: Hearts and Minds in the EU Integration Battle
Policy outcomes and suggestions from “A Brussels Forum Conversation with The Hon. Frans Timmermans, First Vice President, European Commission”
“The determination of those who want it [the European project] to fail is strong; then the determination of those who do not want it to fail needs to be equally strong.” Speaking at GMF’s Brussels Forum two days before the leaders of the EU met in Rome to celebrate its 6oth anniversary, Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans was passionate about the need for social mobilization to support the European project. The occasion of the anniversary did in fact see some mobilization, but hardly of the sort that seems to move people toward nationalism and populism.
According to Timmermans, the establishment has failed not to deliver 70 years of uninterrupted peace, but to connect with citizens via emotions. Unlike many of today’s politicians, he empathized with those who are growingly unashamed of voting for emerging politicians with nationalist and illiberal agendas. What seems to matter in today’s politics is authenticity rather than evidence-based truth, especially if the electorate believes that politics in itself is corrupt and untruthful. Implicitly, Timmermans does not seem to buy into the dichotomy between rational and evidence-based policy and the emotional appeals of nationalist populists. Indeed, emotions are not about the irrational fears which seem to be a common explanation for the rise of populism. And one can be passionate about rational political action.
But mobilizing with passion for an abstract concept such as European integration is a tough sell to today’s generations which have no recollection or passed-on memory of the wars. EU integration has historically been an elite project, driven, in the words of Timmermans himself, by “paternalistic,” albeit visionary, politicians of the postwar period. It is hard to imagine citizens taking to the streets in defense of “multispeed Europe” or the Juncker investment plan.
Timmermans believes that even if we live in a post-ideological world, idealism still exists — he mentions social justice, equality, gender parity. The rights of Europeans are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union — perhaps these, and their violation, could mobilize the hearts and minds of Europeans. This is happening today, with the latest attack by the government of an EU member state on academic freedom, in the form of new laws ostracizing the Central European University in Hungary. This has led to social mobilization, but political and institutional representatives have been less vocal. If the EU wants to win hearts and minds, perhaps it needs to be braver in standing by its own principles.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.