Photo by Gabriel Saldana. Creative Commons license

DAHRENDORF VIEW: Should the EU Learn Anything from Donald Trump?

By Alexandru Filip

On 6 December 2017, the Hertie School of Governance hosted the Berlin instalment of the Financial Times’s (FT) prestigious Future of Europe Project. The project, an op-ed contest, selects winning essays from six top European universities for publication in the FT. On the occasion of this year’s award, the FT and Hertie co-hosted a debate on the future of Europe using Hertie student Julian Lang’s winning essay on social media and its impact on politics as a point of departure.

The debate featured Henrik Enderlein and Jean Pisani-Ferry, professors at the Hertie School of Governance, Roula Khalaf, Deputy Editor of the FT, and Philip Stevens, Associate Editor of the FT, along with the author of the essay, Julian Lang.

Julian Lang’s article argues that Brussels can use social media to ensure its message is heard across Europe. He writes, “Both Mr Trump and the UK’s Leave campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum relied heavily on emotional arguments and punchy slogans, rather than actual policy plans. The EU must follow suit. Austere statistics and boring policy papers are not the way to connect with people outside the Brussels bubble,” and notes, “The new right tends to be far better at utilizing modern marketing strategies and social media than the political establishment“.

His observations about populist parties’ use of marketing are correct, though his argument that the EU should follow suit is debatable.  Populists like to present the world in simple terms, simple conflicts, and simple solutions. And when solutions are simple, they are easy to express in simple, short texts and slogans, that are especially suited to mediums like Twitter (‘£350 million per week for the NHS’, ‘build the wall’, ‘make America Great again’, etc).

Lang suggests that Brussels should also use such simplistic arguments on social media. For example, the author criticises the transparency of Jean-Claude Juncker’s “Five Scenarios for the future of the Union”, arguing that placing the ‘Scrapping EU institutions’ scenario in the same list as ‘Doing much more together’ legitimises Euroscepticism. Moreover, the breadth of the policy proposal was criticised for being too detailed. As long as Eurocrats and establishment politicians put forward material that is long, detailed, and policy specific (which voters don’t have the patience to read), populists will continue to win elections with simple one-liners and Europe will remain on a losing path.

Unfortunately, the pro-EU arguments that can be expressed in fewer than 300 characters—‘stronger together’, ‘unity in diversity’, and so on—have grown old. Everyone in the EU knows them. They are slogans that have been used because everybody in the 28-member bloc found them acceptable.

If the choice is between appealing to the same vague attempts at European ‘togetherness’ and trying to play a new game that simplifies the complex reality of European democracy, is it not somewhat intellectually insincere to aim for the latter option? The Commission’s papers might be hard to read, but is the alternative not dangerous omission? If we are to be intellectually sincere, then we must acknowledge the complexity of the socio-economic and political issues we face, and the complexity of potential solutions. This complexity makes it difficult to play the game of short, witty, and snappy catchphrases with matters of substantive EU policy.

As Dahrendorf Forum team-members Rafael Goldzweig and Andrea Roemmele argued, if we are concerned with the advantage that populists gain through their use of social media, there are various ways we might be able to counter that, such as more attention and devotion to fact-checking that prevent the misinformation and over-simplification that lead to polarisation.

The onus is on us—the public, official institutions, and civil society—to work to counter the deceitful simplicity of populist tactics that borders on mal-intent. If we are true to ourselves, to what we believe, then we must not attempt to simplify politics and democracy. Almost as a tribute to enlightened humanism, we must not forget that complex problems require complex solutions, transparency, and hard work. These do not produce results overnight, but they are part of the foundation of the European project.


Read Julian Lang’s op-ed here (paywall).