What We Want: Back to an Old-Fashioned Us Against Them

What is the Dutch government going to do with the outcome of the Ukraine referendum? What will the European Union do? Oh, specialists say, the turnout was low and only a tiny minority in The Netherlands said no. So, we will find a solution: in Brussels we delete a provision, give The Netherlands an opt-out clause on a non-vital issue and all is ready. Crisis over. Lawyers are good at this. The Danes, Irish and British have been saved many times by minor adjustments in complex international agreements that are so filled with jargon that nobody reads them anyway.

The specialists are right, of course: they will undoubtedly find a way out. Sadly, this solution will only work for a limited time. In the long run the opposite will happen. This referendum was, after all, staged as a loud protest against this very rational culture of European tweaks. In that sense, the referendum is a symbol of a deep cultural change in Europe.

For decades, we believed that man was constantly getting better. We had done a good job massacring each other in the first half of the previous century. But at least, we thought, this had taught us a lesson: we built institutions that were going to help us focus less on ourt instincts and more on rational arguments. Parliamentary democracy was the next phase in the positive evolution of ‘new European man’. After all, we were not shooting each other with ammunition anymore, but just with words. We believed in multilateral diplomacy and the market now, not in war and nationalism. We made compromises, since there could be no clear winners or losers anymore. Now we preferred negotiating for years on an agreement full of shades of grey, rather than once again relying on militias and Heimat.

Europeans have been revelling in this homegrown goodness for a long time. The fall of the Wall strengthened them in this view - it seemed as if the entire world wanted to follow our example! This is how we stumbled blindly into postpolitics. This is politics without antagonism, where everybody agrees on the broad lines. Politics of ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. A world in which opponents can be accommodated by means of a tiny technical intervention.
But people are not machines. Read Freud, or Carry van Bruggen: people are social animals but also look for ‘the difference with the other’. We are emotional beings who want to belong and who, to a certain extent, need antagonism: we want to react against something. It helps us to know who we are.

Globalisation and Europeanisation mean that it has become hard for us to do something with that need for antagonism in politics. Many decisions are made in Brussels, or by investors on the other end of the world. There is little we can do about it. A country like The Netherlands cannot take itself out of globalisation. But the result is that many are turning their backs on politics and look for this antagonism elsewhere.

In the past, you had left versus right. A new distinction is looming now: good versus bad. This is a moral distinction. Us against them, folk against elite. Debates about migration used to be fairly rational. Now they, too, have become a moral debates, with instincts trying to find a way out. The problem is that you can compromise on the economy, which is rational, while it is impossible to compromise on instincts, values or identities, which are emotional. The discussion about Europe is also becoming increasingly emotional. If you are not a Europhobe, you are automatically designated a Europhile. The two sides consider each other as enemies and insult each other. Debates never solve anything – on the contrary, the more you talk, the more angry and insulted everybody gets.

In parliaments we have rules. But the moral arena, which is predominantly situated outside of parliament and where from now on parliamentary decisions are being recalled, knows no such rules. Anything goes. That’s what is wrong. This is about identity. About new, social fault lines in society. Our entire post-war belief system, the entire European ‘order’, is up for discussion.

    • Caroline de Gruyter