The historian David Van Reybrouck analyzes the European democratic deficit and the rise of populism in the light of what was the end of colonialism.
Chronic. The quality Western press seems recently obsessed with a historical parallel. "Are we reliving the 1930s? ", wonders The Guardian after Brexit. "Is the world back to the 1930s with Trump's triumph? "written El Pais. "Donald Trump: Is this already fascism? ", questions the editor-in-chief of Spiegel.
In waves, we look for familiar landmarks. At the time too, there was a banking crisis, a deep recession, massive unemployment and huge inequalities. But the problem of the 1930s is the idea that a world war will ensue inevitably. And that does not facilitate the debate. Every analysis is immediately overshadowed by the devastating consequences.
An exacerbated Eurocentrism
Are there no other possible comparisons? We claim to be citizens of the world, but we evaluate European history preferably in the light of ... European history. That emerging trends in Africa, Asia, Latin America can be tools for understanding the European Union (EU) does not seem to come to mind. This exacerbated Eurocentrism always disturbs me.
During the last twelve years, I have been very interested in the decolonization process of the Dutch East Indies and the Belgian Congo. What do they have to teach us? Can we compare the growing anticolonialism of the day with the anti-Europeanism of today?
Obviously, the EU is anything but a colony. It was created from within, through diplomacy and at its own request. The colonies, they are created without being invited, manu militari and from the outside. They were full of racial thoughts.
And yet, in recent years, in documents from the end of the colonial period, I found passages that seemed familiar to me. Sukarno, who would become the first president of Indonesia, expressed himself at his trial in 1930: "A subject people, therefore any people who can not manage their own administration as their interest and well-being dictates, live in a state of" permanent disorder ". (...) The Indonesian people today are a people living in affliction. And this is not our incentive, not the incitement of "provocateurs", but this affliction, these tears of the people, which are the cause of this popular movement. "
Where have we heard this before? The desire to have a voice. The growing social malaise. The refusal to see the tears. The demonization of ease of those who name and activate this discomfort.
Some "wormy apples"
In terms of style and vision, supporters of the day can hardly be compared to today's populist leaders, but they were just as hated. Hendrikus Colijn, the former minister of the Dutch colonies, found nascent nationalism in the Dutch East Indies "Futile, not arising from any real popular movement, rather an action in which only the upper layer of society, as fine as the silver film of a grain of rice, is involved".
Reducing the "problem" to some "wormy apples" that decay others is a familiar process. One of these "bad apples" was Sutan Sjahrir, who later became Indonesia's prime minister. The colonizer had banished him in 1934 and for an unlimited duration to the internment camp of Boven-Digoel, in the heart of the Papuan virgin forest.
In one of his inspired letters, he writes: "We must believe that the government has found an easy way to govern. Ship all the discontent to Digoel and intimidate the population. But if they had a little more sense, they would understand that this solution is too simple and too easy to be as good and just. The longer it lasts, the more it will appear that it is the government that creates a revolutionary situation through the aggression it engages at all levels, a situation that paradoxically tends to politicize the deepest layers of the population. "
Naturally, the European Union does not send anyone to a penitentiary camp in the middle of the bush. Populist leaders are sometimes dragged to court, but this has nothing to do with the theatrical political trials of the time. And yet, we might ask ourselves whether the populism of our time is no more like the nationalism of the colonies than of fascism in Europe.
An unfair sham
Question of the day: who made the following speech, Boris Johnson or Yannis Varoufakis? "And that all the measures that are taking place there in Brussels, far from home, without us, but for us, are considered an unjust imposture. We have always fought against this method, which does not inspire confidence that these measures are not the result of a sincere, frank and equal dialogue. " Answer: neither of them. It is Joseph Kasa-Vubu who speaks here, in 1958. Two years later, he would be the first president of the Congo.
The words of Patrice Lumumba, his prime minister, are also amazing news. "The progress achieved here in the economic and social field is surpassing - as we have seen with our own eyes - that of some countries. But where the rub is that the Belgian government has neglected the political emancipation of Congolese. (...) We regret the policy of only giving the Congolese rights that the government agrees to give them dol- larly as an alms and not the legitimate rights that nationals demand. "
Emancipation without participation leads to frustration. It's as simple as that. "Enter into the accounts"that's what he's getting back to. Let it be ignored, and the situation turns to explosive.
In an end-colonial society, people live under the yoke of an administration that regulates, so to speak, all aspects of public and private life. Despite its omnipresence, this enigmatic administration is rather invisible. Agreements are made with pre-existing local potentates. This allows the indigenous population to access the new prosperity: education and public health penetrate into the villages. But the possibilities of participation of the population in public life, and therefore political, remaining extremely limited, the frustration settles, in the first place among the young people who were able to study, and later among the popular masses they manage to mobilize. The colonizer is forced to establish official co-decision organs, such as the Volksraad in the Netherlands Indies and the Congo Colonial Council. But these will ultimately have little to decide. More and more people are dreaming of radical scenarios. Decolonization is therefore inevitable.
Under the yoke of an omnipresent administration
What about the EU? We, too, live under the yoke of an omnipresent, invisible administration that shapes our existence down to the smallest detail. The EU is also working with local potentates, while at the same time improving the lot of many. We, too, have a co-decision body, the European Parliament. It has more power than the colonial advisory bodies of old, but still less than the European Commission and the European Council. The democratic deficit is not filled. Many people find the EU haughty and elite. With the corollary that the EU also sees more and more of its inhabitants to distance themselves. In the meantime, Brexit is a fact, and the deep crisis in Europe is far from over. The European adventure, like the adventure overseas, could end abruptly.
In addition to the democratic deficit, another added, the bureaucratic deficit. Europe made serious mistakes in the 1990s. What an idea to opt for a single currency in 1992, without first developing the institutions necessary for monetary, financial and economic management! And what an idea to have abolished internal borders since 1993, without having thought seriously about the external borders, with all possible repercussions on the management of asylum and migration!
It is only today that the systemic deficiencies are revealed: the crisis of the euro started in 2010, the migration crisis culminated in 2015. Not having a voice is serious in itself, but to be delivered to a failing technocracy is catastrophic.
In his latest book De nieuwe politiek van Europe (Historische Uitgeverij, 2017), Dutch writer and philosopher Luuk Van Middelaar describes how these crises have profoundly reshaped the EU. Suddenly, we had to improvise and practice drastic choices. Saving Greece or not? Distribute refugees or not? The Union has been more politicized than ever before. The question is: has it also become more democratic?
At a time when the EU should have bet on democracy, it has returned, under the pressure of circumstances, to its good old technocracy. The euro had to be saved by nightly emergency meetings, and the sudden flow of refugees no longer tolerated a thoughtful approach. To act, and quickly, that was the motto. The democratic deficit has thus increased. The citizen saw it and suffered it, walled up in impotence - just like the colonized.
The first game of politics
Living in Europe in the year 2017 is more and more like living under the governance of a finite colonialism. Is it surprising then that the revolt is growing? Current populism is a brutal attempt to politicize the European area again. Politics is a matter of choice, he says, no law compliance. Austerity is not the only solution, says the leftist populist. The migration crisis does not have to be crossed, the populist on the right.
More prosperity thanks to the EU? In fact, vulnerable segments of society feel especially at risk. It is enough for the populist to say that he speaks "In the name of the people" - against the elite above, against the migrants below - and his fortune is made. Guaranteed media interest, Internet clicks, seats in Parliament.
The populist lets the people speak as long as it is in the form of a referendum, by which he can perfectly manipulate the masses. The people believe that referendums are liberating, but do not understand that this is the umpteenth little game of politics. The party's policy is strengthened, not restricted.
If the EU does not democratize radically, the end can come very quickly. And this democratization requires more than a few tricks with list heads. Because it only delivers more media and personalization, the same processes that made such a spectacle of national politics.
And if the people could really have a voice? This could be translated as well. In the 2019 European elections, each ballot with the candidates would be accompanied by a list of twenty-five positions on the future of Europe. They could state: "The EU must ban fossil fuel cars from 2040." Or : "The EU must set up a European army. " The voter would indicate by checking how much he agrees with each of these statements. In the end, he would also indicate which five statements seem most important to him.
It sounds like the electoral compass, but it's your own ideas, not who you need to vote for. Before the elections, you could receive a brochure with arguments for or against, as do the Swiss in the case of a referendum. In the evening on television, you would not only follow who won the vote, but also which proposals were adopted. This list of shared priorities would provide a blueprint for the European policy of the Netherlands for the next five years.
Who is responsible for drafting the second ballot? To leave it in the hands of politics would be a bad idea. Then how ? By drawing lots. Let us gather by a representative sample a few hundreds of ordinary citizens per country. Let's give them a few months to deliberate, a place to do it and moderators, neutral in content, but that make everyone have a voice. Participants meet every three weeks. They can invite experts to their convenience. They do not have to agree on all points. The only thing they have to do is write the list of twenty-five statements, in agreement with the citizen panels in the other member states.
This innovative form of participatory democracy has been used in recent years in Ireland and Australia in politically sensitive subjects such as gay marriage, abortion and nuclear waste management. Citizens drawn by lot were invited to decide on hot topics that politicians preferred to avoid. As a result, informed decisions that focus on the long term.
This entirely feasible approach would strengthen the content of European democracy. It combines the three forms of citizen participation that we know so far: elections, referendums and draws. The advantage of an election is that it allows you to choose, the disadvantage is that it is only political staff. The advantage of the referendum is that it deals with the content, its disadvantage is to offer only a yes or no in response. The advantage of the draw is an informed decision-making process, the disadvantage is that it concerns only a small part of the population.
By involving all citizens voting in these crucial political choices, Europe would give its population the authority that the colonies denied to their subjects. Who understands that European populism is more like late colonialism than nascent fascism, does not impose silence on the disgruntled citizen, but gives him the floor.
David Van Rebrouck is a Dutch-speaking Belgian writer, anthropologist, art historian, archaeologist and prehistorian. He is the author of Congo, a story, published by Actes Sud in 2012.
Translation Monique Nagielkopf.