Sometimes a strident behavior or a controversial remark holds such wide-ranging implications that cannot be fully explained even in a book. Britain has recently provided a sample of the populist speech.
During the annual conference of the Conservative Party held in Birmingham, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt compared the European Union to the Soviet Union!
Before getting into the details of Hunt’s strange statement, we need to deeply examine the political circumstances, which pushed him to say what he said. It’s well-known that Britain will leave the European Union in March 2019.
So far, talks about an agreement that would regulate the relationship between the EU and the UK, after the latter withdraws from the EU, still veers between ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’. This has created political and diplomatic tension, which recently peaked when Europeans rejected the British government’s Chequers Brexit Plan.
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Economic experts fear that the divorce between the UK and the EU without an agreement would be a disaster for the British economy. Therefore, there is a need for political and verbal escalation to improve the negotiating position of the British toward the Union.
Meanwhile there are the hardliner Brexiteers, headed by former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson, who have been critical of British Prime Minister Teresa May’s negotiating strategy with the Europeans.
This is all understandable; however, what is illogical here is going far in riding this popular wave – or which seems to be popular – by echoing irrational remarks.
This is where the difference lies between a populist politician who rides the wave and does not hesitate to continue providing weak justifications and the responsible politician who tries to control the wave via a rational discourse in the interest of the people and the nation.
Economic experts fear that the divorce between the UK and the EU without an agreement would be a disaster for the British economyHazem Saghieh
By comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union, Jeremy Hunt took a populist stance that is short on rationality, if not the minimum of knowledge. The European Union is based on the principles of liberty, free exchange of ideas and products, open borders and respect for human rights.
It was established via intense democratic deliberations and member countries are allowed to withdraw from the bloc on the basis of these same democratic principles and processes. Britain used these very provisions in its Brexit referendum in June 2016. Thus, the comparison of the EU with the Soviet Union is clearly untenable, as the latter was a closed totalitarian regime that was run by a single party and a multitude of detention camps.
The Soviet Union had also confiscated freedom of expression, free elections and trade among other things. Thus, we can understand the outrage caused by Jeremy Hunt’s statement.
It is the anger of rational democratic sensibility that is opposed to populist irrationalism. The most serious reaction to the remark came from the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who deemed the phrase to be both insulting and unwise.
The reaction came from a man who personally spent half of his life in one of the countries following the Soviet order and after the fall of communism became the head of the Polish government. Thus, he is obviously aware of the falsity and danger of the statement that makes such a comparison.
However, we here also realize how immunity against this populism is weak these days as the British political rhetoric, traditionally famous for its precision and balance, has not been able to fight it back.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.