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Small European states and populism
by Newropeans-Magazine
2012-03-15 10:03:12
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Europe is a patchwork of countries with small populations not bigger than those of cities like Tokyo, New York or Mumbai. 21 out of the 27 member states of the EU fall into this category. In this article I would like to refer to these countries as small states. I also would like to share my opinion that small states have their own dynamics that one needs to understand and take into consideration in regard to populism in Europe these days. Perhaps populism isn’t as bad as some people might think. 

Based on my experiences in Holland and Switzerland I am going to make two assumptions about small countries. One: the populations are so small that everybody knows each other (and their dirty laundry) so conflicts are avoided which also implies that fundamental debates are lacking. Two: the media in small countries approach issues mostly from one side which means that information can be biased. Populations in small countries can be blind without knowing it.

Take the coverage of the financial crisis for example. One can regard our economy as a game and that means that one can look at the players in this game or the playing field on which the game takes place. One approach to the financial crisis entails looking at the players and assumes that the game will change when new players enter the field. Another approach is looking at the playing field and determining its size and shape and thinking about what that means for the game.

In Holland people seem to believe that the players determine the outcome of the game. The media in Holland therefore focus on the players in their coverage. We are told that we need a better referee (more government + new legislations). We are told that we need to disqualify or punish some of the old players (bankers, speculators and people in Greece). And we are told that new players are needed (EU bonds + EU rating agency). Change the players and this crisis will be solvable.

In Switzerland on the other hand people seem to believe that the size and shape of the playing field determine the outcome of the game. Rating agencies are compared to thermometers in the Swiss media and a ban on thermometers is not believed to end winter in Europe. It is also said in Switzerland that the Euro is structurally flawed. This crisis is the symptom of a much deeper problem if we focus on the playing field.

As a Dutch immigrant in Switzerland I had plenty of headaches over the past years because the coverage of issues sometimes is fundamentally different in the Alps compared to Holland. What matters to me isn’t which coverage is right in regard to the financial crisis that I mentioned above for example, but that small countries tend to approach issues from one side and that means that there are blind spots. This implies that elites in small countries have their blind spots as well.

Whenever a group of like-minded people with the same backgrounds is brought together it can react in such a way that critical information is blocked from the group consciousness and the group loses its ability to make realistic assessments. It can lead to all kinds of problems in families, company units or government agencies. In psychology this is referred to as “group think” and let’s assume that this concept is applicable to elites in small countries.
A few years ago the writer Jeroen Smit wrote a book about the banking sector in Holland. He describes the generation of top bankers responsible for the failing banks. During their younger years they often were member of a traditional fraternity in Holland. In those days there was no ERASMUS program so their experience in dealing with foreign cultures is limited. More importantly, people of that generation do not speak English well. It’s a small group of people who are basically the same.

Then one day this particular generation decides to conquer the financial world. In doing so the Dutch bankers get into trouble with the American authorities because one CEO doesn’t speak English well and isn’t aware of the legal ramifications of his words. He seems to have no clue how to deal with the Americans and their cultural sensitivities. Even more strange things happen when the Dutch bankers enter the financial market in Italy. The story doesn’t end well for them in 2008.

Another writer who wrote about a small country is Michael Lewis. In his book Boomerang he describes the case of Iceland and what happened prior to the financial crisis. He observes how an island of fisherman and their wives transforms into a banking clan without much thought in a short period of time. The story of Iceland doesn’t end well either. Again we are dealing with a small group of people and Mr. Lewis points out that Iceland is more like an extended family than a nation.

Families have their own and unique ways of dealing with problems. The Swiss have direct democracy which protects citizens from elites that can be deluded by ideology, out of touch with reality or corrupt without knowing it. Mr. Smit advocated more diversity in Holland’s elite over the past years in the hope that it will improve the quality of Dutch leadership. In practice Holland uses “outsiders” to shake up the country from time to time which brings me to the following example.

Holland took a turn to the Left during the sixties. The country underwent a sudden transformation and became famous for its liberal approach towards sex and drugs. But Holland is far from liberal in regard to other issues that were deemed taboo by the progressive elite in this small country. Not surprisingly, many people in Holland refer to a so-called Church of the Left running their society. Bad decisions were made and issues were ignored for decades.

Elites cannot ignore reality forever in a democracy and the nineties of the last century marked the beginning of change in Holland. A populist party won a handful seats in parliament (socialist party) while Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh became (in)famous for their societal critiques. At the beginning of this century Fortuyn entered politics which is now referred to as the Fortuyn-revolt. Fortuyn and Van Gogh are examples of “outsiders” who shake up the country from time to time.

From this point of view populism in small countries can be helpful. The beliefs of the generation of the sixties had a huge impact on Europe. That generation is about to retire which means that there is room for new ideas (see the Occupy movement for example). Populism also helps voters to blow off steam and vent their anger which is healthy. And that is why The American writer Thomas L. Friedman refers to the Tea Party as the Tea Kettle movement. So populism has its uses.

In the end it boils down to the metaphor of the players and the playing field. In this article I focused on the playing field in small states. Europe is a patchwork of small states that can be compared to families that have their blind spots. Direct democracy, diversity or “outsiders” can be used to deal with these blind spots. Populism shakes things up in small countries, brings in new ideas or helps people vent their anger and perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing at all.


Bouke S. Nagel

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