Have the yellow vests captured the hearts of the European masses? Has a political movement been born that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for governments to govern? It is too early to conclude. The fact is that this phenomenon is not an isolated incident. Since about the beginning of this century, a nationalist-conservative spirit wanders through Europe fighting a multitude of issues including immigration, Islam, the European Union and government bureaucracy. It has led to the establishment of political parties at home and abroad that try to bring their ideas within the limits of parliamentary democracy. The yellow vests go one step further and make use of their democratic right to demonstrate in the streets and conspicuously show their displeasure. They oppose tax increases (excise duties on fuel!), loss of purchasing power, and bit-by-bit, just about everything that causes uncertainty. Essentially, this is the vulnerability of this movement. It is the struggle of an endangered middle class whose certainties seem increasingly less and less self-evident. The middle class’s apprehension is indeed not without basis and deserves to be taken seriously. At the same time, this apprehension more and more translates into an unstoppable litany of complaints about various and diverging injustices inflicted upon them by successive governments. Even if it were possible to make head or tail of their demands, it would seriously undermine our democratic order to give in. When directed to single causes protests are tolerable, and in fact, constitute evidence of a healthy democracy. However, when the streets take over the government, dictating their demands so to speak under threat of violence, we are in an entirely different place altogether. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between those who utilise their democratic rights, and those who abuse that right, provoke public order and cause vandalism. The mere suggestion of violence activates a dynamism that is hard to de-escalate. Not only does it violate basic principles of public law-and-order, but it also invokes reaction by and action against police and other public service providers (firefighters and paramedics) with the risk of errors, further violence and escalation.
Protest or rebellion?
How coincidental is the timing of these events half a year before the European Parliament elections (23/26 May 2019)? What to make of the American Steve Bannon (see also: "What Does Steve Bannon Want" for a portrait of him by The New York Times) working behind the scenes setting up 'The Movement', a non-profit organization, a populist 'base' for conservative nationalist parties in Europe together with a hitherto unknown and swindling Belgian MEP, Mischaël Modrikamen. If we’re to believe the Reuters news agency and the Dutch broadcaster NOS, Bannon aims to undermine the European Union by gaining control of one-third of the seats within the European Parliament, but also by building a block of Eurosceptic governments within Europe.These could significantly influence decision-making within the European Council. The (right-wing) Belgian Parti Populaire, the Italian Lega Nord and Fratelli d'Italia (both are right-wing government parties) have now joined 'The Movement'. The French Rassemblement (formerly: Front National), the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, the Serbian president Željka Cvijanović, Geert Wilders (PVV) and Thierry Baudet (Forum for Democracy) are still playing 'hard to get' and despite their claims that they do not need an American to organize a populist movement in Europe, they are not unsympathetic to the ideas of 'The Movement'.
Is there a relationship between the yellow vests and the attempts of Bannon et al. to fuel support for national populism in Europe and to increase its influence? At this moment there is no evidence for this, but at the same time, it is not at all unlikely that Bannon will at least try to achieve his goals on the slips of the yellow vests. Bannon has already shown himself to be creative with social media during the presidential elections in the US and at Brexit (with the help of Cambridge Analytica). The organisation behind the yellow vests movement is relatively invisible, which is unique in itself. Although a similar initiative which started in May 2018 got some traction, the yellow vests got centre stage on 17 November, virtually out of nowhere but with the aid of Facebook, when it was able to bring 300,000 people to the streets. The protests found its way to other countries in Europe (although with little success) and soon got a more dangerous character. The situation went entirely of the road during the demonstrations on 2 December in Paris. The extent and intensity of the devastation and disorder there suggest that this was not just a protest, but an (organised?) rebellion, mainly because the riot police initially showed restraint and discipline. Meanwhile, the actions of the yellow vests have resulted in 8 deaths (as per December 16) and more than 1.200 injured. Despite that some significant concessions have been made in the meantime, the yellow vests are not likely to surrender or withdraw their ever-growing demands.
Trust in democratic institutions
Do our democratic institutions fail to channel the dissatisfaction experienced in society? An indication for an answer to that question could be to what extent citizens have confidence in democratic institutions. The latest (semi-annual) Standard Eurobarometer, presents the following picture:
With the possible exception of citizens in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany, confidence in public institutions leaves much to be desired for across Europe. What is more striking is that the trust in political parties is shockingly low. Political parties are pre-eminently the channel through which citizens within a democracy communicate their concerns with 'the government'. One can cautiously conclude that political parties fail in their primary task of translating sentiments that exist in society into relevant legislative initiatives and actions. It probably also explains that parties that operate outside the political centre and thus often avoid government responsibility, score better with the electoral masses (see also my article: General Government Performance Index 2018: The political center is paying the price for good government policy).
Italy and the United Kingdom
In this light, it will be interesting how the populist nationalist government of Italy deals with its political responsibility within the actual constraints of carrying responsibility (to translate priority policy initiatives into workable policies and balanced budgets) and how the voter subsequently rewards its actions. The first impression is that they opt for the flight forward and confront Brussels in the possible hope that by the time their policy translates into the economy a next government will be in place to pick up the pieces. Brussels, in the meantime, can do little but play into the cards of the Italian government and act against the unsecured financial bill for the government's economically poorly-based plans. Whether and when the Italian elector sees through this deception remains to be seen.
The political experiment in the United Kingdom to give the electorate a voice in deciding whether or not to remain part of the European Union and above all taken the result seriously has led to considerable uncertainty, indecision and uncertainty. Ironically, according to the overview above, it does not provide the hoped-for confidence in democratic institutions in the United Kingdom, with confidence in the press being unusually low. Perhaps the voter, unable to see how its perception time-and-time again is manipulated, does sees through the opportunism of his democratic institutions.
Whenever politicians, journalists and other representatives of democratic institutions, let their interests (polls, status, media attention, 'likes', etc.) prevail over the public interest, the standing of democracy receives a dent. Unfortunately, this seldom gives rise to self-reflection amongst those who claim to work in the public interest.
Correlation with satisfaction?
All of this, fortunately, does not immediately mean citizens themselves suffer too much from their concerns about the functioning of the democratic institutions and their place under the sun. Except for the Italian citizen, who rates his satisfaction with the life he leads at 66,7%, the citizens in Western Europe are generally quite satisfied with the way democracy functions in his country, but above all, he is content with the life he leads. That is remarkable.
Oddly enough it is not so much the concerns about current living conditions, fear of immigration or terrorism that triggers angst and which populist parties love to exploit as a source of grave apprehension politically. In addition to the anxiety of higher prices and taxes, it is mainly the dismantling of the welfare state (pension, health care, social security, education) that concerns us. The overview below shows per country what the three biggest concerns are for citizens (Eurobarometer, March 2019).
Does this imply that every fear and worry will come true? Presumably not, but although it is apparent that the nature of the concerns differs from person to person, it's clearly on a lot of people’s minds.
Role of politics
As the fears become more financial (fear of loss of purchasing power, higher taxes, employment, lower pensions, more uncertain financial situation at home), the chances increase that significant and painful interventions are required. Although citizens are often mistaken in the best course of action; they generally have a solid nose for spotting problems. Those countries which have postponed the necessary interventions for years will find that painful and far-reaching repairs are becoming increasingly more difficult and people will oppose them most. I fear that these are also the countries where Bannon’s 'The Movement' will find fertile ground in exploiting the current fears and uncertainties to the fullest. We cannot be naïve in this and certainly shouldn’t forget how successful disruptive campaigns have been in the Trump election and the making of the Brexit (see also this documentary of Channel 4). At the same time, we must realise that the European Union often has more credit than the government in the countries concerned (in Italy, for example, more than twice as much, see the 'I tend to trust ...' table above). It follows that in addition to pointing out obvious areas for necessary reform, the European Union actively and within clear financial frameworks needs to contribute to real solutions to the probing and evident problems in those countries. It should endeavour to use a carrot-and-stick approach (see for example my 2016 article 'Only balanced solidarity can save the euro').
In the countries where people are more concerned about the deterioration of the social services standards (education, health care, the environment, housing), other sentiments play a role, but these too cannot be underestimated. We will have to be keen on the 'fake news' -like expressions and scaremongering with apocalyptic stories about immigration and terrorism which, even according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, by now cause few Europeans worries. We must also be careful not to embrace identity politics, which divides societies and sets up groups against each other. Politics must centre around fairly and honestly addressing real problems with arguments, being able to manage expectations and assuming responsibility. It helps, as is often the case in the Netherlands (!), to stay clear from treating politics as a zero-sum game, but instead deal with conflicting interests and striving for consensus. The ‘polder-model’ has been repeatedly declared dead by the media and parties outside the political centre, and yet it is the only way to rational political decision-making. There is no place in politics for those politicians who (sometimes almost literally) light fires, fuel riots, but when the time has come to make decisions and accept compromises, cowardly turn their back.
Political parties do well to realise this properly. They are responsible for monitoring all interests, including those of the middle class. It is a delicate balance. They must work both to solve civic problems as well as possible and to ensure the continued quality and financial health of our system. If they lean too much to populism and opportunistic politics, they ignite uncontrollable sentiments. From experiences in the southern part of the EU, it is clear what happens if we lose sight of this necessary balance. Although this is not an easy task, it is nonetheless a constitutional duty for politicians and their ultimate reason for being.