In a previous post I mentioned the binary thinking that characterises much of the current debate about “populism”. Perhaps the best example of that binary thinking is the idea that there is a new fault line in politics between “open” and “closed” that is more important than, or has even replaced, the fault line between left and right. This argument is generally made by centrists like Tony Blair (e.g. here) and Emmanuel Macron, who successfully used the idea in the presidential campaign in 2017. There is clearly something to the idea that there is a new fault line that cuts across the divide between left and right, but thinking of it in terms of “open” and “closed” is problematic in all kinds of ways. In particular, it seems to me to be misleading and simplistic to identify the European Union with the idea of “openness”.
It is above all against the background of the referendum on British membership of the EU that took place in June 2016 that “pro-European” centrists have come to identify the European project with the idea of “open” societies and an “open” world and both left-wing and right-wing Eurosceptics with the idea of “closed” societies and a “closed” world. Macron seems to have concluded from the Brexit referendum that the EU is at the centre of this new ideological battle between “open” and “closed”. He ran as a “pro-European” candidate who was in favour of “openness” – as opposed to the “closed” vision of Front National leader Marine Le Pen. It worked. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the identifying the EU with “openness” and Eurosceptics with “closedness” is unhelpful – the reality is much more complex.
For example, to listen to many “pro-Europeans”, you would think the EU is against borders altogether rather than just internal ones. The reality, of course, is that while seeking to abolish internal borders, the EU has sought to strengthen its external borders – and the former probably makes the latter more necessary. In a sense, therefore, “pro-Europeans” simply want move borders from one place to another. Conversely, it is not at all clear that Eurosceptics stand for a “closed” world. Many of those who voted to leave the EU in the referendum in the UK did so because they wanted a radically “open” world – at least in terms of trade. This also illustrates that it is possible to want “openness” in some respects (e.g. movement of capital and goods) and “closedness” in others (e.g movement of people).
Framing the choice for voters in terms of “open” and “closed” clearly worked for Macron as a political strategy in France in 2017. But the limits of the idea of a new fault line between “open and “closed” is illustrated by the challenge he faces now that he is president. France is fighting a political battle with Germany over reform of the EU and in particular the eurozone. In his recent speech in Aachen, Macron was more critical of Germany than he had been in previous speeches on Europe. But though the argument is often thought of in geographical terms (France against Germany or north against south), it is in a sense a straightforward battle between the left and right about how much redistribution there should be within the EU. In this context, the ideas of “open” and “closed” don’t really help.