Political scientist Heather Grabbe: Let’s make the EU the best it can be

Estonian World sat down with Dr Heather Grabbe, a political scientist focussing on open society concerns, who believes that the people of Europe should make the European Union the best it can be, address its flaws and solve its problems.

On 2 October, the Open Estonia Foundation held the XXII Open Society Forum in Tallinn, discussing the topic, the “Long Shadow of the Financial Crisis – Social Strains and Economic Recovery” on a wider level, as well as concentrating on “Estonia – State of Affairs”.

Estonian World had a talk with Dr Heather Grabbe, the executive director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. Grabbe is a political scientist focussing on open society concerns and issues and has been listed among the five most important “Women who shape Brussels 2017” by the Politico magazine.

What is the exact purpose of the Open Society European Policy Institute?

The purpose of the Open Society European Policy Institute is to encourage the European Union to pay attention to human rights and European values in all of its external areas like laws, security, trade etc. Within the European Union, we make sure that the EU’s values, particularly the rule of law, human rights, rights of minorities and vulnerable people as well as gender quality are observed and continued to live and breathe. An open society is a society where people are able to discuss these issues and where the rights are a healthy part of the society. We work to make sure that the EU really upholds these values and is implementing them.

Also, to keep raising the difficult issues there are in Europe today, particularly of the most vulnerable people – we work a great deal on the “voiceless” people, who really don’t have voices in the political debate: for example, the Roma, who are the largest minority in Europe and have very little representation. There are also other vulnerable groups and minorities in many countries that we work with, but the Roma, they have very little representation anywhere and their voice also needs to be heard.

What are the most difficult issues we are facing in Europe today?

The key issue is changing expectations among the public and about different institutions. There has been a fall in the level of trust in democratic institutions, there’s been a rise of political parties and political leaders who essentially say to the public that they cannot trust political institutions. That is a very big challenge because if you don’t have these institutions, who does speak up for rights? These are the institutions we have relied on in democratic countries for several hundred years already. It’s quite hard to maintain public interest in democratic debate if they don’t believe in the institutions of democracy.

A democracy has to live and breathe through the public engagement in it. But if people believe that, for example, political parties don’t work in their interest or if they don’t believe that the parliament can be trusted to work in their interest, if they don’t engage in public debate, then we start to lose democracy. How do you restore trust in the institutions, especially if these institutions are not necessarily performing very well?

“A democracy has to live and breathe through the public engagement in it.”

At the Open Society European Institute, we are not here to defend institutions, we are here to say, “let’s make them work the best they can for the public interest”. It is really worrying how much institutions are not responding to the fall in public trust by engagement with the public.

Estonia sees itself as between East and the West as well as much more Nordic. Similar to the AfD in Germany, there has been a rise of populism in Estonia in the last few years. Do you see a general loss of trust and a rise of populism in Europe or are there different divides within Europe? How do you view Europe as a whole – is it still divided into East and West and what are the general tendencies?

The main thing is that populism is a style of politics that adapts itself to the political opportunities available in a particular environment, in a particular country. Which is why we see a variety of a different kind of populism across Europe. Obviously, there are some common themes, as you pointed out – the migration sentiment is a kind of narrow acceptable version of racism. In the past, populist parties tended to be anti-Semitic; nowadays they tend to be more anti-Muslim. Still, all of them find that they can talk about migration without sounding as if they were overtly racist, but still putting forward the idea that the foreigners are to blame for the country’s problems. So that is a fundamental thing.

Populism is not so much an ideology, as a view of what politics and society are about. I’ve done quite a lot of academic work on this and I’ve drawn on the works of Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, as well as other British political scientists, who strongly claim that populism is a normal part of politics. It is usually on the fringes, but what is happening now is that it’s growing so much faster due to the vacuum that is left by the mainstream, traditional parties. Their withdrawal has allowed populism to flourish and to become much bigger that it was before. It has increased from 8% of the vote in 2000 to 24% of the vote now across the whole of the European Union.

Now, there are some big differences across countries in these figures, but all in all, it is really significant that there is just so much increase in many different countries, as you pointed out as well. What we see is that populism moulds itself around the national concerns. In countries like the Netherlands, where LGBT rights are well-respected and there is little homophobia, populists don’t oppose gay rights – in fact, they do the opposite. Geert Wilders and his party, they, in turn, blame the Muslims for not respecting gay rights, or women’s rights. It is moulding itself to what’s happening in that country.

Whereas, in Hungary, there are much higher levels of antisemitism, and the populism is drawing on that background and blaming Jews. You do not see that much in countries where antisemitism is much lower. It is this moulding of the populism that is so significant.

“Populism moulds itself around the national concerns.”

What is so dangerous about populism at the moment is that it reaches this kind of high level, especially the number of populists there are in any government. The populists are usually not offering any kind of solutions, they are pointing the fingers of blame. Typically, three fingers of blame – they blame the elite, the external enemy and the internal enemy. This blame politics leads to hatred, it leads to social tensions, it leads to fears. That means that very often it does not lead to solutions or long-term policy proposals, because there are often very few actual policy proposals from populists.

This is an issue in national politics, but it is even more of a problem in the European Union, because populists oppose many European values – of tolerance, equality, respect for the rights of minorities, gender equality etc. But populists also oppose the EU’s working methods, because they spread a narrative that you cannot trust foreigners, you cannot trust people who are different from you – that means that they oppose the whole concept of foreigners working across borders on joined projects, and especially elites working across borders – what the European Union is actually all about.

Populists are absolutely against the idea that the elite of their country should be the elite of other countries and do deals, because for them, negotiation is not possible, compromise is not possible and foreigners are to be mistrusted. To sum it up, their worldview and mindset is absolutely opposite of that of the European integration.

This theme is very appropriate in Estonia as well. Our main concern, I guess, is still the difficult Soviet past and integrating our Russian-speaking population better. However, the populists here have mostly attacked the refugees, the Muslims, gay rights – all of it which make a very small part of the actual day-to-day issues. It seems to be a fear-mongering of something that is not really the main concern.

That is very typical of populism. The politics of fear is something that works exceptionally well in countries where people have reached a high level of prosperity – for example, Austria – and they feel they have a lot to lose through the changes. In countries that have suffered from dictatorship or very difficult history recently, like Estonia, but also, for example, Spain and Portugal, there is often a less of an appeal of populism.

“In countries that have suffered from dictatorship or very difficult history recently, like Estonia, but also, for example, Spain and Portugal, there is often a less of an appeal of populism.”

Populists can claim there are Muslims who are coming, claim there is a threat, but people have, in their living memory, known that things can be much worse that the democratic system they work and live in now. That seems to have an immunising impact.

I can agree that a lot of the Spanish people still remember the times under Franco, and they often compare it to the Soviet times in Estonia, even when the latter seemed to have been even worse.

Exactly, they value the rights and the freedom they now have, they understand that democratic institutions are incredibly important and that they are the source of our freedom. That is what I think what is missing in debate in some countries in Europe where there is a sense of taking many things for granted.

What would be your message to the Estonian society? One of the last polls we had recently stated that quite a high number, 69%, still supports the EU. Estonians do see and feel the benefits of the EU and Schengen.

I am definitely not an expert on Estonia, but I have had the pleasure of coming here for visits since the mid-1990s. Particularly during the period before Estonia was accepted to the EU, I was here a lot and find Estonia to be a very fascinating country.

That is a very high number, you can be proud of yourself. Much higher than in many countries at the moment. It is crucial that Estonians see the benefits of the EU and Schengen despite the economic crisis of the last decade. Quite soon after Estonia joined the eurozone, there was the economic crisis, a big contraction in the GDP and a lot of suffering in this country. And yet, people do not blame the EU, which I was think is also very interesting. Very different from certain other countries!

On some level, the Estonian people are even proud that our government took austere measures to cope with the crisis. I wrote my master thesis back in 2011, the height of the Greek economic crisis, while studying at a German university, and analysed the attitudes and media discourse in Estonia, Germany and the UK towards Greece and the crisis itself. All three countries took a very different approach and discourses, but to sum up, it seems that with the Estonian mentality that, in tough times, you have to tighten your belt, hang on and hope things will get better in the future, instead of always placing blame. I guess these polls also show that my generation is still hopeful about the future and that we can change something.

It is actually very important that countries like Estonia engage in the European Union. It might seem this is a union of big countries, especially Germany, and very often people get the impression that the voices of small countries don’t count. Actually, they do. The way the EU was set up was to make sure that smaller countries’ opinion, votes and voices are also heard. For example, the way a lot of the business is done through the European Council, very often it is done by consensus.

The Estonian representation still very much matters and that is why the EU is still the best sense of security in an uncertain world, where the whole of Europe is going to become less significant on the global stage – both in the terms of the GDP as well as in terms of population.

There was a nice comment by Paul-Henri Spaak who was the Belgian prime minister decades ago – he said, “There are only small countries in Europe now. The only difference is between those who know it and those who don’t.” I think there can be a delusion of grandeur among some of the larger member states. They might think they are big now, but over the coming decades, they are going to get smaller and smaller in terms of GDP and population.

“There are only small countries in Europe now. The only difference is between those who know it and those who don’t.”

On a global stage, the EU is absolutely essential in the European countries who are all together in the EU in facing global challenges that no one country can face on their own, no matter how big – climate change, digital revolution, changing demographics – which, in turn, will change welfare systems. These are the things that need pan-European coordination, where we need to pull together and speak with one voice. Within that voice, the voices of the smaller countries still definitely count, and they have a role to play.

My main advice is that let’s make the EU the best it can be, let’s address its flaws, solve the problems within EU and let’s appreciate that this is the best thing that has ever happened in Europe.

Winston Churchill also used to say that democracy is the worst form of government we have, except all those other kinds that we’ve tried from time to time. The European Union is also the worst way of managing Europe as a region, except all the others that we’ve tried over the centuries that have led into terrible wars and terrible tyranny.

How should the EU prepare for the next crisis, be it economic or a value crisis?

The value crisis is definitely raging right now. There are obviously things that need to be done to prepare for the next economic crisis and I think most countries know very well what needs to be done, the question is only the political will to do it.

On the value crisis that also really concerns me currently, I think the EU needs to get a grip on the rule of law, because it is the rule of law that allows the whole of the rest of European integration to function. Without the rule of law, there can be no single market, there can be no European arrest warrants, there can be no Schengen with borderless travel. If we allow some member states or some parties to undermine the rule of law, by defying the rulings of the Court of Justice, by saying that they simply won’t implement some parts of the EU law – that will destroy the whole system.

This is why it really matters – it is not just a matter of some unpleasant populism in small countries that doesn’t matter, that is not the actual situation. The actual matter is that some governments and some parties who would like to take over the state institutions in their own countries are threatening now the whole European Union by undermining the rule of law.

This is really worrying and, I think, it is absolutely essential that the EU prepares for the next crisis and gets grip on the values now. Of course, the European Union also needs to develop a comprehensive migration and asylum policy. It is only possible to do that if there is a problem-solving mindset among all of the member states, instead of a do-it-alone mindset among some.

What would be your advice for UK? Is there anything left to save?

As a pro-European British person, is it really painful to watch my country’s government against the interests of the British people. I firmly believe Britain’s future would be far better remaining in the EU – the economic future, but also its cultural future.

I hope that after Brexit, Britain will still have a very close relationship with the EU and work can be done to re-build ties with other countries, including Estonia. As you might know, you have some really big fans in Britain! I hope that after Brexit, the top debates about Europe and about the foreigners, especially about the xenophobia that has grown, will diminish. It will be a difficult process and I think Britain will go through a long period of economic pain and a slowly dawning realisation that this was a huge mistake.

Where do you think this sudden xenophobia and hatred of foreigners, Eastern Europeans, Polish workers etc in the UK really comes from? What can be done?

Psychologists write on that topic all the time – it is simply a fear of the foreign, fear of the unknown. Political leaders and opinion-formers, writers and academics should not encourage those fears in Europe, it only gets worse. They have the responsibility not to do that, but to educate people, to talk about the common humanity that binds us.

“Political leaders, opinion-formers, writers and academics have the responsibility to educate people, to talk about the common humanity that binds us.”

Also, they need to talk about the need for labour outside our own country to fill the employment gaps and need for an open economic economy, especially in terms of the labour market. In Britain, there has not only been a dereliction of duty, but also an irresponsible fanning of the flames of xenophobia – there was nothing natural or preordained about it, that was a political choice made by certain political parties.

All of this has a long-term effect on the British society and it damages the social fabric, it affects families, it affects children, it affects everyone who suffer from this much more xenophobic atmosphere.


More information on the Open Estonia Foundation can be found on its website.

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