In Europe, the Split Between Open and Closed Has Not Replaced Traditional Politics

Though there are new divides, the fault line between left and right has not gone away.

Expert comment Published 18 June 2018 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Emmanuel Macron visits Berlin in January 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

Emmanuel Macron visits Berlin in January 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

Much of the discussion about ‘populism’ that is currently taking place is hopelessly binary and reductive. Perhaps the best example of this 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.

In particular, against the background of the referendum on British membership of the EU, ‘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.

Emmanuel 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, identifying the EU with openness and Eurosceptics with ‘closedness’ is misleading. And like the term populism itself, the idea of a contrast between open and closed is often simply used by elites as a way to discredit ideas or policies they do not like.

There is clearly something to the idea that there is a fault line that cuts across the divide between left and right – political scientists have long categorized ideas, movements and parties along an authoritarian/libertarian axis that complements the left/right axis. But to frame this divide in terms of open and closed is too simple. It is not true that pro-Europeans want openness any more than Eurosceptics in any meaningful sense.

The idea of a fault line between open and closed usually refers to attitudes to trade and migration – even if this is not always spelled out clearly by advocates of the idea – and is thus closely connected to debates about globalization. But it is not clear that pro-Europeans – that is, those who support the European Union in its current form – are any more in favour of open trade and open borders than Eurosceptics.

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 to move borders from one place to another. In particular, German pro-Europeans simply want borders to be as far away from Germany as possible – which both benefits the German economy and makes Germans feel morally superior.

The picture is similarly complex when it comes to open and closed in terms of trade. Clearly, there are some Eurosceptics who want to impose new trade barriers within the EU or between the EU and the rest of the world. But many are economic liberals who see the EU as a protectionist bloc. For example, many of those in the UK who voted to leave the EU 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 (the mobility of capital and goods) and ‘closedness’ in others (mobility of people) – and this is neither hypocritical nor inconsistent.

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 this new fault line are 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. Macron has recently become 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.

This is a debate that has been going on for years, where the ideas of open and closed don’t really help. Though there are clearly new divides in European politics, not least over culture and identity, the fault line between left and right has not gone away.