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Europe and the Year of the People

Gavin Hewitt | 12:27 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

There is a dirty word in Brussels. It is used to dismiss, to slap down, to end an argument. It is the word "populist". To be a populist is to be mistrusted at once, to mark yourself down as an outsider, to place yourself outside the walls of the Brussels European quarter.

I was reminded of this a few weeks back, over a story about high-earning European officials being entitled to three months off on full pay. According to reports in the Parliament, EU Commission President Barroso rejected the criticism by saying that he could not "accept populism against the European Civil Service".

Anti-Gaddafi demonstration in Brussels, 23 Feb 11

Delving into speeches I discover that Brussels critics are often denounced as "populists".

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of "populism" is "political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people's needs and wishes."

The alternative to "populism" is "elitism'', where a small group of high officials and professional politicians believe they know better than the people.

To a degree government in Europe is a mixture of both. It has to be. However, officials in Brussels will tell you that the EU could not have been built without an elite.

It marks out Europe as being different say from the United States.

In America power flows from the people upwards. Local elections select the heads of school boards and police chiefs. Key posts at state level are decided by the people. And it is the people who send Representatives and Senators to Washington. In many parts of Europe - and particularly in the EU - power drips from the top down.

Once, when Bill Clinton was about to go campaigning, he said "I'm off to see the people who hired me". You're unlikely to hear EU commissioners uttering such words.

Now I digress because in Europe the so-called "populists" spot a new cause. It is migration and North Africa. On Friday the European heads of government will meet in Brussels. Libya will be on the agenda. One of the key parts of their discussion will be on migration.

Yesterday more than 1,000 migrants landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in 14 boats. Certainly when I was there they were nearly all economic migrants from Tunisia. It does not yet appear that any have come from Libya, but surely they will. The Italian Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, who previously had warned of a "biblical exodus", said yesterday that "Europe is being invaded".

We know how these new arrivals will be processed. We know how they will be cared for. We know that some - if they come from Libya - will be fleeing fighting and upheaval.

What we don't know is what will become of these people. Certainly - with fighting continuing - Europe has a duty of care. But longer term there will be the question: should they be allowed to settle in Europe or encouraged to return?

It is, of course, the people's question and Europe's politicians shy away from giving a direct answer. The line is that if Europe invests in North Africa then fewer people will see the need to migrate. It looks as if North African countries will be encouraged on the road to democracy with development aid and possibly an easing of visa restrictions. There could even be trade concessions. Many ideas are floating out there. Some are controversial.

So into the vacuum steps Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the National Front in France. Buoyed up by strong poll ratings she has said she may visit Lampedusa next week.

Colonel Gaddafi himself has stoked the fire. He told a French newspaper that "you will have immigration - thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe. There will be no one to stop this anymore."

And here is the dilemma. If the elite is seen to be evasive on issues that matter to ordinary people then significant numbers turn away from mainstream parties.

Over the next few weeks important decisions have to be made over the euro and how to prevent a repeat of the crisis that has threatened the single currency. Some of the ideas - wrapped up in the words "economic governance" - may involve a significant transfer of power away from nation states to Brussels. It is too early to say what the final package will look like, but if the changes are dramatic it poses again the question as to whether the people should get a say.

2011 is turning out to be the year of the people. They triumphed in Tunisia and Egypt and are on the march elsewhere. They insist on being heard and are challenging the old order. China is among the countries that fears the year of the people. It censors the internet and rounds up activists tempted to demonstrate.

Europe, because of its history, fears populism. But the challenge for mainstream politicians with North Africa is to address the people's real questions - however difficult that may be.


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