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Executive Education

The hidden impact of the populist wave

Populism has become a significant force worldwide, with Brexit and the Trump administration being perhaps the most striking examples. At its epicenter is a rejection of assumptions about integrative global relations. For HEC Paris Professor Jeremy Ghez, this focus on reactionary short-term changes over long-term stability, is threatening the very foundations of the European Union.

the hidden impact of the populist wave banner

Sending out the message - “i want change”

The success of populist politicians is a direct result of the widening gap between government assurances that ‘everything's okay’ and the increasing number of people experiencing economic vulnerability, unemployment and stagnating wages, affirms Professor Ghez.

This perceived chasm between politics and reality means that everything that used to be non-negotiable is now open to question. ‘Universal truths’ such as ‘free trade drives the economy’, ‘multilateralism generates greater stability ’, and ‘authoritarian power is dangerous’ are now being challenged.


Rejectionism as opposed to populism

For Professor Ghez, a generalized sense of hopelessness played a significant role in the Brexit vote in 2016. “There was a feeling of I have nothing to lose anymore. If I l vote for Brexit, for the Front National or Donald Trump, at least I’m sending out a clear message - enough is enough. I’m not gaining anything from the system and I want change.”

To describe Brexit as populist would, however, only be scraping the surface. Professor Ghez argues that the most appropriate term to describe it would be "rejectionist". Supporters of the leave vote were tired of not seeing any direct benefits from EU membership, and that is why they demanded an alternative.

"They’re seeking a return to the fantasy of splendid isolation. But it’s far from clear that Brexit can provide the answers to the issues it promises to solve.”

- Professor Jeremy Ghez


Educating for the future

What, then, does this mean for the EU? Populism tends to focus on the short term, which gives the EU an opportunity to capitalize its key strengths. That is to say, an integrative ability to go beyond geo-political rivalries and bring countries together in a common goal. Populism is all about protecting jobs rather than investing in training and in the future. But protectionism simply doesn't work anymore. "It’s going against the march of technology and the march of globalization. The notion that you’ll stay at the same company and the same job forever is no longer true. Instead of protecting jobs, you need to protect people.”

“Investing in education and training creates stability and prepares populations to face the long-term challenges of globalization.” Professor Ghez also feels that there is an urgent need to develop and implement structures to care for the most marginalized in society. The EU has to face the fact that “in the current system there are people who are far more vulnerable than others.”


The balance of power

For Professor Ghez, demonstrating the power of the EU’s “anti-populist, anti-geopolitical paradigm will require education, imagination and the ability rethink what the terms anti-populist and integrative really mean.”

“Most institutions don’t disappear, they just become irrelevant,” he explains, “and this is now a major risk for the European Union.” The EU has to find its place alongside China’s ‘authoritative’ model and the ‘populist’ model of the US, while at the same time maintaining “a powerful sense of what makes the EU different and demonstrating that there is a viable alternative to geopolitical rivalries.”

“The EU is at its best when it’s able to take care of vulnerable populations, contain populist waves, and bring countries together,” says Professor Ghez. “That is what a truly unified EU should look like.”

Based on an interview with JEREMY GHEZ, Affiliate Professor of Economics and International Affairs and Co-Director of the Center for Geopolitics at HEC Paris.