Citizens must believe politicians are working for the public good



The world has just witnessed ‘charismatic’ populist politicians successfully tap a pool of discontent by promising easy fixes to complex issues to sometimes desperate people.

The first outcome was Brexit, the second the victory of Donald Trump. The word ‘unprecedented’ is often used to describe the twin phenomena. History shows they were anything but. The past is full of big men with easy catch cries and an economically insecure populace ready to believe them.

It remains  unclear how both events will play out in Europe or globally  yet the EU’s 2017 election cycle suggests little time for navel-gazing.  With the National Front’s Marine le Pen contesting the French Presidency next year and her Dutch counterpart Geert Wilders also boosted by the Brexit/Trump triumphs mainstream European parties are no longer refusing to imagine the previously unimaginable.

The denial is slowing fading and the recent decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to run for a fourth term of office is the strongest signal to date of just how seriously liberal democrats in Europe are viewing the threat to their dominance.

If Donald Trump’s success was largely unpredicted, that failure was due to a failure of imagination and empathy. The belief that the articulation of apparent racist, xenophobic or misogynistic beliefs would cue the immediate end of a high level national political campaign was quite literally trumped by a pitch-perfect appeal to the core of many voters’ professed real concerns – decent jobs, wages,  and the possibility of scaling another economic rung or two in their lifetimes.

Many Trump voters were able to overcome revulsion towards the man because of his astute identification of their economic pain and the production of a graphic list of scapegoats to blame for it, the latter tapping into expressed and latent racist and xenophobic views of less sensitive supporters.

However, it is important nonetheless to separate out the personalities leading the populist campaigns from the bedrock economic realities that allowed their voices to be heard. Otherwise, the crisis of populist distrust and economic anxiety will continue to spread.

Inequality makes people susceptible to the siren and cynical call of populists but also allows misogyny and racism to flourish. This is the real lesson of the Trump victory and one that should be foremost when we consider the EU’s equivalents of the “Rust Belt” including  youth unemployment rates in some parts of Europe of 40% or higher. And as in the US,  the so-called ‘gig’ economy is also upending certitudes about job security even as social protection norms are also threatened.

However, accepting that old ghosts could be awakened in Europe does not mean surrendering to an inevitable conclusion. It is rather a call to action.

Citizens must believe that politicians are working for the public good. Trump’s constant accusations against the political establishment generally that it was ‘crooked’ and out for nothing but self-enrichment struck a major campaign chord.  The only way that those claims can be counteracted is by demonstrably proving the opposite and this is where the OGP must play a significant role and notably through its work in making administrations at every level more open, accountable, and ethical.

If this does not happen, economically insecure citizens will continue to use the latest high-impact weapon at their disposal – a vote for ‘anti-establishment’ populists. Many who voted for Brexit or Trump were exercising that power strategically, not – counter intuitively – to have someone like Trump necessarily in power, but rather to force those currently in power to speak and attend to their concerns.

As European Ombudsman, I intervened in the case concerning the appointment of former European Commission President Barroso to Goldman Sachs bank, urging the European Commission to be mindful of the widespread public concern at what many see as further proof of an overly close relationship between politicians and business. It was clear that this move would provide great ammunition for populists and this indeed happened. I await a final Commission response on the matter. However, while high profile cases like that attract attention, an institution is more than just its political representatives. Strong ethics rules need to apply throughout an administration and the Commission has started to publish details about senior officials moving to the private sector and any restrictions placed on them.

But these welcome moves  are diluted if citizens feel that their national administrations are too accommodating of private and not public interests and  if populists appear to be offering them the change they want -  even if only rhetorically - then it is the populists who will win.

The media and democracy watchdogs such as Ombudsmen must continue to hold public institutions to account and those institutions must become their own best selves, led by people whose sole and overriding interest is that of the public that they serve.


Emily O’Reilly
European Ombudsman


Authors: Emily O'Reilly