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Behind citizen’s powerlessness: nostalgia, resentment and hope

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Behind citizen’s powerlessness: nostalgia, resentment and hope


With our eyes now turning towards Brussels and the upcoming launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe, attention and excitement are high. But so is the feeling of being powerless to influence EU politics among European citizens. From the perspective of EU democratic legitimacy this is becoming unsustainable. While the Conference might be the solution, it can also make things worse, considering the strength and multitude of emotional drivers there are behind powerlessness. It is imperative that the hope that the Conference inspires lives up to the scope of feelings of nostalgia and resentment, before those, once combined, turn into an explosive mix.

By Camille Dobler.

For those studies that have been trying to explain attitudes towards European integration, powerlessness was already a common feature behind citizens’ fatalism when it comes to EU politics for almost twenty years. Feelings of powerlessness reflect both the impossibility to get to grips with politics, to influence its course, and a feeling of strangeness vis a vis the political itself. How to influence EU politics, given the extent of multinational lobbying? How to trust EU institutions, if they are themselves powerless to counteract the forces of globalisation? Why vote, if at the end, unelected officials decide or if treaties will be changed no matter what?

Hence, when it comes to the EU, fatalism often took the appearance of indifference, as low turn-out in EU elections and poor knowledge of the EU attest (1). But far from signifying an absence of affects, such ‘apathetic’ behavior is rather made of a plethora of emotions. How could it be different? Norbert Elias used to define emotions as the sum of all our past experiences, embedded within familial and cultural predispositions. Each European family has its own tale(s) of integration, binational love-stories, memories of transnational solidarity and immigration, heritage of past crimes, and experiences of unforgettable travels. Each member state has its own dominant narrative of Europe: friendship, peace, prosperity, freedom, liberalism. Each event adds its own contribution to this Babel tower: hope against totalitarian regimes and bellicose tendencies, enthusiasm with the enlargement process, disappointment and anger around the ‘failed’ Constitution for Europe, love for the EU of Erasmus, ambivalence after the debt crisis and anxiety following terrorist attacks. What about you? This mix of contradictory feelings, this emotional ambivalence of experiences of Europe which is at times difficult to cope with, might enter in contradiction with personal beliefs.

In his most recent volume, Pierre Rosanvallon touched on one aspect of this discomfort, by diagnosing a “cognitive distance” behind the much-commented social and political fracture, that is the contradictions felt between the “statistical truth” put forward by governments and European institutions to account for a general state of the European society and the personal experiences of citizens in their every-day life (2). Unemployment is decreasing we are being told, but does the fear of being unemployed fly away? Growth has returned in the Euro-zone and trust is back to its pre-crisis level, but did the German Wutbürger and the Spanish Indignados simply turn happy? Some emotions come and go, violent and brief that is true, but don’t they leave a mark, even unconscious? Faced with the uncomfortable contradictions resulting from a growing ‘cognitive distance’, feelings of powerlessness now seem to fuel a more critical form of citizenship: critical citizens are not only dissatisfied citizens, who feel that political power has to some extent been confiscated from them, they are also well-informed, interested and eager to get involved in politics. This is maybe what shines through the most out of the European Public Sphere Tour organised last year in eight European countries: as European citizens, we are not always perfectly-informed and rational. We do not fit the democratic liberal ideal, but nobody really does, and we know more than statistical truth tells. Our fear, anger and hope are indicative of something worth acknowledging, and in that sense are perfectly legitimate, but only to the extent that they do not alone lead our decisions. Reviewing the many stories shared by German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Luxembourgian, Austrian, Belgian, Polish during the Public Sphere Tour, to which we can also add the testimonies of French citizens if we include academic work using similar group-interviewing techniques, what is striking is the prevalence of three emotional climates: nostalgia, resentment and hope.

"What I always notice is that I somehow perceive politics as something totally in-tangible. [...] We vote and then it takes another few years until you can vote again (…) So that’s what I see as a bit critical of the whole international thing, that you simply want to tune everyone alike from above.” Participant at Hambach Forest*

Emotional climates are distinct from collective emotions. While the later can be defined as a single emotion shared between distinct individuals at the same time, an emotional climate is the resulting sum of potentially different individual emotions within a social group. Across European populations, nostalgia is the backward looking emotional climate of this trio. It knows as many different objects as there are countries, generations and political views in Europe. Some are nostalgic of the Lira, the Franc, or the Ost, others are longing for the old two-party system, or things they never even experienced. They want to return to a time before Dieselgate and pesticides, climate change, immigration, when things appeared simpler: no populism, no unemployment, no social media and fake news. What is common is a sentiment of loss, and whether it is fed by fantasy or reality matters less for politics than the frustration it creates. The prevalence of a climate of nostalgia in a context of resurgence of identity and mnemonic politics (PEGIDA is a telling example here) is far from anecdotal with researchers pointing to the nostalgia narratives, or nostalgic ideologies of the radical populist right (3). Feeling threatened by the future often leads to nostalgic accounts of the past and the success of right-wing populists is also explained in their offering of backward looking utopias. But not all nostalgic citizens are of course longing for an authoritarian shift. On the Public Sphere Tour, many expressed the sentiment of having lost a qualitative connection with politics and their representatives, and are longing for meaningful participation. The return of regions, municipal democracy and local citizens’ initiatives can also partly be understood as the remedy to a painful sentiment of having lost a democratic bond.

“What about the emissions? Those planes? The kerosene that is used there. And all those planes... there are more and more planes! There are more and more passengers, people always wanting more and more. Yes, that’s the economy, you can’t do anything against that anymore. You can’t undo it anymore.” Participant in The Hague*

Yet exclusively present focused, resentment might be much more disruptive than nostalgia. Often, resentment works in the background, silently until it moves to the foreground (4).  From individual grievances on the price of oil when filling up one’s car on his or her way to work, to realizing on crossroads and public squares that many others share similar grievances and frustrations. Resentment feeds directly from the emotional discomfort generated by the cognitive distance mentioned previously, and this feeling of loss that is nostalgia. Individual angers, fears and hopelessness turn into a potentially explosive climate of resentment against someone. To be resentful is to assign blame for this discomfort, and here too, many views coexist. Some blame ‘lobbies’, others political leaders or designated member state, and surprisingly so, not so much the ‘EU’ or ‘Europe’, as many bypass the European level to blame the forces of finance and globalization, or rather groups of individuals: the ‘elites’, ‘boomers’, religious minorities, migrants. What is interesting with resentment is that it includes strong motivational tendencies: literally, resentment shakes things up for those who are being blamed, for better or worse, by triggering civilian actions. If violent and exclusionary and discriminatory actions are the most visible, more commonly, resentment is being expressed and evacuated through sharing, negotiating, and reinforcing intergroup relations. In a way, the entire Public Sphere Tour consists of such a healthy outlet.

“That so little is happening when it comes to direct democracy in Germany, in the EU. And now the youth is taking up this topic and the idea of Europe. That encourages, I’ll say, my generation again, I find this incredibly important what happens there”. Participants in Schengen*

But thankfully, not is all gloom and doom! Strong hopes remain manifest in all discussions on Europe and its future and a future-looking climate of hope has always been the driving force of the process of European integration. Ahead of 2019 European elections, the European Parliament tasked a flash Eurobarometer survey on emotions, “to assess the overall climate in the EU countries”. The question was no longer whether citizens feel European or not, but precisely on how they “feel about the EU”. Interestingly, and in the limit of the four emotions investigated, the results do not conclude to a catastrophic scenario. If one third of respondents answered they first feel doubts when thinking of the EU, which goes in the direction of profound emotional ambivalence as suggested in this article, almost as many picked hope and confidence, while only 4% of those surveyed answered they feel nothing. There might be nostalgia and resentment but there are also hopes on the Future of Europe, on an ambitious Green New Deal, in the capacities of the European integration process to deliver on peace, prosperity and security, despite crises and contemporary challenges.

But with hope also invariably comes anxiety of future disappointment, something the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe would be well advised to keep in mind. With informational and significant influential value over beliefs and political attitudes, climates of nostalgia, resentment and hope are no longer only politically-induced but are more and more moving to the foreground of politics, carrying both advantages and risks for the democratic legitimacy of the EU. It remains to be seen whether European institutions are up to the political challenge of dealing with them openly, as to address citizens’ feelings of powerlessness properly first calls for listening and considering those emotions without prior judgements, but rather, with introspection.

* All quotes are taken from the Catalogue of Ideas from the Public Sphere Tour

The Ideas Catalogue of the European Public Sphere can be found here:

More pictures from the European Public Sphere can be found here:

[1] Virginie van Ingelgom, Integrating Indifference A Comparative, Qualitative and Quantitative Approach to the Legitimacy of European Integration, Colechester: ECPR Press, 2014

[2] Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Siècle Du Populisme. Histoire, Théorie, Critique, Paris: Seuil, 2020, pp. 32–33.

[3] Kenny, M. ‘Back to the populist future?: Understanding nostalgia in contemporary ideological discourse’ in Journal of Political Ideologies, 22(3), 2017, pp. 256–273 ; Boym, S., Future of Nostalgia. London: Basic, 2002

[4] Jack Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure. A Macrosociological Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

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