The European Union is currently experiencing a rise in populism that threatens to unravel decades of European integration. Populist groups are exploiting the widespread discontent over the European Union’s handling of the migrant crisis and the still struggling economy. If EU decision-makers are complacent with these groups and their appeal, then populist parties will strengthen, and the shortsighted alternatives they offer may become reality.
Fear and anger have fueled the populist narrative that politicians in Brussels and in national capitals are ineffective elites who ignore the people. The European Union’s modern populists are definitively Eurosceptic and anti-establishment, while their policy proposals are largely xenophobic and anti-globalization. They are taking legitimate concerns about the sluggish economy, the influx of refugees, and terrorism to advocate for an end to the political status quo. What used to be rhetoric echoed only by fringe parties is now creeping into mainstream political discourse, and these parties are scoring major wins.
The biggest populist victory in Europe to date is Brexit, which would not have happened without the UK Independence Party (UKIP). For years, UKIP argued that the United Kingdom could only manage mass migration and thrive economically outside the European Union. UKIP was largely overlooked in British and European politics until this manifesto became more relevant and began to resonate with voters. Electoral success in recent European and national elections strengthened UKIP’s position as it campaigned for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. For populist parties across Europe, UKIP’s story is inspiring, and Brexit has seemingly legitimized their platforms, while also galvanizing their supporters.
Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, France’s Front National, Austria’s Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, and similar parties across the European Union are becoming serious contenders in municipal and national elections. Populist parties also currently control 99 of the 751 seats in the European Parliament. They have gotten this far by tapping into frustrations about the failing migrant policy and ineffective economic reforms. While these parties may not control any national governments or EU institutions yet, they are on paths to victory.
There are also growing concerns there may be future membership referenda in countries with growing Euroscepticism. In his State of the Union speech on September 14, 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker said, “Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” Days later, European Council President Donald Tusk convened a meeting in Bratislava, saying EU leaders must “bring back stability and a sense of security” to their citizens. EU leaders recognize the growing problem, but it is not clear they entirely understand it, and it is certain they do not have an effective solution yet.
EU leaders, for the most part, believe transferring more power to the EU institutions will solve even the most daunting challenges. While deeper integration has been the trend and goal for 60 years, the tides have turned against this conventional wisdom, which is troubling for EU leaders who are unsure how to govern differently.
If EU leaders ignore this populism, while continuing to absorb powers from national governments, then they will merely be perpetuating the populist narrative. The European Union’s establishment will appear unresponsive, which will inevitably pave the way for populist victories at the polls.
EU leaders must proactively and assertively address the concerns of the people. They can succeed by harnessing what is left of European solidarity and using existing mechanisms to enact policies that reflect contemporary realities, not altruistic dreams. They must delegitimize the populist narrative by proving them wrong and regaining trust, all without manipulating people’s fears. This will not be easy, but it is necessary.
Donald Trump’s victory this November in the US presidential election proved that this modern strain of populism is infectious. One exception is Austria’s recent presidential election that resulted in the defeat of Norbert Hofer, the candidate from the far-right and populist Austrian Freedom Party. However, this contest was merely a single battle in a much larger war that is only just beginning. France, Germany, the Netherlands, and several other European countries have presidential or parliamentary elections next year. These races feature populist parties with real chances of winning and in some instances the mainstream parties have even adopted similar platforms featuring Euroscepticism and xenophobia.
In 2017, populist parties could become formal oppositions to national governments. They may even be needed to forge coalitions in future elections. It is even possible for them to win a national election in their own right. If these possibilities were to become realities, then there would undoubtedly be further dissolution of the European Union. This assertion is rooted in the fair assumption that populist parties would hinder and obstruct the European Union’s ability to enact policy, which would increase Euroscepticism. It is a vicious circle that must be stopped now before it is too late.
Corey Cooper earned his BA in International Studies from American University in 2016. Corey is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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