Itʹs an ill wind

The latest triumph of anti-European parties in Italy′s elections earlier this week makes one thing clear: populism in Europe is not yet on its way out. To what extent the EU is at risk of going under as a result, remains to be seen. By Zaki Laidi

By Zaki Laidi

"Europe has the wind in its sails," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed in his State of the Union address last September. But are its sails too tattered to propel Europe forwards?

To be sure, ten years after the global economic crisis, Europeʹs economy is finally returning to growth and, with it, confidence. And Junckerʹs optimism probably also reflected the triumph in Franceʹs presidential election last year of the pro-European Emmanuel Macron, who advocates deep reforms – including banking union, fiscal union and a federal budget – to advance integration.

But recent elections in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy tell a different story: a serious threat to Europeʹs future – right-wing populism – remains very much alive. Although the economic crisis is over, its scars remain fresh.

Middle- and working-class households are still recovering from the decline in their purchasing power and they well recall how banks, which had been bailed out by the state, curtailed credit. For many citizens, the lesson seemed clear: in todayʹs Europe, gains are privatised and losses are socialised.

Matteo Salvini of the right-wing populist League during a campaign rally in Turin (photo: AP/picture-alliance)
A populist tsunami: following this week′s elections in Italy, Matteo Salvini′s right-wing League and the anti-European Five Star Movement are jostling for power. Leader of the Social Democrats Matteo Renzi announced he was stepping down following his party′s historic defeat at the polls. The election result was welcomed by populists across Europe. Nevertheless, who will ultimately end up governing Italy, with its wealth of economic problems, remains unclear

A question of solidarity

The upshot of this assessment was the belief that economic and political elites – enabled by the European Union – would always act to maintain their position and impose their will on ordinary people. The push for austerity in struggling countries, rather than counter-cyclical measures that would have curtailed the slowdown seemed to confirm this impression.

To change this perception, EU leaders would need to agree on the fundamental causes of the crisis and develop a strategy for avoiding another one. And, so far, they have achieved neither task, with two main groups of countries adopting conflicting interpretations of the problem.

The first camp – which includes Greece, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France – reproaches the EU for its lack of solidarity. Italy, for example, submitted to austerity, but has not benefited from a return to strong growth. Moreover, the country fears that a banking union will reduce its room for manoeuvre in repairing its own broken banking system. And, with France and Germany front and centre, Italy does not even enjoy significant prestige within the Union.All of this breeds resentment, particularly amongst those who feel abandoned or betrayed by Europe. As a result, Italy, once a leading supporter of European integration, is among the most sceptical of further integration today.

The second camp – including countries like Austria and the Netherlands – makes the opposite complaint. Many in these countries feel that they have suffered as a result of "European solidarity", even as they have worked hard to secure their own prosperity. Given this, they tend to believe that Europe should focus on deepening the single market, not on deepening fiscal and political union. Here, too, resistance to further integration is fuelling support for populist parties.

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a key speech setting out her vision of Brexit at Mansion House on 02.03.2018 in London (photo: Getty Images/L. Neal)
Theresa May set out five tests for the future deal between the UK and the EU. She believes a broad and deep free trade agreement will be achievable and the EU referendum was a vote to "take control of our borders, laws and money" ... "not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours"

But economics is not the only factor stoking populism. Three other factors are also contributing, with migration undoubtedly the most important. Since 2015, when the number of migrants to Europe surged, right-wing populists have capitalised on widespread insecurity over immigration and identity, stoking Islamophobia and racism in order to win support.

Identitarianism and Brexit

Whereas Europeʹs divide over the economy is north-south, on migration, the split is between east and west. Central and Eastern European countriesʹ histories of shifting borders and bullying by larger states have made the policing of cultural boundaries central to their political identity. And today, they reject migration so strongly that they have refused to fulfil their responsibility, as EU members, to accept the European Commissionʹs refugee quotas.

For these overwhelmingly homogeneous countries, being compelled to accept migrants could be enough to make EU membership unappealing, despite the massive economic benefits it has brought.

Another source of pressure on the EU – and a potential source of fuel for the populist fire – is Brexit. While withdrawal from the EU will impose massive costs on the United Kingdom, frustrated EU members may now regard the threat of exit as more potent and thus a potentially effective tool for resisting integration in the name of national sovereignty.

And while populists may be the most extreme voices advocating such resistance, they are being enabled by Europeʹs conservatives. The EU reprimands Poland for its governmentʹs illiberal policies, but tolerates Hungary, because Prime Minister Viktor Orbanʹs Fidesz Party is affiliated with the European Peopleʹs Party and thus protected by Germanyʹs Christian Democrats.

Symbol of the imminent trade war between the United States of America and the European Union through the imposition of punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports (source: Imago/Ralph Peters)
Divide and conquer: Trump’s impulsivity and his preference for international relations built on personal chemistry is prompting many European leaders to pursue their own national interests when it comes to forging ties with the USA, further undermining the diplomatic status of the European Union as a whole

Trumpʹs impact

The final factor sustaining populism in Europe is U.S. President Donald Trump, whose hostility toward the EU is only thinly veiled. Of course, widespread opposition to Trump could serve as a kind of unifying force in the EU, which would not hesitate to respond if Trumpian protectionism or other policies ended up affecting its members directly.

But, for now, Europeʹs individual countries seem eager to try their luck individually with Trump. Notably, Macron wants to use direct engagement with Trump to strengthen Franceʹs standing both in Europe, where the UKʹs former influence might appear to be up for grabs and more broadly. Others regard Trump as a potential source of protection. Some Central and Eastern European leaders also see him as a source of legitimacy for their own populist agendas.

So Europeʹs populist tide is far from receding. But the extent to which the EU is at risk of being swept away by it is unclear – and is likely to remain so, as the grey area between mainstream and populist parties continues to grow.

Zaki Laidi

© Project Syndicate 2018