LONDON – European Union heads of state just gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome at a time when nativist nationalists are threatening to destroy Europe’s open liberal societies. As the recent Dutch election showed, such forces can be defeated. But the capacity to do so will be tested in three more important elections – in France, Germany, and Italy – by next spring, and those who want the EU to survive will need to fight hard, and on many fronts.
The first step is to recognize how grave the populist threat really is. Liberal internationalists cannot afford to be complacent. Most thought it inconceivable that the British would vote to leave the EU, and yet they did. Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in the United States was largely dismissed, until he won.
Yet most Europeans continue to underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cyber and propaganda war against the West – a war that aims to help bring to power far-right populists bent on the EU’s destruction. Although Dutch voters flocked to the polls to deny victory to the extreme xenophobe Geert Wilders, the risk of another populist upset remains real.
It could take only one such upset to fatally wound the EU – particularly if that victory brings Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front to power in France in May. Even if Le Pen fails to win the presidency, the formation of an anti-euro government in Italy after its next election could fracture the currency union.
The situation is all the more delicate, because Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are already led by quasi-authoritarian nationalist governments that are boring holes in the EU from within. Add to that the destabilizing effects of Brexit and a US president who is openly hostile toward the EU (and supportive of Brexit and Le Pen), and the stakes of the upcoming elections become starkly apparent.
Even out of power, populists can do serious damage. Wilders finished a distant second in the Dutch election, but he nonetheless managed to push the winner, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to adopt a more intolerant stance toward immigrants. The prospect of a broad coalition government that excludes Wilders could enhance his influence, by making him the main opposition.
So those who want a reformed and thriving EU must do more to counter the populist threat, by dispelling the false perceptions that are fueling it, and providing positive and viable solutions to the real problems that are driving European voters to rebel against the establishment. To be sure, racism motivates some. But that does not explain why, for example, the National Front has surged from 10% in opinion polls a decade ago to nearly 30% now. There must be other forces at work. A major one is economic. Most Europeans – like many Americans who voted for Trump – have endured years of stagnant or falling living standards, and fear an even worse future for themselves and their children.
These voters are understandably angry that politicians and EU technocrats so badly mismanaged the crisis in the eurozone, unjustly bailing out banks while imposing austerity on everyone else. Many Europeans have lost trust in an EU establishment that seems incompetent, self-serving, and out of touch – a perception reinforced by EU leaders’ chaotic response to the refugee crisis, which populists have been quick to exploit by linking the newcomers to terrorism.
So the minority of Europeans who never liked the EU have seen their ranks swell with angry and fearful citizens, who feel that the system is rigged against them. Only 36% of Europeans now trust the EU, while just 31% trust national governments.
Some of these disenchanted citizens, particularly in Greece and Spain, have turned to left-wing parties. But many others have embraced far-right populists, who pledge to fight for “the people” (their supporters) against the “liberal establishment” (their opponents), whom they accuse of selling out the national interest to the EU, immigrants, and foreigners in general.
In this context, simply condemning the populists will not be enough. Pandering to them – say, by echoing their Euroskeptic or anti-immigrant rhetoric – is not a solution, either, because it merely reinforces atavistic views. In the Netherlands, support for the Labour Party, which chose an anti-immigrant leader, collapsed in the recent election.
A strictly technocratic fix would also fail. Yes, Europe needs a shift in economic policies to boost growth and wages now. But deeper questions about identity, political legitimacy, and trust in institutions cannot be addressed by tinkering with the Stability and Growth Pact.
What Europe desperately needs are positive political alternatives. That means fresh faces who are viewed as working for society as a whole, not special-interest lobbies. It means proposing radical reforms to create a more dynamic, fairer, and more secure society. And it means, more broadly, setting out a positive vision of shared identity based on openness, tolerance, and diversity that can bring together people of all backgrounds.
The biggest winners of the Dutch election were pro-EU, pro-immigrant parties, particularly the anti-austerity Green Left party, whose leader is just 30 years old, and the social liberal D66 party. In France, the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who is campaigning on a positive, pro-EU message that aims to bridge the right-left divide, has edged ahead of Le Pen.
If Macron wins – a distinct possibility – he will need to deliver change, as will his counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Otherwise, the populists will be back – and probably stronger than ever.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017