BY JAMIE FOSTER
An article in the Daily Express caught my eye this week. It is based on a report by the group A New Pact For Europe which claims that the rise in populist parties across Europe offers a threat to the very existence of the EU. The report states that members of the European public are disenchanted with the political class who are seen to have failed to live up to their promises having been corrupted by an elite. With elections coming up in Italy and Sweden huge gains are predicted for Eurosceptic parties. The report cites Brexit as offering hope for the EU by galvanising support due to the perceived costs of leaving.
While most of the media portrays the EU as unified, in contrast to Britain in the wake of Brexit, the undercurrent of European Euroscepticism is not to be ignored. It is interesting how the loud remnant of Britain’s 48% seem to ignore this widespread Euroscepticism. It is not surprising that the European public should be disenchanted with the EU project. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment remains stubbornly high across the continent. In Southern Europe it is a particular problem. Migration brings new people into areas where jobs are scarce. Economies are shaky and prospects for future employment are not good. The rich appear to be insulated against the problems that ordinary people face. It is easy to see how this translates into a feeling that the EU hasn’t worked for the general population.
The rise of authoritarian populist parties is a natural reaction to this set of circumstances. Populism is an easy fix when the populus is out of step with conventional political parties. The EU has a real problem in dealing with the challenge such parties represent. Either it has to move in a more federalist direction, in order to try to deal with the underlying causes of discontent, which is bound to be met with further anti federalist sentiment, or it resigns itself to being unable to affect the problems that lie at the heart of the discontent.
The report suggests that the lead up to the referendum was characterised with false predictions and outright lies. What it fails to recognise is that the same discontent that is felt across Europe was also part of the reason that people voted to leave here. The effect of discontent with politics as usual can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum and the Euroscepticism that has resulted in a leave vote. While there has not been a similar rise in populist parties there is certainly a feeling of disenfranchisement from politics.
The authors of the report feel that the EU will survive as an institution but that is questionable. The problems of the EU are unlikely to change. It is an institution that is weighed down by its own immensity. Its guiding principles prevent it from the pragmatism it needs to find a new direction for itself. Vast sums of money flow through it and benefit those directly employed by it, but the benefit is not felt widely enough for it to claim credit for making people’s lives better.
So, what is the future for the EU?
In the good times it is easier for an institution such as the EU to survive, as it can obliquely claim credit for the good that people experience. In tougher times people ask more searching questions of all political institutions. There is no doubt that currently people are asking how it is that things are not getting better, given the money and resources being diverted into projects like the EU – designed as they are to make things better. If the EU is appearing to fail in its objective to stimulate the economies of Europe, then only time will tell how long it can last in the face of such failure.
A big question remains over whether the EU will outlast the process of Brexit. Can it sustain itself in the face of rising populism and Euroscepticism? Will there be anything for us to leave when it is time for us to go? If the EU does collapse under the strain, then we have an even bigger task of ensuring the relationships with the member states who will remain our neighbours and trading partners. We live in interesting times.