Can the EU survive the rise of populist parties?

How can the EU address the issues that are involved with the rise of populist parties and a potential collapse of the EU?

The EU is on the brink of a change. Populist parties are growing stronger and stronger in many EU Member States and the election of Trump in the U.S.A. has given us somewhat of a preview of what is to come. The question then arises: how is the EU going to deal with this upcoming political landslide?

On the one hand there is the EU and its purpose: European integration. It is a transnational project founded on principles of supranational authority and mutual tolerance, a system in which its members are not only politely asked to cooperate but are ever more often obliged to. On the other hand there are the upcoming populist groups who oppose all of the above. They may consist of people who are fed up with the establishment and want to “take their countries back”. Concerns they have may be the economic situation but usually the immigration policies play a huge role in the often fierce debate. Populist parties often times claim that national sovereignty is something that should be absolute, while they can disregard pluralism and exploit the idea of majoritarianism. In this light the rise of these political parties may endanger the values of the EU, values such as freedom, democracy, equality and human rights. With these developments comes a narrative that consists more and more of xenophobic language which is often ignited by the radical-right. The social situations in Member States become more and more fragile. The populist parties already comprise of a quarter of the European Parliament. In this sense there is not only pressure from outside, the social dynamics, but also from within the system of the EU itself. If the EU fails to properly address the issues at hand it risks losing its credibility. Dutch PM Rutte has recently even warned for a collapse of the EU.[i] According to him further European integration has to stop and two main issues need to be addressed in order for the EU to survive. These are, not surprisingly, economics and migration. Another concern he raises is that not listening to the people on these topics, will have the consequence that extremist politicians will only be helped in pursuing their wrong solutions. However, a critical look on his views is required more than usual with the upcoming elections in March in mind. No matter what, in order for the EU to fare well in the coming years it needs to rethink its strategy and pro-EU parties need to team up. This may not be possible in all Member States, take Hungary for example. In Hungary the leading party is able to dominate the entire elections and other parties barely stand a chance.[ii]

The populist parties that are on the rise hold views that are fundamentally different in terms of the EU and its institutions. Where the EU views itself from a supranational position, the populist parties may prefer a more intergovernmental view of the EU. This view entails that in order for a democracy to be sustained, there must be strong social and political institutions and a certain degree of political community. According to this vision these can only exist on the national level, so in this view governments need to cooperate rather than be told what to do from above. However, in more and more cases, for example in the case of the Dutch opposition leading party the PVV or the French Front National, the entire structure of the EU may even be torn down instead of a mere replacement of the establishment, once these parties come to power. This poses a serious threat to the continuation of the European project. Even more now these parties can be inspired by the election of Trump and the successful BREXIT referendum. Two historical events that have shown that sounds of anti-establishment should not be underestimated. Another issue has to do with the functioning of the EU. A lot of aspects of the EU (for example the internal market) are based on the principle of mutual recognition, which in turn is based on mutual trust. The more differences there are between the different Member States the more trust there will be needed for the continuation of harmonization. However, if this trust cannot be established due to a decrease of political stability in the Member States, then transnational cooperation may become harder. This development will then only further decrease European integration.

European integration is threatened by populism, it seems. However, there are some things the EU can do to defend itself and its core values. One of these things is not tolerating the violations of fundamental rights. The EU should stand for its core values and protect them, even when growing parties try to violate these rights. Another thing the EU can do is adapt to the new political reality. ‘Even’ large parts of the populist parties acknowledge that things such as racism are bad, so it could be a mission for the EU to find common ground with all parties. At the same time the EU could acknowledge more specifically that anti-establishment parties sometimes find very good reasons for their points of view. People can simply see the negative sides that come with interdependence. Problems with corruption and inequality have to be addressed but most of all the EU has to show that it can effectively deal with concerns about these and other issues when they are raised by the people. Especially when it comes to economics and migration. If this does not happen I expect a further collapse of the EU as a whole. When the concerns of populist parties are not properly addressed, their members and admirers will only feel reinforced in their presumption that the establishment is not listening to them.

[i] — Rutte belongs to the liberal VVD party, a party that, in principle, has always supported the European project.

[ii], for more information on Hungarian politics you can also see (English language).

Other sources:

Chalmers, D. Davies, G. Monti, G. — European Union Law. Third edition.