The EU has become a prime target for populists. The phenomenon first took hold in Greece, when left-wing Syriza came to power in January 2015. But Syriza was not trying to pull Greece out of the EU; it wanted a better deal with the country’s creditors. Syriza’s approach reflected the will of the people. In a June 2015 referendum, voters rejected a deal proposed by Greece’s creditors that would have meant more austerity. Yet the government’s acceptance of a largely unchanged deal a few days later received broad support. Greek voters understood that better terms were not worth losing eurozone membership.
There was an air of practicality in popular criticism of the EU, which focused on what the EU did, especially in the economic sphere. That is why such criticism has been loudest in countries hit the hardest by the euro crisis, that faced austerity, or felt left behind by trade agreements.
But right-wing populism has gained traction in strong economies (Austria) and countries where the benefits of EU membership are palpable (Hungary and Poland). Populists are now focused not on what the EU does, but what it represents.
At a time of large-scale immigration, this is not surprising. Societies that have long defined themselves according to shared background and culture must struggle with the implications of multiculturalism. That is why most observers of populist parties, especially of right-wing parties, have focused on attitudes toward foreigners and minorities. With the shift toward identity politics – a terrain not amenable to compromise – has come a shift in attitudes toward democratic institutions. Populist leaders operate on the assumption that the will of the “people” – as defined by the populist – should not be institutionally constrained.
This controverts the premise of liberal democracy: that the power of the majority must be limited to protect minorities, electoral and otherwise.
Such limits usually work. In the UK, for example, three High Court judges ruled that only Parliament – not the government – can trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.
But populist politicians chafe under such constraints. For them, the EU represents significant added constraints that are even harder to push past than domestic checks. That makes it a problem.
Democratically elected governments and parliaments install EU leaders and bureaucrats (and independent judges) to place limits on the majority of the moment and future governments. Populists reframe their followers’ understanding of this system by declaring that such officials are part of the “elite,” selected by their fellow elites to frustrate the will of the people.
There is little that mainstream politicians, much less EU officials, can do to counter this narrative. Some national politicians succumb to popular pressure, adopting the rhetoric – and even the programme – of their populist adversaries.
When the problem was what the EU did, there was a possible solution: the EU could change tack on economic issues. And, indeed, the Commission has de facto abandoned austerity. Likewise, the EU’s new trade deal with Canada was concluded only after working out elaborate compromises.
But the EU cannot change what it represents. It cannot accept, much less advance, the notion that checks and balances are obstacles to progress, or that foreigners threaten the European way of life. It cannot offer the kinds of radical, impossible, or illiberal solutions that populists use. The EU must remain a bulwark of liberal democracy, with all of its unsexy yet necessary rules and procedures.
In the current environment, this lumbering embodiment of a multi-level democracy and open economy cannot compete with populist promises. When populists fail to deliver, however, it is back to the EU that the public will run. One only hopes that there will still be an EU waiting for them.
Daniel Gros is director of the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.