The European Union (EU) is about to face its biggest challenge to date. In May, people from across the EU will go to the ballot box to vote in the latest set of elections to the European Parliament. And the EU looks set to face another political earthquake.
The elections come at what is already a fragile moment for the EU. They will be held amid Britain’s ongoing efforts to leave the European Union which, if they are successful, will mark the first occasion when the EU has contracted rather than expanded – from 28 members to 27. They also coincide with intense public debates about issues that the EU has struggled, or would say failed, to respond to – anxieties about immigration and borders, security and belonging, and economic inequality. And the elections also come against the backdrop of a resurgent populism, with movements from the Lega in Italy to the Gilets Jaunes in France attracting considerable public sympathy. The future of the EU has never looked so uncertain.
For the first time in history, the two mainstream groups might fail to win
Make no mistake: the elections will likely deliver a further blow to mainstream parties. For the first time in history, the two mainstream groups might fail even to win a majority of seats. The latest polls show that the centre-right European People’s Party and centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats could see their combined share of seats drop from 54% today to just 44%.
This is because of how mainstream Europe is increasingly being challenged by an array of populist parties, which argue that the EU must be reformed if it is to remain relevant and survive. Compared to five years ago, gains are expected for movements like Lega and Five Star in Italy, the Alternative for Germany, Sweden Democrats, the populist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, Vox in Spain, Law and Justice in Poland, and Human Shield in Croatia. While Nigel Farage and UKIP, which played a central role in delivering the Brexit vote, will most likely not be able to contest these elections, the polls point to another set of strong results for Marine Le Pen’s party in France, the Freedom Party of Austria and Viktor Orban’s movement in Hungary.
Put simply, populism is not disappearing but looks increasingly entrenched. Many liberals in Europe argue that this is about “angry old white men” who will soon die. But large numbers of their supporters are under 40 years of age, including in Italy where Lega draws support fairly evenly from different generations. Nor is this this just a by-product of the financial crisis; nearly twenty-years of research has now shown that the movements challenging liberal Europe are rooted mainly in anxieties about social and cultural change, not just economic.
In contrast to the once fashionable arguments that after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States the EU had rejected populism, Brussels is now braced for the strongest populist backlash on record. Indeed, it is telling that whereas one year ago the front-cover of Time featured a smiling Macron, in 2018 it featured Italy’s Matteo Salvini. A decade ago, these populist breakthroughs felt like an outlier. Today, they feel completely normal.
National populists will not be the only winners. Other challengers will also do well. The rise of movements like the Greens in Germany, the Citizens movement in Spain and likely gains for some radical left-wing parties reflect how the mainstream ideologies that governed much of the post-war era are under pressure from all sides. These shifts reveal how European politics is increasingly polarised and fragmented, as a larger number of ideologically distinct parties compete for power. Europe is unlikely to witness a return of strong, stable and ideologically coherent governments anytime soon. This, in turn, will make it harder for the EU to attract investors who are anxious about the volatility and political disruption affecting European societies. This could easily become a “vicious cycle” and one that few politicians seem to have an answer to.
These shifts tell us that it is no longer plausible to argue that populism is just a short-term, temporary “flash in the pan.” For much of the past ten years, we have been told that the challenges to the EU are merely a by-product of the post-2008 financial crisis and Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. But this is incredibly misleading. As we show in our book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, the roots of the populist challenge are much deeper and will be with us for many years – decades even – to come. They are rooted in a profound anxiety among ordinary people about the pace and scale of immigration, about distant political elites who speak more to people like themselves than to the public, sharp concerns about a loss of dignity, recognition and voice and, as a result, much weaker attachments between the main parties and voters.
Look at surveys which ask voters to name the most important issues facing the EU today. Voters now say immigration and terrorism, while the economy is in a distant third place. Last year, the European Commission’s own data revealed that immigration dominated the list of concerns in 22 of the soon-to-be 27 EU countries, and for the fourth year in a row. People want to talk about identity and security, not just jobs and wages. This is what the left has failed to understand.
The rise of national populism is already having a demonstrable impact on policy
Indeed, these concerns about borders, security, immigration and the ability of Islam to integrate into European ways of life are already having clear effects. Recent research by political scientists shows that the rise of national populism is already having a demonstrable impact on policy, leading to more restrictive regulations on issues like migration and integration. Revealingly, even left-wing parties are overhauling their positions, questioning whether they should support unskilled migration.
These shifts are also being powered by a profound sense among a large number of voters that the EU is simply not democratic enough – that the voice of “the people” is being left behind and left out. Some commentators point to how after Brexit support for EU membership in other countries outside of the UK has reached a thirty-five year high. This might be true. But even still, at the same time, almost half of all people in the EU disagree with the statement “my voice counts in the EU.”
This belief among voters that they are being ignored is especially visible in states like Italy, where two in three voters disagree that their «voice counts.” Lots of people support the EU in principle but large numbers do not feel that they are being listened to. This is a major risk for the EU. As we discovered in the UK, where the main drivers of the Brexit vote were a potent cocktail of anti-immigration, anti-Westminster and anti-EU feelings, you should never underestimate the potential for a backlash.
This is why there are good reasons to be sceptical about the future of the EU. Unless it seriously reforms, and is able to contain the populist backlash, then it could well be forced to shrink further and fundamentally reassess its long-term ambitions. The long-term economic winds will play into this. Productivity and competitiveness in Europe remain weak while inequality is rising, especially in southern Europe. If you are a worker in Italy then you have good reason to feel excluded from the economic settlement. Across most advanced democracies, in recent years the share of national income going to these workers has been lower than it was in the 1970s. Meanwhile, states like Italy are grappling with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 130%, weak banks and much higher inequality than states further north. Given that much of Europe is forecast to experience a further slowdown of growth in the coming years, not least as China slows down, then it seems likely that these problems will accelerate rather than slow down.
Europe is also ageing. Average fertility rates across the EU have fallen from 2.6 births per woman in 1960 to 1.6 today. Ironically, it is the same states that are set to shrink most by 2050, like Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary and Poland, that are the most strongly opposed to immigration. Even EU states with the highest fertility rates, like France and Sweden, are far from the “replenishment level” needed to avoid shrinking populations. Such figures contrast with those in the Middle East and Africa: 65% of the Middle East’s population is under 30-years-old; the number of 15-24-year-olds in Africa will double in only three decades. The demographic shifts that we witnessed in 2014-15 are only the start of a longer-term challenge for the EU.
Clearly, many people from the liberal middle-class will not feel bothered by these changes. But many others will feel deeply alarmed. Recently, the Pew Research Center found that only 10% of people in the EU want more immigration while 51% want less or none at all, although this jumps above 70% in Italy. Only a fool would claim that these issues, which benefit populists, will fall off the radar. Populism will not only remain a permanent feature of Europes political landscape but will sink deeper roots this spring. The question is how will the EU respond?
Cover photo by Vincenzo Metodo, UK, London, 2016