We live in uncertain times. Our lives are dominated by the narrative of fear and our societies have become a sombre epitome of divides that run deep and wide, but in principle follow the same logic of the “us” and “them” mentality.
Global warming, the economic and refugee crises, Russia’s expansionist foreign policy and Islamic terrorism all contribute to our sense of insecurity. And the European Union, once a beacon of stability and prerequisite for Europe’s peace and prosperity, has become anything but that. It no longer offers the indispensability of values on which it insisted for so long: human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.
Faced by challenges of often global dimensions, Europe has been either slow to respond or it has offered inadequate solutions. As a result the Continent has seen the rise of electoral disengagement or a switch of political allegiances to more populist parties and movements.
From the extreme political left, to anti-EU parties, to fascist and para-military groups, the range of anti-system movements in Europe is profound. But diverse as these parties are, they share one common characteristic: they are fuelled by emotions, most notably fear.
In the recent years, these parties have proliferated in number and they have also grown electorally significant in a number of countries, including Hungary, France, Finland as well as Greece.
And the phenomenon shows no signs of stopping. In fact, the opposite is true. Extreme and anti-system parties are breaking one electoral taboo after another. Following numerous election victories and installing themselves as a force to be reckoned with (something unimaginable only a few years ago), some of these parties are beginning to appeal to people who were not, until recently, their natural electorate.
For instance, Germany’s anti-immigration and anti-Euro AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party gained support in the regional elections on 13 March. AfD is traditionally strong in the areas of former East Germany – ravaged by unemployment and poor economic prospects, but this time around it saw its share of the vote reach new highs, even in regions such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg.
Worse still, AfD now appeals not only to affluent, middle-class and disgruntled voters but also, and more worryingly, to the first-time voters. But AfD is far from the only one that is making political inroads when it comes to the youth. Young and disenfranchised people also accounted for a notable segment of support for a fascist party that stood in Slovakia’s recent parliamentary elections (having received 8% of the share of the vote it now sits in the Parliament with 14 mandates).
It appears people are quickly losing faith in establishment parties and with them also in projects that are increasingly perceived as elitist and inept to address the pertinent problems. One such project is the EU.
The EU is being challenged from outside (be it the refugee crisis or Russia) and from within – both by the anti-system parties and by the mainstream politicians. Not recognising the key role of the EU in dealing with the global challenges, current leaders often make matters even worse.
For example, by turning a blind eye to anti-EU sentiments in their own midst at best, or becoming Eurosceptic themselves at worst, the mainstream politicians facilitate and legitimise the fearmongering that is used by extremists. They have become part of the problem, not solution.
Furthermore, those politicians who have not given up on the EU and do not wish to further undermine it in exchange for cheap political capital have completely failed to grasp the tectonic shift in our societies – one that calls for a new type of politics.
That means that while their intentions are respectable, they are unsuccessful in engaging with the electorate. Offering the same old same old, tweaking around the edges with technocratic changes to even more technocratic policies will no longer be sufficient to ensure the survival of the EU.
It will no longer suffice to ‘merely’ try revamping the single market by removing obstacles to trade or increasing Europe’s competitiveness by investing in jobs and growth. Nor will it wash with the electorate to just deliver on changes to the EU Commission’s decision-making or on reforming its budget.
The electorate will not be satisfied with the changes from the UK’s renegotiations of its relations with the EU, continuing the Brexit debate. These policy reforms barely touch the surface of the necessary changes (with the exception of the UK’s proposal to somewhat empower national parliaments).
Important in their own right, these policy reforms will not travel nearly far enough to restore faith in the EU, or improve its ability to counterbalance nationalism and fear on the one hand, with cooperation and hope on the other.
To that end the situation requires more structural reforms. The aim of these should focus on re-establishing the ownership of the EU into the hands of those from whom it first originated: the people.
The EU has to make itself more relevant and relatable. Not because it does not already do enough to be that, but because regardless of its valuable input, the EU is still largely an unknown domain. It is perhaps worth exploring to what extent national parliaments could assume a more dominant role in the EU’s decision-making. Replacing the dominance of the Council by enforcing the legislatures – both at the EU and national levels – could bring the decision-making process closer to the people.
The EU needs to increase its democratic legitimacy in the eyes of its population. It needs to institutionalise a more popular dialogue between the EU and its citizens, which would lead to higher ownership by the latter of the former. As a consequence, people will finally learn not only the cost of the EU, but its value too.
Other than structural reforms, education should also play a significant role. Investing in young people and providing, for example, a better exchange programmes across Europe would deliver returns that would pay off several times over. Not least because this would underline the notion that diverse as Europe is, its citizens are more united in what they share than they are divided by exaggerated and overemphasised differences.
If we are serious about facing up to the challenges that we are confronted with, both within Europe and beyond, one must recognise the need for the existence of the EU. Be it the refugee crisis, economic crisis, youth unemployment, global warming, Russia or terrorism, we are stronger united.
The EU has, however, become a stick with which the nationalists and anti-system parties beat the rest of the society with. It is time we change that. The EU has the potential to counter the message of fear but to that end it will have to undergo serious re-thinking and reform.
Building a bridge between the EU and its citizens will help us restore trust in the European Union and with it, we can give people the sense of power and yes, responsibility too.
To prevent ourselves from falling even deeper into the abyss of extremism we must replace fear with hope, apathy with engagement, and regress with progress.