BRUSSELS – Another year, another threat to the European Union’s survival. The good news is that the greatest disruption of 2016, Britain’s vote to exit the EU, appears manageable. The bad news is that both France and Italy face the prospect of a populist political takeover this year. Either outcome could well spell the end of the EU.
The EU has lately become a prime target for populists. The phenomenon first took hold in Greece, when the left-wing Syriza party came to power in January 2015. But Syriza was not trying to pull Greece out of the EU; rather, it wanted a better deal with the country’s creditors, who had imposed devastating austerity measures on Greek citizens.
Syriza’s approach largely reflected the will of the people. In a June 2015 referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected a deal proposed by Greece’s creditors that would have meant even more austerity. Yet the government’s acceptance of a largely unchanged deal just a few days later received broad support. Greek voters understood that better terms were not worth losing eurozone membership.
To be sure, not everyone considered EU membership to be worth the sacrifice. But there was an air of practicality in popular criticism of the EU, which largely focused on what the EU did, especially in the economic sphere. That is why such criticism has been loudest in the countries that were hit the hardest by the euro crisis, or that faced austerity, or, more recently, that felt left behind by trade agreements.
That is no longer the case. Right-wing populism has gained traction in strong economies (Austria) and in countries where the benefits of EU membership are palpable (Hungary and Poland). In France, there was never any EU-imposed austerity; even European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted that the EU’s budget rules cannot actually be imposed on France, “because it is France.”
Now, populists are focused not on what the EU does, but what it represents. Instead of asking whether the EU is making people richer or poorer, populists are focused on a more fundamental and powerful question: “Who are we?”
At a time of large-scale immigration, this shift is not surprising. Societies that have long defined themselves according to shared background and culture now 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 that is not particularly 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 fundamental premise of liberal democracy: that the power of the majority must be limited, not least to protect minorities, electoral and otherwise.
Limits on the power of the majority of the moment are typically achieved through what Americans call “checks and balances,” which include, for example, an independent judiciary and super-majority requirements to alter fundamental elements of the political system. And such limits usually work, at least for the most part. In the United Kingdom, for example, three High Court judges ruled that only Parliament – not the government – can trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the formal process for leaving the EU.
But populist politicians chafe under such constraints. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has not only openly stated his preference for an “illiberal” democracy; he has worked to dismantle checks on his government’s power. The same goes for Poland’s populist government, whose de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, doesn’t even hold a formal position in the administration.
Given their contempt for independent institutions, it is not hard to see why populists oppose the EU, which is, in a sense, the quintessential liberal democracy: governed by impersonal rules, rather than by the majority of the moment, with most decisions requiring either a super-majority or unanimity. For populists, the EU represents significant added constraints that are even harder to push past than domestic checks. That makes it a problem.
The writer is Director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.
Copyright: Project Syndicate