Not just about Trump and Brexit, Europe’s biggest test is populism

Updated 15 Jul 2018

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US President Donald Trump and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May hold a joint press conference following their meeting at Chequers on Friday. On his way to Britain last week, the US leader voiced support for a ‘hard Brexit’ favoured by rabid Brexiteers Boris Johnson, who has resigned as foreign secretary, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party.—AFP
US President Donald Trump and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May hold a joint press conference following their meeting at Chequers on Friday. On his way to Britain last week, the US leader voiced support for a ‘hard Brexit’ favoured by rabid Brexiteers Boris Johnson, who has resigned as foreign secretary, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party.—AFP

IT’S been a tough six months but it’s going to be an even tougher autumn.

Europe faces a long list of challenges as it prepares for a new European Commission, elections to the European Parliament and Britain’s withdrawal from the EU club — all expected to happen next year.

Add to that, the long shadow cast by the volatile and unpredictable US President Donald Trump and the visible and invisible meddling by Russian President Vladimir Putin and it’s clear: the months ahead are going to test the Union in multiple ways.

The different internal and external threats are important but it’s the many fissures within the EU — and above all the emergence of nationalist and populist movements — that could end the dream of a border-free, open and prosperous Europe.

The danger comes from the ever-deeper divide within Europe between those who are still proud to call themselves liberal democrats and the increasing number of governments which make no secret of their illiberal views.

Major risks are associated also with the growing number of European political parties and groups which are unashamedly adopting and promoting Far Right, racist and xenophobic — and Eurosceptic — sentiments.

And above all, Europe’s biggest challenge comes from the number of European citizens who are falling prey to the siren song of the populists, normalising the unacceptable and who, forgetting Europe’s tragic and bloody past, are turning their back on Europe’s core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

This is most obvious in the anti-migrant hysteria with which many EU governments and populist parties have reacted to the arrival of migrants and refugees.

(FROM left to right) Austrian Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia in the European External Action Service, Thomas Mayr-Harting, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Czech Vera Jourova and EU-Commissioner for Justice and Consumers, and European Commissioner for the Security Union, British Julian King take part in a round of discussions on the sidelines of an informal meeting on Friday in Innsbruck, Austria. Interior ministers from 28 European nations held talks on Thursday as they face pressure to introduce new policies to stem migrant arrivals, in their first meeting since  Austria took the EU helm.—AFP
(FROM left to right) Austrian Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia in the European External Action Service, Thomas Mayr-Harting, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Czech Vera Jourova and EU-Commissioner for Justice and Consumers, and European Commissioner for the Security Union, British Julian King take part in a round of discussions on the sidelines of an informal meeting on Friday in Innsbruck, Austria. Interior ministers from 28 European nations held talks on Thursday as they face pressure to introduce new policies to stem migrant arrivals, in their first meeting since Austria took the EU helm.—AFP

‘New parties peddling old, dangerous ideas’

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, now in the EU chair, sees his country joining Germany and Italy in an “axis of the willing against immigration”.

When they aren’t clamping down on judges, journalists and civil society representatives, his “Vissegrad 4” allies from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland are also engaged in an embarrassing game of “guess who can be tougher on immigration”.

As European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans warned last year: “In Europe, we see the return of the politics of paranoia … the disruptive forces of xenophobia, intolerance, illiberalism and nationalism are on the march. New parties are peddling old, dangerous ideas.”

The danger, warned Timmermans, was the return of new fault lines in Europe. “Not an iron curtain of machine guns and minefields but a barrier of the mind, between inclusion and exclusion, between open and closed societies.”

The risk is not that the EU will unravel. It won’t. The EU will probably muddle through and survive. But the price of survival could be unacceptably high if in the process, the EU loses its commitment to core values and becomes little more than a transactional trade and aid arrangement.

A shrinking Europe — not just in terms of its size but also its moral influence — would have an immediate impact beyond the border. An inward-looking Europe, oblivious to its international obligations, would be a blow to the EU’s global ambitions, prestige and influence — and to the rules-based multilateral order.

This would of course be exactly to the liking of Europe’s enemies — and there are many — and those who can’t stand a world which is not based on nationalism and zero-sum games.

Nationalists hate the EU, Nato and the United Nations because these are the fora where countries work together, despite their differences, for the greater public good.

That explains the attacks on Nato, an organisation which President Trump seemed intent on fatally damaging last week with his irrational and moody denunciations of Europeans as free riders unwilling to pay more for their security.

Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on a host of imports has triggered a damaging quid pro quo reaction by China, Europe and others in what many fear will be a disastrous global trade war.

And then there’s the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Treaty of climate change. And so on.

Trump has made known his contempt for Europe. On his way to Britain last week, the US leader voiced support for a “hard Brexit” favoured by rabid Brexiteers Boris Johnson, who has resigned as foreign secretary, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party.

Rebuilding inclusive Europe

Still, it’s how Europe responds to populism and illiberal ideologies which are currently spreading like wildfire across the continent that will determine the EU’s future.

To fight the reawakened ghosts of the past, European liberals and democrats have to rediscover and recast the heroic narrative that their founding fathers used to establish the EU after the devastation caused by World War II.

That means rebuilding a modern 21st-century story of an open and inclusive Europe, for all Europeans.

This will not please the bigots and the populists of course. But it will resonate far and wide among the majority of Europeans who want to move forward with confidence, not return to the continent’s dark past.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2018