To resist the populist backlash, we Europeans should be proclaiming the EU’s virtues more loudly, without descending to the populists’ level.
BRUSSELS – After 1989, the West, buoyed by political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s seductive notion of the “end of History,” entered an era of self-satisfied complacency in which it seemed that liberal democracy and capitalism could be taken for granted.
Three decades later, History is back with a vengeance. A populist nationalist is now president of the United States. The United Kingdom is withdrawing from the European Union. And self-proclaimed illiberal democrats are in power in Hungary and Poland. It turns out that, at the “end” of history, the enemies of open, democratic societies never actually surrendered. They were just pushed into the shadows.
There are a number of sociological reasons why illiberalism is resurgent today. Across the West, once-universal public spheres have been weakened and divided, and once-public social concerns have been “privatized.” But the main reason for the West’s illiberal turn concerns emotions. For those who are unsettled by the widespread change of the past few decades, national identities have become increasingly appealing as a way to offset often-unpredictable globalization.
Populist rhetoric poses a direct challenge to the EU and its tradition of procedural and rules-based governance. Indeed, it strikes at the very core of the European project. There is no European counterpart to Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” Given Europe’s twentieth-century history, such parochial sloganeering has been all but banished from the continent’s politics. Indeed, it is not well suited to the European timbre.
Yet the fact remains that Europeans are fighting for their very soul. To resist the populist backlash, we Europeans should be proclaiming the EU’s virtues more loudly, without descending to the populists’ level. Conjuring up some kind of EU-level nationalism to compete with state-level nationalism would be akin to taking medicine that is worse than the disease.
A better approach would focus on defending the rule of law against populist encroachments. The rule of law is the EU’s most valuable currency and a fundamental part of its DNA. It provides the foundation for the philosophy of multinational democracy that animates the EU’s institutions. While populists regard the rule of law as malleable or negotiable, Europe’s democrats understand that it is the essential bond holding our civilization together.
As Europe attempts to reverse the slide toward illiberalism, we must recognize that not all illiberal trajectories are the same. It seems counterproductive to put Hungary and Poland into one basket, and thereby drive them even further into an “alliance of the scorned” fueled more by convenience than real common interests.
The European project is about integration, not isolation. We should be careful about punishing countries simply because they happen to be led by irresponsible leaders at any given moment.
In fact, European integration must be about people, not political elites. Regardless of their governments’ stance, the majority of people in Poland and Hungary want to remain in the EU and participate actively in its continent-wide community. The EU is an expression of their values and a mechanism by which they can realize their dreams. That means EU leaders have a responsibility, but also an opportunity, to turn back the illiberal tide.
If we are to draw in the countries with illiberal regimes, we could foster the active support of civil society, while using precise and calibrated instruments to put pressure on the governments in question. Blunt instruments will only make matters worse. For example, cutting off EU structural funds for regional development or other forms of assistance would punish the Polish and Hungarian people instead of their leaders, pushing them further away from the EU, and into the arms of their illiberal governments.
The challenge facing the EU today is to figure out how to re-engage with its backsliding member states without punishing voters for their leaders’ misdeeds. It will not be easy. But if the EU is to implement needed institutional reforms, we need all the member countries to be fully engaged in seeking common solutions that make Europe more competitive, equitable, and socially robust. For those of us who believe in Europe, good-faith engagement is the only acceptable option.
The author, a member of the European Parliament and Chair of its Constitutional Affairs Committee, s a former EU commissioner for regional policy