Europe is yearning for a past it can’t return to

Editors’ Note: European leaders continue to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems, writes Javier Solana, with political parties and movements criticizing or opposing the EU gaining traction. But disenchanting experiences with globalization are not an excuse for a return to protectionism. This post originally appeared on Project Syndicate.

The European Union has a dangerous case of nostalgia. Not only is a yearning for the “good old days”—before the EU supposedly impinged on national sovereignty—fueling the rise of nationalist political parties; European leaders continue to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

Everyone was supposed to benefit from European integration. Whenever a new country joined, it received financial aid, while existing members gained access to a new market. The advantages, it was expected, would be apparent not just from aggregate data, but also from individual citizens’ own experience.

But reality has been less clear-cut. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the EU’s weaker economies faced skyrocketing unemployment, especially among young people, while its stronger economies felt pressure to “show solidarity” by bailing out countries in distress. When the stronger economies provided those bailouts, they included demands for austerity that impeded the recipients’ economic recovery. Few were satisfied, and many blamed European integration.

European leaders continue to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

In this context, political parties and movements criticizing or opposing the EU have gained considerable traction, particularly in Western Europe. While these movements are nothing new, support for them has grown at alarming rates during the crisis-induced turmoil. Indeed, with every failed policy to aid economic recovery, Europeans have felt increasingly disenchanted, fueling populist sentiment and demands for a return to national sovereignty.

The political leaders channeling these demands do not just want to reassert national control in all areas; they are also spreading a message of indifference to—and even outright rejection of—foreigners, reflected in their response to Europe’s influx of refugees. According to them, each country should defend its own by any means, even if the rule of law is tested along the way.

But, while the economic pain that many Europeans feel is certainly real, the nationalists’ diagnosis of its source is false. The reality is that the EU can be criticized for the way it handled the crisis; but it cannot be blamed for the global economic imbalances that have fueled economic strife since 2008. Those imbalances reflect a much broader phenomenon: globalization.

This does not mean that globalization is a bad thing. Opening up societies and economies to the world obviously entails significant uncertainty; but it also provides abundant opportunities.

Not long ago, Europe was the world leader in openness. In fact, the European project is, at its core, a mirror of the opening that is an inextricable consequence of living in today’s globalized world.

In 2004, when the EU formally welcomed eight formerly communist countries as member states, European openness reached its pinnacle. A new age seemed to be dawning in Europe, in which the rule of law, democracy, and individual rights were unassailable. Yet, just as West European countries have begun to resist openness, so have their Central and East European counterparts. Indeed, in some countries—particularly Poland and Hungary—nationalism and anti-EU sentiment have surged. Unfortunately, this has led to erosion of the rule of law.

Poland is the largest recipient of European funds and the only EU country that avoided recession during the crisis; indeed, it has experienced 23 years of uninterrupted growth. Moreover, the Polish public has been broadly supportive of the EU since becoming members. Even the latest Eurobarometer indicates that 55 percent of Poles view the EU positively.

Yet Poland’s government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is aiming to change that, by portraying European policies as a threat to Polish national identity. Instead of discussing how to adapt specific policies to Poland’s national interests or amplify the country’s voice at the European level, PiS writes off all European measures and decisions as a direct challenge to what makes Poland Poland.

These claims, to some extent, echo those of the Hungarian government, led by the right-wing Fidesz party. The constitutional reforms implemented in 2013, among other things, expanded the executive’s authority and created a new state council, stacked with Fidesz members, to regulate the media.

Some have used disenchanting experiences with globalization as an excuse for a return to protectionism and the supposedly halcyon days of strong national borders.

Some say that if Hungary sought admission to the EU today, it would be refused entry. As for Poland, the European Commission has launched an unprecedented inquiry in response to recent legislation that, under the pretense of “protecting national sovereignty,” concentrates more power in the government’s hands.

This represents a disappointing reversal. In my former professional roles, I witnessed as few others did the entry of Poland and Hungary into the Euroatlantic institutions. I saw firsthand the eagerness and hope of their peoples at that momentous time. That is why it is so hard for me to understand their position today.

Of course, it is not unreasonable that Poland and Hungary, whose sovereignty was largely usurped by the Soviet Union, are particularly sensitive to external efforts to shape their decision-making and have a stronger sense of national identity than other EU countries. But rejecting the EU will not insulate them from the uncertainty resulting from globalization. On the contrary, it will leave them far more vulnerable to the phenomenon’s myriad risks.

Some have used disenchanting experiences with globalization as an excuse for a return to protectionism and the supposedly halcyon days of strong national borders. Others, wistfully recalling a nation-state that never really existed, cling to national sovereignty as a reason to refuse further European integration. Both groups question the foundations of the European project. But their memory fails them, and their yearnings mislead them.