Sovereignty’s revenge: The power of populism in the European Union

The power of populist political parties within the European Union (EU) has grown dramatically in recent years. Parties that promise radical breaks from what have long been consensus policies on key issues including European integration, fiscal austerity, and migration have gained at the polls in key states such the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. And in Greece, a left-wing populist party, Syriza, took power after mainstream parties of both the left and right failed to deliver. So on April 23, Brookings’s Center for the United States and Europe (CUSE) convened experts from the United States and Europe to discuss populism’s growing appeal and the future of EU integration.

The first issue, as always when self-described thinkers convene, was definitions. Europe’s populist movements, although an eclectic group from both the left and the right, have a few features in common. According to Justin Vaïsse, Director of Policy Planning at the French Foreign Ministry, populist movements base their rhetoric on the ordinary man oppressed by a remote elite. They attract “people who feel they have been robbed or displaced by immigrants” and “want to recover the national sovereignty of their country against the encroachments of Europe.”

Why won’t you save us from this globalization?

Populist parties usually express a general frustration felt around the wrenching societal changes caused by globalization. In Europe, this frustration expresses itself most dramatically over the issues of immigration and integration of new countries into the European Union. Successful populist parties have tapped into the anger that citizens feel with what they perceive as inadequate mainstream strategies to protect the essential character of national societies and to maintain the social safety net.  

These debates are often the subject of scaremongering, but they nonetheless reflect real trends. The free market for labor across the EU means that national governments no longer have the capacity to control migration flows. Meanwhile, much of the European Union faces an influx of immigrants from outside its borders, due in part to instability in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The number of illegal immigrants in the EU rose from 110,000 in 2013 to 280,000 in 2014. This year, it may increase to 400,000. These newcomers pose serious challenges to national governments and societies who face the need to integrate them into their work force and social structures.

For some, the most concerning aspect of the massive flow of immigrants is the link to violent extremism. Jonathan Laurence, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, noted that Muslim integration and counterterrorism are viewed as the responsibility of national governments, yet the solutions require European-level responses. The terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris demonstrates the connection. The attack quickly became a transnational tragedy that resonated across every European country with a substantial Muslim minority.

Laurence sees a connection between violent extremism and the rise of populist parties in Europe, especially in Italy, Spain, and Greece—the countries facing the largest immigration flows. They are “manning the moat of fortress Europe,” but feel increasingly abandoned by their EU partners. Increasing discontent and support for populist movements in part reflects the sense that no one in the EU or in their national government is willing or able to effectively address the immigration and terrorism issues.

Many of the participants also noted that Europe’s austerity policies have contributed to the populist wave. Kemal Derviş, vice president and director of Global Economy and Development at Brookings, sees the alienation these policies have caused as an own goal. In this view, the EU “fiscal stance has been wrong, mistaken, badly designed,” and the cause of much unnecessary economic stagnation within Europe. Derviş proposed taking advantage of lower interest rates to increase public investment, particularly in infrastructure. But he noted that there is much ideological opposition to this policy within many mainstream political parties, particularly in Germany.  

In contrast, Javier Solana, who has confronted his share of troublesome policy issues, saw room for optimism. Despite ongoing economic stagnation, Solana believes that recent changes to the eurozone architecture mean that European economic governance is “moving in the right direction.” Populist parties have benefited from Europe’s economic trouble, but similarly renewed growth will limit their influence.

Others shared his optimism more generally. Vaïsse persuasively argued that populism’s magnetism is only a stage of the political transformation of societies and populist movements will be “absorbed by western democracies.” Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Carlo Bastasin added that, as Syriza is currently demonstrating, populist movements tend to overpromise, and run the risk of not being able to deliver.

Regardless, however, populist parties are already having an effect on European policies, even foreign policy. As Brookings Senior Fellow Constanze Stelzenmüller noted, the Russian government sees populist parties as an opening through which to corrupt European governance and disrupt European unity on sanctions toward Russia. Russia is engaging in an active campaign to court and even fund populist leaders across Europe. 

Europe is both the problem and the solution

The speakers broadly agreed that frustration with European integration is a significant cause of populist sentiment. But rather counterintuitively, they also see more Europe as the solution: better EU institutions for economic policy, stronger European cooperation on immigration and counterterrorism, and rock-solid European unity in confronting Russia. This type of counter-intuitive thinking explains why Brookings fellows make the big money. 

Their main worry, therefore, is that possibilities for further integration have been exhausted and undermined by the populist wave. A Greek exit from the euro remains a real possibility. CUSE Director Fiona Hill added that deeper Europeanization is also challenged by the rise of regional independence movements and the possibility of a British referendum on EU membership that may emerge from the U.K. election in May.

It is a tricky political maneuver, but if mainstream parties wish to stem the populist tide, they will need to double down on Europe. The concept of Europe is often a scapegoat for a general failure to deliver effective governance—be it on immigration, economic, or foreign policy. More effective policies are the solution, but by their nature such problems require a European response. As Solana asserted, there is no solution to these problems without the European Union. Let’s just hope there is a solution with the European Union.