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United in diversity? Populism and the European Union


United in diversity? Populism and the European Union

Lega Nord demonstration in Turin against illegal immigration. (2013) / Eurosceptic


Giuseppe Conte, leading a coalition of anti-establishment parties, has been sworn in as Italy’s Prime Minister after three months of negotiations.


– The Italian election is one of many recent successes for populist movements, latching onto discontent surrounding economic and immigration issues.
– The EU’s non-coercive model of cooperation and consensus has led to elements of state sovereignty being ceded to Brussels; resistance to this model was a key factor in the Brexit decision in 2016.
– Without significant reform, the EU could lose its diplomatic influence or collapse, creating diplomatic space for other powers with values contrary to those promoted by the bloc

Over the last decade, the political power of traditional establishment parties – particularly social democratic parties – has collapsed in the face of rising support for populist, openly Eurosceptic movements. The election of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of a coalition between the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and right-wing Eurosceptic Lega, reflects this trend.

The Italian election is just one of several recent elections where populist, Eurosceptic parties and movements have gained prominence. Eurosceptic parties have either been re-elected or won government in Hungary and Slovenia, and populists made significant gains in Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Austria in 2017. Even traditionally pro-European, liberal states like Sweden have seen a massive rise in populist movements, which has coincided with the dramatic loss of influence for both the centre-right and, even more so, the centre-left – parties that played important roles in Europe’s post-Second World War reconstruction.


Several factors have contributed to the rise of populist, anti-EU movements. In recent times, the most prominent populist issue has been immigration. Due to the EU’s Schengen Zone, which permits free movement amongst member states, the issue of immigration from within and outside of the EU has become a rallying cry regarding cultural and national security for populist movements.

The EU’s consensus-based model of agreement has meant that the policies of individual member states have had to adapt to fit the direction of Brussels, and concern or dissent—especially regarding the intake of migrants—is limited. The recent turning-back by Italian authorities of a maritime humanitarian organisation’s vessel carrying over 600 asylum seekers has highlighted the difficulty of achieving consensus on the issue; French President Emmanuel Macron criticised the Italian decision while Italian authorities claimed that France was being “hypocritical” for not sharing the burden of refugees from North Africa making the journey across the Mediterranean.

Long-term economic issues have also created tensions within the EU. The failure of the EU’s institutions and traditional political parties to deal with economic distress in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis has been attributed to the rise of populism. Traditional parties promoted unpopular austerity measures in countries hard-hit by the crisis such as the UK and Greece; voters felt betrayed by politicians who cut social welfare while bailing out major corporations.

Moreover, the Eurozone, and the EU more broadly, have come under consistent criticism because of the dominance of some members, particularly the ‘Big Four’ Western European powers —France, Germany, Italy and the UK—that are themselves dominated by Germany. Economic tensions between the Big Four and other EU members were more pronounced during the Greek financial crisis. Greeks brought the populist far-left SYRIZA coalition into office and the new government openly defied the EU, European Central Bank and IMF which sought to imposed stringent fiscal conditions on Greece in exchange for financially bailing out its economy.


EU2017EE Estonian Presidency / Eurosceptic
Photo: European Council

In the EU’s early days post-Second World War, European leaders sought to create a united Europe through political institutions and economic partnerships. This ‘grand experiment’ aimed to build a network of deeply integrated states to prevent another war, and ease tensions built up during centuries of inter-state conflict. Upon the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1958 and the subsequent founding of the EU in 1992, policymakers within the EU tried to further this ‘grand experiment’ through a non-coercive method of state formation centred on deepening mutual bonds between member-states.

Since the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht (which established the EU), deepening has occurred through the establishment of European courts, the democratic election of the European Parliament by European citizens, construction of common standards in numerous industries, and the creation of the single currency market without borders.

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The EU’s nature as a highly centralised organisation has required member states to cede elements of national sovereignty to the organisation. At the same time, the EU relies heavily on consensus-based models of governance and rule enforcements that are ‘one-size-fits-all’, meaning that it is increasingly unresponsive to the domestic social and economic needs of individual member states. The erosion of national sovereignty was a key issue in the referendum on the departure of the UK from the EU in 2016, from which other populist Eurosceptic movements have drawn inspiration.


People marching against Troika in Greece a couple of days before the bailout referendum. (2015) / Eurosceptic
Photo: Des Byrne / Flickr

The growth of populism and decline of establishment parties could put the EU’s broader diplomatic power at risk. The EU holds important positions in many international organisations, such as the G7 and G20, as well as contemporary partnerships dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Iran nuclear deal. The EU has become a de-facto representative for its members in these global fora. Pulled in different directions by populist demands, the EU’s diplomatic voice could weaken. This threatens to neuter the world’s largest unified economy from acting in its collective interests within international organisations and deny a voice to smaller European nations that otherwise benefit from the EU’s consensus-based decision-making model.

Many populist movements derive influence rallying against being ‘ruled from Brussels’, with EU membership often coming at the expense of elements of national sovereignty like border controls and currency. These movements have also been critical of the EU’s nature as a highly bureaucratic, rigid organisation which suffers from a democratic deficit. While the EU promotes ‘pooled sovereignty’ and despite its many elected officials, the complexity of the organisation and its bureaucracy as well as its consensus-driven model makes it opaque to many European citizens. Without democratic reform, the EU risks becoming a coercive supranational body disconnected from member states and their citizens, and as pressures on the EU mount internally and externally, there is an outside possibility that the bloc could collapse.

The EU’s collapse could aid the rise of other superpowers which promote values contrary to European ones. The EU plays an important role on the world stage by representing the broader values of Europe: democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law. It impresses these values on its near neighbours by offering membership if they align their domestic policies with those of the EU, and on more distant states through its significant economic leverage applied during trade negotiations.

The bloc’s collapse would leave this space open to other powers, particularly Russia. Moscow has been increasingly influential in European foreign policy, with Russian influence and interference an important factor in elections and politics, while its championing of ethno-nationalism, patriotism and traditionalism align with populist Eurosceptic movements. As populists continue to gain power and influence, European liberal democratic values themselves could be in danger.

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