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Europe’s Unpopular Project

Britain isn't the only country wary of the union. Can the EU survive left-wing populism and right-wing nationalism?


Last week, shoppers in a newly opened branch of Marks and Spencer, that most British of stores, browsed the shelves for delicacies such as scones, pork pies, and Bakewell tarts. This store was not in England, but just off Place de la Bastille in Paris, where the French revolution began. French shoppers, it seems, have no less a taste for British goods than Brits do for French food.

In commerce, at least, Europe is united. In politics, things are rather more complicated. The European Union (EU) does unite Europe’s nations, but the main thing the various EU members share is a wariness of the European project. While Euroskepticism is often portrayed as a British, indeed English, phenomenon—if only those selfish Brits would play nice with the rest of us everything would be fine—time and again other European countries have shown themselves to be wary of the EU.

So, as Britain prepares to go to the polls on June 23 to decide whether or not it should remain a member of the EU, many in other European countries are asking themselves the very same question. Dismissed by politicians and commentators as mere “populism,” there is nonetheless a widespread—and growing—sense that the EU lacks genuine popular enthusiasm.

If history is anything to go by, EU leaders could have reason to be nervous. Popular votes have rarely gone its way in recent years.

In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed EU constitution in referendums, while Ireland rejected the treaties of Nice and Lisbon in 2001 and 2008. Denmark, which has effectively pulled out of the Schengen agreement on free movement of people across the EU, rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Sweden, meanwhile, rejected the euro currency in a 2003 referendum. Neighboring Norway defied expectations in 1994 by voting against joining the EU, repeating the result of a 1972 referendum.

Whether or not any of these results would be repeated in an in-out referendum, there is no question that countries across Europe are growing restive. Germany, the economic and political bedrock of the EU, has seen the right-wing, anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland Party grow. Austria came close to electing a far-right, and anti-EU, president in May and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to curtail EU involvement in domestic policies.

Speaking about post-Brexit scenarios, the resolutely pro-EU former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, said Europe must be re-built—and differently. “What we’ve got now is mistrust, suspicions, bureaucracy, dissatisfaction and trickery, because we don’t have any solid foundations,” he said.

Even France, effectively the founder of the entire EU project, is less keen than many imagine. A recent Pew poll found that 61 percent of respondents in France have an unfavorable opinion of the union. In the same poll, 48 percent of Britons shared a similarly dim view of the EU.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart, author of the book Vous Avez Dit Conservateur? (You Said Conservative?), said that in France opposition to the EU typically takes on an anti-capitalist bent. “For France, the question is the free market. Brexit for the UK means not a lot changes in terms of economic policy, but for France it would be different,” she said.

Indeed, French dirigisme—state intervention in the economy—contradicts EU rules demanding more competition, so the fact that the French would view the EU in the opposite way to the British is not surprising. Where the British see pettifogging bureaucracy harming business, the French see hated liberalization measures that will transform France into a United States en miniature.

The common point across Europe, says Strauch-Bonart, who lives in London, is that in every country, whatever the problem is perceived to be, the EU can be blamed. In France, for left and right alike, that problem is capitalism.

A large part of the National Front’s appeal lies in its criticism of Islamism, which matches France’s secular self-image, but it is also notable for its rejection of market reforms and of the EU. “There is a conservative minority which is anti-EU. These people are found in the Front National and Les Republicains—among conservatives in France there is also an anti-free market strand,” she said. In parliamentary elections held a month after the Islamist terror attacks last year, the FN saw its vote grow to almost 28 percent.

Gil Mihaely, editor of the French political magazine Causeur, says that skepticism of the EU project, whether from left or right, reflects a growing sense of feeling left behind, not only by politics, but by the technological and economic revolutions that have transformed the world since the 1970s. “Too many citizens of European countries feel that they are losing in the new game,” he said. “When they see their kids they understand that, not only don’t they live as well as they think they should, but that their kids will have an even more difficult life ahead of them. Those people who are the losers of globalization and European integration don’t see a future in it [the EU]”.

Part of the problem, he says, is that the EU is designed to insulate politicians from criticism. Unpopular policies can be blamed on the EU, which itself takes little notice of the popular will: kick the problems upstairs, blame Brussels and never have to answer to the electorate. The EU’s own skepticism of the electorate, however, stems from continental Europe’s moral crisis in the aftermath of World War II, something felt less keenly in Britain.

“The elite, after the Second World War, felt that the people is a monster, capable of the worst things; that the sickness is nationalism and that we should break nationalism and nation states,” Mihaely said. “At the time it seemed logical: people felt religions had said their last things in history, that we were heading toward a more technological era.”

The difficulty is that in rejecting nationalism, the EU managed to reject the very thing that would give it the legitimacy it lacks: shared sentiment. Instead, says Mihaely, the EU set about creating a citizen without a nation—and, except among the elites, failed. “Although [the founders of the EU] were all Christian Democrats and Social Democrats—very bourgeois—they were like revolutionaries. The United States of Europe demanded a New Man.”

Since the 2009 economic crisis, there has been precious little talk of the European dream. Instead, Europhiles have been fighting a rearguard action to shore-up the euro currency and keep wobbling countries on board. Chief among the countries that has reason to be anti-EU is Greece. Beggared by the economic crisis, Greece elected the radical left party Syriza that said it would fight the EU tooth-and-nail. In the end, despite mass protests on the streets, Syriza backed down.

Nikos Sotirakopoulos, a Greek sociologist at Loughborough University in Britain, says it’s not so much that euroscepticism is rising, but that love for the EU is non-existent. “Let me turn the question on its head: do we have any evidence that people are enthusiastic about these projects,” he said. Sotirakopoulos points out that in a referendum on EU economic policy last year, 61 percent of Greeks voted No. The problem with that referendum was that there was no actual question. “What these people meant was ‘No in general,’” he said.

Sotirakopoulos said there is a long history of Euroskepticism in Greece, but that no party ever proposes an alternative. “When push comes to shove I don’t think there will be any political expression of euroskepticism. The hardcore group that left Syriza, in the elections they didn’t even get three percent [and] even New Right, the splinter from the New Democracy, who are the equivalent of Le Pen, aren’t euroskeptical in practice.”

Sotirakopoulos says that Greece’s political class remains wed to the EU—this despite Greek caricatures of the EU, and particular German chancellor Angela Merkel, as a harsh mother figure punishing naughty, spendthrift Greeks. “I hate the story that Greece is [simply] the victim of the EU, but the fact that for five years they’ve been going on with economy-crushing measures, I think there are questions to be asked about these things. This is an institution that is not credible in political terms, in moral terms, and not even practical terms,” he said.

Greece is a salutary story: in most countries Euroskepticism is passive, tending only to crystallize when times are tough. Economist George Magnus, who opposes Britain leaving the union, says that the real issue across Europe isn’t the EU per se.

“I wonder, often, and have done since before [British Prime Minister] Cameron called the date of the referendum, if this is really about the EU at all. In the early days of the campaign all the international organizations and leaders, except for Trump and Putin, said, ‘You have to stay.’ I felt that sealed the economic argument, but as we’ve seen the government go into purdah, the campaign really evolved into a single issue: immigration,” he said. “If the leave campaigners don’t have an economic argument of substance it boils down to the question of immigration and what the EU has responsibility for, and the rather ridiculous notion of [absolute] sovereignty.”

Despite his support for continued membership of the EU—and distaste for the tone of the Brexit campaign— Magnus recognizes the nature of the complaints about the EU, and doesn’t dismiss ‘leave’ voters as mere racists, unwitting or otherwise. Instead, a rapidly changing world and unresponsive politics have bred disillusionment.

“We’re going through a difficult economic transformation for all kinds of reasons—the fallout from the economic crisis, globalization, technology and robotics,” he said. “I met a guy on a train. He was a traditional Labour voter and he’d just made a postal vote for No. He had a lot to say: he had friends who were immigrants, but said that it was difficult for his children to make friends at school, as so many languages were spoken, for instance.

“It did bring home to me that there are people who may have been harboring questions, turning into slightly annoyed feelings, turning into resentment.”