The EU makes a right turn

By O.R.

Tightening of socio-economic and cultural-ethnic problems, confusion and unpreparedness of European government for a comprehensive solution for those problems lead to frustration and resentment among European citizens. This situation creates a breeding ground for the spread of a variety of national socialist ideologies and organisations. Objective processes of historical development, such as international financial crisis and its consequences, sharp reduction of social guarantees and general welfare and labour legislation deterioration, pushed the European world into the arms of the rightwing movements with nationalist and populist overtones.

Did the whole EU go right? No, it did not, but some of its member states did, thus affecting the strength of the EU itself. And it is a threat not because of the “right” direction. Without diving into the details, being “right” requires opposition to egalitarianism and liberal-democratic ideas and adherence to the capitalism principles, but it does not mean the opposition to the European Union. And one should remember that we do not necessary talk here about the most extreme forms of the right spectrum, i.e. far-right politics known as Nazism, fascism and other ideologies. However, we do talk about the features of nationalism and populism in varying degrees in some European rightwing parties, which can be perceived as a threat to the EU and a subject of concern.

Thus, let us start with the phenomenon of nationalism. “Nationalism” is a very strong, powerful word with a definite emotional colouring. According to dictionaries nationalism is an ideology or a political direction where the basic principle is the highest value of a nation as a form of civil unity. The nation can be both a nation of blood or/ and a civil nation (such as the American nation). Nationalism is compatible with the principles of market economy and free competition, as well as democratic governance. Healthy nationalism is very useful for an effective management of the country.

It sounds rather innocuous, does it not? However, if we look at the current state of affairs in the EU, nationalism in some countries is operating a relatively extreme rhetoric. For better understanding, let us have a look at the topics that are on the agenda of the European nationalist movements. They are against “mass, uncontrolled migration”. They want fewer areas of competence and spheres of influence for the EU and tougher penalties for criminals. Their discourse is covered with the concepts of “dominant culture” and “healthy patriotism”. Generally speaking, there are two aspects of modern European nationalism. Firstly, it implies a strong determination to defend the national self-interests within the European Union. Secondly, sometimes it leads to the rise of rightwing populist nativism. And populism is a real problem.

Indeed, all the nationalist parties of Europe are using the same populist rhetoric. Populism is a soil in which modern rightwing nationalist parties grow. They blame the political establishment of the EU for all the bad things happened in the past years. According to them, the EU government is corrupt, filled with a thirst for power, is far away from people, focuses primarily on the desire of economic, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and is characterized by sluggish laws and timid actions.

The opposition of “us” and “them” is a “core” element here. There are “beloved” enemies, such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, who come with large influx and, either take away jobs from “us”, or use social benefits, that “we” have to pay as “they” do not want to work. Using the odious words of Donald Trump, who often uses populist eloquence, “they are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime, they are rapists…”. Moreover, there are internal enemies, and the definition of who “they” are depends on who “we” are. If “we” are from Poland, namely from the conservative right-wing party “Law and Justice”, it is “the EU, Germany and Russia” who wants to suppress “us”. If “we” are from the Freedom Party of Austria, “we” are against “those” in Vienna, who manage a protectionist economy as it does not protect “us” from immigrants. If “we” are English in favour of Brexit, “we” are supporting the idea that “we” are a big country, and “we” should not listen and minister “them”, our neighbours. Such tendencies are found in every country, where the slogans like “France first”, “Germany first” or “Hungary first” etc. are becoming popular.

Nationalist rightwing populist parties exist in every EU member state. And it is not just a modern phenomenon. Some parties had already existed and became popular in the EU in 2000s, like the Danish “People’s Party”, the Italian “Northern League” and the French “National Front”. However, the increase in the popularity of such parties became evident with the results of European Parliament election of 2014 – they took 229 seats out of 751, or approximately 30 %. More specifically, the “National Front” won first place in the elections in France, the “United Kingdom Independence Party” in the UK, the “People’s Party” in Denmark. Moreover, the “Freedom Party of Austria” increased their representation, as well as the “Alternative for Germany” Party, the “Swedish Democrats” Party, the “Finns Party” and the Greek “Golden Dawn“. Those parties have in common the dissatisfaction with the influence of the EU’s supranational bodies and standing in favour of strengthening the powers of national authorities, up to the exit of the state from the EU. However, in fairness it should be noted that despite their similar populist basis, the rightwing parties are heterogeneous and differ from each other in their level of going “further right”. For example, the “Golden Dawn” Party or the Hungarian “Jobbik” Party, that share the neo-Nazi ideology, cannot be put on a par level with less extreme parties like the “United Kingdom Independence Party” and the “Alternative for Germany”.

What did cause the wave of popularity of nationalist rightwing populist parties? The most obvious answer consists of two aspects. Firstly, the current spread of nationalism in Europe is a response to the adverse impact of global economic factors, which result in millions of people feeling themselves financially vulnerable and affected by the economic crisis. Secondly, the popularity of such parties is increased by the migration wave. Economic insecurity causes political instability, providing the opportunity to address the crisis with extreme methods. Refugee crisis is also causing political problems, especially in the transit countries, which are generally less developed.

Popularity of nationalism and populism can be associated with the crisis of identity in general. It is impossible to deny that “ethnonationalism explosion” is currently occurring not just in the EU, but throughout the world. President Elect of the USA Donald Trump is a supporter of American nationalism, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is highly popular in his country, with his ruling conservative party “United Russia”, are promoting the commitment to “the extreme patriotism”. One may consider nationalism as a reaction to globalisation and modernization, thus a natural manifestation of a desire of the social consciousness for stability and preservation of identity.

As well the popularity of nationalism and populism may be considered as an outcry of constantly evolving society to stuck non-advanced politics, an attempt to search for alternative. After all, it is impossible to deny that the traditional division between left and right do not adequately reflect the actual range of opinions existing in society. Neither the views of the state’s role in controlling of social life, nor in ensuring social equality can be shown on the political scale “right – left”. However, this limitation is our reality. The example is not far to seek – let us have a look at the French regional elections of 2015. Because of the opposition split into the center-left and center-right blocks, after the first round the Socialist Party withdrew their lists from the regions of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy in an attempt to block the National Front in the second round. It was agreed tactical voting, limited to two possible options without an alternative, thus the results can hardly reflect the real state of affairs in these regions.

Nowadays more and more European voters are losing faith in social democracy, its capacity to deliver economic security and to protect identity. The standpoints of the rightwing European parties in general are the following: nationalisation of the banks, protective tariffs for domestic agriculture, restructuring of the EU and rethinking membership in it, disproportionate emphasis on self-interest trade. All these can lead to less friendly international community, failing to improve economic and migrant situations. It only may increase domestic and intercountry tensions, thus causing more profound systemic multilevel crisis of the EU institutions.

Last but not least, political revival of rightwing populism is strongly linked to a rise in Euroscepticism. The phenomenon of “euroscepticism” not so long ago was a marginal phenomenon for European policy, but now it is distinctly entering the political limelight. It seems that nowadays in European political circles it is absolutely adequate to openly criticise and oppose to immigration, integration, the euro, the EU itself and its basic integration convergence. The EU supranational institutions are considered as useless or even harmful superstructure above the usual structures of national governments. The objectives range from the total exit from the union and the euro zone, to the desire to reform the union without leaving it. Thus, there are two types of euroscepticism – “hard” type of “withdraw lists” and “soft” type of “reformists”. The former promotes a principal opposition to the European integration (in countries like Poland, Greece, the UK), the latter has an opposition to specific EU policies (in countries like Luxemburg, Portugal, Sweden).

What is the cause of euroscepticism? Of course, a part of the eurosceptic has such position due to a simple matter of principle. However, the explosion of euroscepticism in the last few years cannot be simply linked to a banal principle, it must have a base of a healthy pragmatism. There is something that constantly fuels and catalyzes the Euroskeptic views. And this “something” is not just economic and migration problems, but the systemic failures in the functioning of the EU institutions, who are trying to deal with those problems, namely the failure of the European Commission.

Of course, the European Commission is one of the main executive bodies, it is the one who is responsible for the preparation of laws and implementation of the European Parliament decisions, it consists of unelected bureaucrats, etc. There is no denial, that the EC functioning has a lot of trouble moments, however, its failure might not be at the core of all the EU problems. The European Commission is not an independent institution, it has a direct influence from the European Council and it is fully accountable to the Parliament. And, as a consequence of euro crisis and the 2009 Lisbon treaty, the Commission has had to leave the high politics to the European Council (meaning sometimes just to a few key governments), while focusing on its subordinate technical role. And it is the European Council who guides the general direction of the EU. It is the European Council who cannot ensure the agreement among all the heads governments. It is the European Council who failed to maintain the functioning of the European Commission and cannot reinforce the Commission’s independence. The European Union needs reforms, including the reforms on the executive and legislative political bodies. Such highly necessary reforms will make the vast majority of Eurosceptic parties disappear due to the lack of a factual basis.

But now it seems like European policy is paralyzed by fear of populists and Eurosceptic. A strategy aimed at the formation and implementation of a unified foreign and defense policy of the EU with the ultimate goal of strengthening the international positions has actually failed. And the situation is aggravated by the serious changes in the geopolitical situation on the outer perimeter of the European Union, primarily due to the sharp deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, North Africa and the Middle East.

The biggest and the most basic problems are the lack of reforms, of European leadership and of a proactive, strategic agenda shared by the majority of member countries. Short-term policy of the European Union is limited just to reaction (often belated and insufficient) to emerging internal and external problems. There is an urgent need of a unified consolidated position with a long-term vision of all EU governments. Clear understanding of shared values and goals is highly important, as if there are no common interests, there can be no unity of purpose, not to mention the unity of action. Here, the words of the Roman historian and politician Sallust seem so appropriate: “By union the smallest states thrive, by discord the greatest are destroyed.”