What the elections in Europe are telling us

What the elections in Europe are telling us

With Britain’s decision to leave the European Union – Brexit – on one side, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s defiance of transatlantic ties on the other side, have Europeans finally awakened to the urgency that they need to take matters into their own hands, face the root of their problems, devise strategic solutions and eventually give new shape to their union?

To some, this may seem like wishful thinking, but following recent polls in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Britain and even in municipally in Italy, there is an emerging trend – which is too obvious to go unnoticed – namely, that the populist movement in Europe is gradually slowing down amid an inverse strengthening of pro-EU tendencies.

While the risk of populism still persists, it seems that common wisdom has ultimately prevailed amid the poor performance of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Front National in France, UKIP in Britain and the Five Star Movement in Italy.

And this is good news not only for minorities living in Europe but for Europeans as well because the divisive and discriminatory rhetoric embraced by the populist leaders toward certain ethnic and religious groups only breeds animosity, which is then easily exploited by jihadist terrorist groups to recruit new members. 

European voters have supported populist leaders for a variety of reasons, but a common point among them was their frustration with the elites who represented the political establishment and have long failed to deliver on their promises.

History is, in fact, a perfect teacher for those who are willing to lend their ear. In general, cultural differences become more visible and the presence of “others” creates resentment in societies when they go through economic hardships. This was the case for Jews in the German Reich. The same can be said about the recent rise of populism in Europe, too. 

The constant flow of refugees has raised concern among Europeans who have already been struggling with their aging populations and growing social security burdens, all while trying to cope with the global economic crisis. To top it off, terrorist incidents have drawn attention to the sensitive issue of cultural integration and how poorly the process has been managed in most EU countries. As such, populist leaders from both the left and the right rushed in to derive political profit by capitalizing on European voters’ insecurity and fear.

The election results give us reason to feel optimistic. However, unless moderate leaders use the chance given by the electorate wisely, populism could make a stronger comeback, truncating liberal democracy.

Europeans leaders are faced with the very hard task of reconciling the different needs and interests of member states under the same roof. The Greek bailout deal revealed that the implementation of a common monetary policy, which did not take into account economic imbalances among individual member states, ended up creating further dissent instead of providing solutions to lingering problems such as stagnant growth and high unemployment. 

However, the jury is still out on whether sticking to austerity policies backed with structural adjustment plans or endorsing more expansive economic policies will provide the ultimate cure. 

One thing that is certain is that British PM Theresa May’s humiliating election result in the polls last week demonstrated that leaving the union was not so desirable and came with an undeniable political and economic cost. Therefore, the debate has now moved toward defining the terms of a soft Brexit, which is likely to keep Britain within the single market.

Given that the two leading candidates running for Germany’s elections in September have a pro-EU stance, there is a hope that the EU project can really be reinvigorated through a Franco-German partnership.
And amid growing uncertainty and insecurity in the international arena, we need the EU – more than ever before – to be a balancing actor and a defender of the liberal democratic order.