Europe vs Populists

In this blog post, Thodoris Fountoukidis discusses populism and the future perspective of Europe. Can the European Union survive populism?

The elections and referendums that have been held in Europe, Turkey and the USA have raised the phenomenon of populist movements. The main question for Europe has been if it will manage to survive.

It is obvious that our world faces severe challenges. The financial crisis, ISIS, poverty or wars around the globe all threaten global stability. Also, our Western culture and societies need to deal with another significant challenge: Are our leaders up to the job?

These recent results across the globe show our western democracies are threatened by populism. The referenda in Greece and UK, as well as in Turkey, where the results are still doubted by the opposition, as well as the elections in the USA, have brought to the surface populist leaders.

Populist leaders often use referenda, invoking the “democratic right of people” to gain excessive power or to pass responsibility to voters exploiting social problems and offering easy solutions. However, referenda – such as the German referendum that gave ultimate power to Hitler, demonstrate just how much depends on the quality of information that the citizens receive and the maturity of the electorate.

The US President based his election campaign on slogans that would isolate his country from the rest of the world. Derived from this are his plans to withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement and his ambivalence about NATO.

In Greece, my country, the government has used and exploited anti-European rhetoric, to attract votes and win elections. Instead of presenting the appropriate but difficult solutions, it has used this anti-European rhetoric, accusing Brussels of being a loan shark, rather than tackling recession, capital controls, unemployment and brain drain as the country struggles to turn a corner. Unfortunately, the opposition also bases its strategy and rhetoric on populism and ineffective solutions, trying to convince citizens that it is possible to cut taxes and maintain public spending.

Moreover, the citizens who voted in the referendum in the UK decided that their country should leave our European family and receive, as well as implement, their own solutions for the major challenges of our century. Those young people, for the most part, were locked out of this decision is a disturbing incident for our democracies.

On the contrary, it was the citizens in the Netherlands and Austria who brought optimism back in Europe, as they decided that populism is would not satisfy their needs or serve EU’s interests.

What is driving the rise of populism now? Why are populists defeating visionary politicians? Why are our fellow citizens increasingly turning to populist leaders and parties? Why are people, who have tremendous qualifications, not interested in participating in politics?

Populists concentrate most of their anti-European rhetoric on the imperfections and gaps of the EU, overlooking the gaps of the national policies. They overlook the fact that nowadays our countries are individually incapable of dealing with global issues and challenges, such as the migration and refugee issue, the financial crisis, terrorism, internet security and so forth.

The opponents of European integration blame “Brussels” for every social, political and financial problem. They are trying to base their accusations on the “success story” of a divided Europe (in other words, devastated societies and families) against the “failures of a United Europe”, such as Peace, Democracy, Solidarity and mobility of students and people within the EU.

However, it could be also the fault of the EU and the Member States, which failed to effectively deliver the concrete achievements of the EU, as stated in White paper on the future of Europe and the way forward.

It is unfair to consider the EU exclusively as a bureaucratic organisation when it is mainly the decision of the Europeans, after centuries of wars and hate, to live together.

It is the best present that Europe gave itself: choosing to see each other as friends, not as past or future enemies; the right to travel and live without obstacles; promoting understanding among us. As the late Labour MP Jo Cox said:we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

The financial and migration crises have revealed some of the weaknesses of the EU: inability to make and implement decisions promptly, inability to monitor the budgets of Member States, its vulnerability to bad decisions by Member States and populist governments.

But going back to a divided Europe is not the solution. Yes, we should reshape the EU, after we decide what kind of Europe we want but allowing the populists to divide Europe once again would be negligent.

We should develop a more appealing and democratic EU but mainly, we should find and apply solutions to the major issues that put in danger the existence of the EU: migration, financial crisis, terrorism, and populism.

Thodoris Fountoukidis

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