Europe on the Brink?

On 15 June, in what felt at times like the dying days of empire, Demos brought together 20 leading experts on European politics, social and economic policy for a workshop in Brussels, to debate an emergent culture of ‘fear’ across the continent.

The sense of urgency was palpable from the outset – and not just with the UK’s Referendum looming like all four horses of the apocalypse on the horizon. While Brexit was certainly an unavoidable focus of the day, it was by no means regarded as an outlier event. Rather, the room was heavy with concern at a much more widespread, deep-seated phenomena gripping many more of Europe’s member states and imperilling the future of the EU solidarity project.

Disruptive political populism, economic stagnation and a mismanaged migration crisis have fuelled social unrest, and pushed the contract between citizens, their national governments, and the EU to breaking point.

But this volatile environment has not emerged overnight. While the global financial crisis has certainly accelerated the pace of change, it was clear from our discussion that the roots of this ‘social crisis’ lie in developments that have been taking place over several decades – not least of all globalisation, technological advancement, free trade, migration flows and labour market reforms.

All of these factors have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. For the latter, their fears are wide-reaching, and while some are abstract or even occasionally misplaced, all are established in genuine realities of unwelcome loss or change. Today, most countries in Western Europe are home to sizeable groups that feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, and for whom fear is a daily experience: fear of loss of jobs, national culture and identity, social security and immigration.

Fear has turned to a loss of ‘meaning and purpose’, manifesting in anger against their political representatives, who they feel have ignored social concerns. Undoubtedly, many politicians have failed to sell the ‘story’ of globalisation in an inclusive way, nor invested intelligently in policies that could have helped managed the transition.

Populist parties – which the workshop loosely defined as anti-elite, anti-globalisation and grounded in nostalgia – have traded off these fears. As mainstream parties in many countries have converged around a centrist consensus in recent years, populists have built new constituencies of support on the fringes, and the weight of their collective influence has begun to seep into mainstream political cultures.

Interestingly, it seems that their voting blocs have the most in common with the characteristics of non-voters – although there was a plea to ‘stop blaming the poor’ for the rise of populism, as their demographics suggest they are less ‘poorest of the poor’ and more ‘those with something to lose’.

Indeed, as income gains over recent decades have been most concentrated amongst the richest socio-economic groups, it is the feeling of relative deprivation that appears to be driving this sense of loss more than anything else. These feelings have been amplified by the uncertainty generated by a ‘lost decade’ of economic performance in Europe, and a growing realisation that we have come to the end of an era of ‘inevitable growth’. Here, looming economic precariousness has begun to erode some citizens’ feeling of democratic agency in their political system.

The intensity with which participants spoke about populism indicates that it is regarded as a genuine threat – not just to the stability of national governments but also to the European project as a whole. For the most part, these parties have commanded a disproportionate share of media attention and have undoubtedly impacted political strategies, but there are few instances in which they currently hold real power from an institutional sense. Here, Poland is the exception, and the rise to power of the Law and Justice Party, and its efforts to reform the national Constitution and critical areas of social policy in alignment with its ideologies, was regarded as a ‘laboratory of the future’ of what could lie ahead for other nations.

And yet, it is also true that the experiences in each member state have varied enormously; in France, the biggest concerns lie around labour market reforms. In Spain, spiralling unemployment has encouraged the highest levels of inequality in the EU. Consistent to all European countries, however, are increasingly fragmented political systems and government failures in managing change – a combination that makes a mandate for governance at two levels increasingly challenging.

Nowhere is this more plainly exemplified than in Germany, where the integration of the one million recently arrived migrants is unsettling social cohesion and threatening to destabilise the mandate of the EU’s most powerful leader. There was fierce and heated debate around both the social and economic dimensions of migration, and whether the concept of a ‘borderless Europe’ can continue to be reconciled with its member states’ national sovereignty. What was abundantly clear is that migration remains the most divisive issue in the EU, and the stakes for mainstream parties in the next phase of integration policy could not be higher.

The workshop discussed the role of the media in the rise of populist parties and narratives, and the impact that the growth of digital media, and threats to media sustainability, have had on political cultures. The increasing fragmentation of national media markets was seen to have given greater space to the views of otherwise ‘fringe’ candidates and parties, in addition to fuelling conspiracy theories against the established political rulers. Interestingly, as populist policies become increasingly ‘normalised’ and legitimised through the media’s ongoing coverage, there was a question as to whether populism itself is best examined as a form of political communication.

There is no question that the workshop was held in an atmosphere of both introspection and urgent concern – and yet, a late question as to whether we were likely to see campaigns based on hope in Europe anytime soon was greeted with some cautious optimism. The EU project, it was argued, must be positioned as the best possible instrument through which its member states can progress in the face of existing and future global threats. But this can only be achieved through first driving genuine reform – shifting the story of hope from ‘a dream’ to a message of compelling authenticity.

On the eve of the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the gravity, and necessity, of the idea of ‘Hope through Reform’ could not have held greater poignancy. In its unexpected aftermath, gripped by growing economic and political turmoil, we cannot afford to ignore just how close other continental nations stand to similar upheaval. Europe’s ‘shock therapy’ has arrived, but there are no quick remedies for such a deeply routed climate of fear.