The Clock is Ticking for Europe

Last week, Demos brought together around 30 leading thinkers on Europe’s social, economic and cultural condition in Brussels, for the second in a series of policy workshops we have been hosting as part of our project – Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

There is a sense in 2016 that every time we head to the polls, our electorates become ever more volatile, ‘unknowable’ – and palpably consequential. But as pollsters’ modelling around election outcomes struggles to keep pace, surveys that lend insights into the social and political attitudes driving voter behaviour are perhaps more important than ever.

Recent studies we have undertaken to probe the depths of citizens’ fears and insecurities in post-Referendum Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Germany and Poland, make for complex and often troubling reading. The tremendous diversity of the EU aside, there are some clear areas of common feeling – including, perhaps surprisingly, the recognition from a majority in all our surveyed states that globalisation has been a positive influence at both national and EU levels. This challenges an increasingly normative view that fixes globalisation as the root cause of socio-economic disenfranchisement, rather suggesting it is just one part of a bigger story, and that focusing on it exclusively at the expense of social and cultural landscape may prove dangerously ineffectual.

Encouragingly, we also see broad support across member states for the progressive social developments of recent decades, such as more women entering the workforce and same-sex marriage. However, a clear dividing line emerges around cultural and ethnic diversity, which is not regarded as having been such a positive social force. Even in liberal Sweden, where open values are intrinsically linked to national identity, the migration crisis has clearly spearheaded a shift to favouring a more closed, exclusionary political discourse.

For EU leaders, there must also be serious concerns about the evident desire across the board for change in national relationships with the European Union – with Euroscepticism seeping well beyond the UK’s soon-to-be ‘sovereign’ borders.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – there are some fragments of hope within our research that can be seized upon by those seeking to secure the EU’s future and reinstate a more open outlook among her member states. For example, with the exception of Spain, after years of political dysfunction and hyper-pluralisation, we found clear support for a consensus-driven, conciliatory form of politics over authoritarian leadership, despite differences in national systems.

This project has a dual aim at its heart – to at once map what is common across Europe, and also to capture the distinct national manifestations of fear and insecurity in six tremendously diverse member states. Deeper research that we will be releasing in due course capture these distinctions; in Spain, for example, we see populism as driven mainly from the Left, despite comparatively high levels of immigration and catastrophic unemployment. In Poland, where the Law and Justice Party holds power, fear of terrorism is bolstering the government’s stronghold, despite there being no immediate threat; here, the battle plays out in the political narratives of a nation on the brink of ruin, regardless of the social and economic realities.

Living under the spectre of economic stagnation, withering political leadership, and an ever-extended state of emergency after a series of horrific terrorist attacks, France appears to be particularly entrenched in a level of malaise that paints a concerning backdrop on which to stage elections next year. Such an extraordinary combination of social and cultural conditions suggests the vote will either galvanise passions for change, or see a new ‘bottom floor’ of historical lows in disengagement emerge.

Also heading to the polls next year is Germany, where the Chancellor – having recently declared her intention to contest another term – is facing a much more treacherous electoral landscape than in her previous victories. Our research demonstrates that German citizens too are gripped by palpable fears and insecurities – and many of them are linked to the European Union, including fears around a loss of social security (53%), rising budget payments (52%) and a loss of national identity and culture (45%). This complex mix of economic and social fears forms a potentially potent cocktail that already proved so seismic in the UK’s referendum and the recent American elections.

So – what can be done? One common theme across the workshop was the sense that the EU fails when it over-extends itself out of areas of its core competency. Many citizens feel disenfranchised and detached from EU institutions, and cannot see its value between the sense of constant failure and crisis. In order to strike up some more successes, it must be frank about its own limitations, recalibrate and start to deliver around a reduced set of fundamental operations (such as climate change, migration, internal markets), and be more transparent about how its decisions are reached.

On the issue of democratisation, an important distinction was made between reform to increase legitimisation, which is favoured under a representative model, and the tendency to “glorify participation” through referendums and the like, which, it was argued, can privilege anti-establishment leaders to destabilising ends. Improving the EU’s communication channels and techniques was also considered an essential area of action – as was repairing the fractious relationship between national governments and the EU institutions, which is fuelling the EU’s perceived role as a “Trojan horse for globalisation” and a “scapegoat for all the world’s failings”.

This is important, because, in all reality, many of the responses to the social and cultural crises our project is focusing on will have to be led by national governments – who will need to get serious about delivering better living standards and economic opportunity, but also appreciate their own role in setting expectations and fostering the sense of security that underpins support for both openness and social cohesion. There was recognition from all workshop participants that this kind of leadership is becoming especially difficult in an information environment increasingly infiltrated by conspiracy theories and fake news – but also that weak political leadership contributed significantly to the vacuum in which these have grown.

Our previous workshop was held in the twilight hours before the UK’s referendum, and, five months later, the mood was equally fragile but more hard-headed. We have waded through the wash-up, trying to make sense of how the ‘impossible’, and certainly the unexpected, was realised. But there is a sense now as we career towards 2017 that we are fast running out of time for introspection, and certainly for complacency: diagnostics must now turn to solutions. At Demos, we are now putting our minds to the task of asking how policy, and politics, can mend Europe’s gaping wounds around a more inclusive, positive vision for the future.

Demos will shortly be publishing some of the key findings of our case study on the social and cultural underpinnings of the Brexit vote. Next year, ahead of the Treaty of Rome anniversary and the French elections, we will release the full report on the culture and politics of fear in Europe, including the six case studies we have conducted, alongside some principles for policy-makers and politicians to challenge and overcome the trends we have identified. If you’re interested to learn more, please do get in touch.