NEW YORK – According to the latest opinion polls, the big winners in the European Parliament election later this month will be right-wing populist parties that share a common loathing of the European Union, most notably the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom’s Independence Party. Though the Euroskeptic right may not win a majority of seats, its collective strength is a blow to the cause of European unity. Why is a project that began with such high hopes in the wake of World War II running into so much resistance?
The success of right-wing populism in Europe stems not only from unease with the EU, but also from a surge of resentment against liberal/left elites, who are blamed for many sources of anxiety: immigration, squeezed economies, Islamic extremism, and, of course, the alleged domination of the “Eurocracy” in Brussels. As is true of Tea Party voters in the United States, some Europeans claim that their countries have been taken away from them.
People feel politically helpless in a world that seems to be increasingly ruled by big corporations and faceless international bureaucracies. The appeal of populism is its claim that things would surely get better if only we could be masters of our own homes again.
What has broken down in many countries is not just confidence in European institutions, but the underlying liberal/left consensus that emerged from the catastrophe of two world wars. After 1945, Christian and Social Democrats shared an ideal of a peaceful, united Europe, with continental solidarity – a commitment to economic equality, the welfare state, and multiculturalism – gradually replacing nationalism.
This ideological edifice began to be seriously dented in the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet empire discredited not only socialism, but any form of collective idealism. Neo-liberalism began to fill the vacuum. At the same time, more and more immigrants, often from Muslim-majority countries, settled in European cities, resulting in social tensions, to which mainstream parties were unable to respond adequately.
Warnings about racism, or “xenophobia,” were no longer convincing in an atmosphere of economic decline and sporadic terrorism. That is why populist demagogues – with their promises to defend Western civilization against Islam, fight “Brussels,” and “take back” their countries from the leftist elites – have done so well.
But this reaction will hardly help European countries thrive. To compete with rising powers on other continents, a common European foreign and defense policy will become increasingly important. And a shared currency, however flawed its conception, demands common financial institutions, which will be impossible to establish and sustain unless Europeans regain their sense of solidarity.
The question is how? What, for example, can convince relatively wealthy northern Europeans, especially in Germany, that their tax money should be used to help southern Europeans in times of crisis?
Unfortunately, pan-national movements do not have a good track record of nurturing a common sense of belonging. They are either too muddled (pan-Arabism), too dangerous (pan-Germanism), or both (pan-Asianism).
Most of the founders of pan-European institutions, such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Jean Monnet, were Catholics. Pan-Europeanism comes more naturally to Catholics than to Protestants, because they have traditionally found a sense of belonging in the Roman Church, which often coincided with the idea of Europe. Those who created the European Economic Community in 1957 were, in some ways, the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire.
But this cannot be the model for Europe, whose citizens include members of almost all faiths, as well as many who claim no religious adherence at all.
The kind of ethnic solidarity that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to whip up in the former Soviet empire is certainly not the answer for Europe, either. Ethnic nationalism became a toxic political strategy in the twentieth century, leading to genocide and ethnic cleansing – a legacy that suggests how dangerous Putin’s enterprise is. In any case, Europeans never were ethnically united, and never will be.
Some European leaders, such as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, dream of a European cultural community. Verhofstadt speaks of his love of French wine, German opera, and English and Italian literature. All have their attractions, no doubt, but will hardly suffice to unite Europeans in a political or economic sense.
The only thing left, then, would be a kind of social contract. European citizens should not be enticed to give up a degree of national sovereignty on religious, cultural, or ethnic grounds. Nor should they be asked to devote some of their taxes to helping other countries out of love and reverence for European flags or anthems. They should be persuaded that it is in their self-interest to do these things.
People would have to be told by their national leaders that some problems can be addressed only by pan-national institutions. Will they be convinced? This question goes back to the old debates of the Enlightenment: John Locke’s social contract, based on enlightened self-interest, versus David Hume’s view that tradition and cultural prejudice are the essential glue of society.
My sympathies are with the former. But history has shown that the latter may have the stronger pull. Then again, history has also shown that traditions are often invented to serve the interests of ruling classes. This has been the problem of European unification: it was always a venture driven by members of a political and bureaucratic elite. Ordinary people were only rarely consulted. And now the populists are reaping the benefit.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.