By Connor Phillips.
More than four years have passed since the fateful day when George Papandreou, then the newly elected Prime Minister of Greece, announced the true extent of his nation’s budget deficit, an admission that ultimately plunged the European Union into the gravest crisis of its existence as country after country faced collapsing confidence in its fiscal solvency. Five nations ultimately accepted EU-IMF bailouts that came with crippling austerity measures, and the entire continent was plunged into a punishing recession. Perhaps the most far-reaching result of the crisis, however, was the EU’s loss of credibility in the eyes of its people, a loss whose full ramifications are only beginning to manifest themselves.
On the surface, it seems like the worst may finally be over. Ireland has become the first nation to exit the bailout program, with Portugal soon expected to follow, and last fall, the EU’s overall government debt finally began to decline. Yet the social fallout from the crisis will take decades to subside. The astronomical levels of youth employment in the worst-hit nations—Greece, Spain, and Portugal—have fueled fears of a “lost generation,” unemployed in their twenties, missing out on vital career training and experience, and thus unemployable in perpetuity. In a continent hailed as the first to offer a guarantee of cradle-to-grave social welfare for its citizens, a new underclass is growing up adrift. For many, the trust in the European vision has been permanently shattered.
In the face of this calamity, public opinion has turned decisively against the EU, with many blaming the crisis and bungled response on their loss of national sovereignty to the Brussels-based EU technocrats. As The Economist observed, it was this same cocktail of discontent—anti-elitism coupled with distrust of expanding bureaucratic authority—that produced the American Tea Party. Add in a healthy dose of anti-immigrant sentiment (a predictable response to nearly any economic downturn) and you have a textbook recipe for populism. Although the voices of resentment came from all sides of the political spectrum, one—that of the ultranationalistic far right—soon began to drown out the others. Political parties that were formerly pariahs suddenly found their anti-EU messages achieving mainstream credibility—France’s National Front (FN), a party long tarred by its links to anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, gained control of eleven large towns in recent municipal elections.
For now, the far right’s political gains have been more symbolic than substantive. But that may soon change. In May, the EU faces continent-wide elections for the European Parliament, its legislative body. The Parliament is composed not of parties but of alliances, groups of parties from across the continent with similar political beliefs, from the dominant European People’s Party on the center-right and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on the center-left to blocs for the free-market liberals, the mainstream Euroskeptics, the Greens, the Communists, and even the regional separatists. Now, the far-right Europhobes want to add their own group to the mix: Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has announced an alliance with Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, to form an anti-EU network of nationalist parties dedicated to “wrecking” the European Parliament from within.
The European Parliament is so terminally uninteresting that turnout has fallen in every election since it was created, and this contest looks set to continue the trend. Low-turnout elections typically facilitate strong showings by candidates who lack mainstream appeal but boast intense ideological support (take, for example, Republican senatorial primaries), and thus the far right appears poised to make a strong showing. To prevent such an outcome, the European Parliament has sought to make the contest more exciting by allowing the alliances to nominate candidates for the President of the European Commission, the chief executive of the EU. The hope is that a modern-style presidential campaign (with televised debates!) will jazz up the elections and show the people that their vote means something concrete—although whether this process will boost the Parliament’s legitimacy is far from clear.
In fact, despite its better-than-usual prospects, the far right does not stand a chance of gaining control of Parliament, according to recent polls. Thus, what is so troublesome about these parties is not so much their potential prospects as the forces that underlay their meteoric rise—a growing crisis of confidence within the EU. In September 2013, Gallup Europe found that only 30% of Europeans think that the EU is a good thing, down from 70% twenty years ago. Indeed, after years of recession and austerity, it is difficult to fault Europeans for their lack of faith. And Europe’s policymakers have done little to inspire confidence in the EU’s future, merely maintaining that the euro must be saved, whatever the consequences, because the alternative would be far too horrible to contemplate—claims which must seem fanciful to European citizens who cannot imagine how things could get worse.
Trying to spice up the European Parliament is thus like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—the true problem runs much deeper. Nothing will overcome the EU’s legitimacy gap unless someone, be it a political party or a national leader, a country or a movement, is prepared to offer a new vision, one of a long, hard road to recovery, but one based on hope and mutual understanding rather than fear and discord. Such a vision would encourage Europeans to shoulder their burdens together, accepting the trials and tribulations of the moment as part of the price of building a common destiny. The days when Europe stood astride the world have long since passed, and in spite of everything that has happened in the last five years, its best prospects still lie in a reformed union rather than a descent into internal squabbling. Moreover, the values of international cooperation and shared sacrifice upon which the European project was founded should and do still hold tremendous relevance in today’s world. After all, no one in Ukraine went to Independence Square to demand the right to a televised presidential debate.