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The Uncertain Future of Fractured Democracies

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos
(The sleep of reason produces monsters)
Francisco Goya « Los caprichos »

History rarely repeats itself, but there are some striking parallels between Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and the challenges the European Union is facing today. The ideologies of fascism and extreme leftism swept the continent in the aftermath of the First World War causing the rise of populist parties whose simplified arguments created deep divisions which eventually set the stage for the next conflict. Europe has been living in peace for over more than seventy years by now but the changes brought about by the fall of the Berlin wall and the unfettered globalisation utterly shattered the European order established to guarantee peace in an ever closer union amongst its countries.

No doubt that the European societies of today bear little resemblance to the nation states between the two wars. Yet the challenges they are facing provide again a fertile ground for populism on the left and on the right of the political spectrum tearing apart not only European unity but also undermining individual countries and communities from within.

The current populist rhetoric revolves around immigration, the establishment (the traditional, mainstream parties) and the European Union. Each of these topics has a potential of pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’, serving as a breeding ground for ethnocentric appeal. Combined, they provide a perfect cocktail and are a powerful unifying force.

The migration conundrum

The 2015 refugee crisis took Europe by surprise. Resulting from the conflict in the Middle East and the Arab spring awakening, it laid bare the inadequacy of EU law and policies on asylum to cope with a massive arrival of migrants and refugees. Heated discussions among political parties helped shape three basic approaches: let everybody in, leave everybody out or try to balance between the two: letting refugees in (those who fulfil the conditions for asylum and protection) and keeping economic migrants out, while observing international and European laws and obligations. The third solution is of course the preferred one for any democratic society based on human rights. The trouble is that to distinguish the two groups takes time and the road to implementation is often long, plastered with difficulties and setbacks. It requires patience, cooperation and partnership between all those involved in the process (Member States, civil society, international organisations and third countries). To stem the migration flows, a common EU policy on migration would be more than helpful but the only long term solution is to stop wars and ensure a better future for all those who are ready to risk their lives on the perilous journey to Europe.
If the refugee crisis seriously strained the intra-EU relations, setting off a clash between the west and east European states, the issue of free movement of workers is another explosive topic which made the chasm grow even deeper, reinforcing populist frenzy.

The freedom of movement – one of the four basic pillars of European integration – has been seriously compromised by the disparities of wages between EU Member States. Workers of wealthier countries with a stronger social protection net, felt threatened by the arrival of workers from poorer Member States. The main argument for the Brexit leave campaign was not about refugees from third countries but Polish workers who came to Britain after the 2004 EU eastern enlargement.

To prevent unfair competition and avoid further ramifications of social dumping the EU should prioritise the overhaul of the Posted workers directive which helped fuelling the narrative of the extreme right wing parties to a great extent.

The anti -establishment revolt

The anti-establishment rhetoric is dominating the political debate in almost all EU countries. Voters feel they can’t influence the system let alone change it through elections or other democratic tools. When given the opportunity they often vent their anger through a referendum, taking little notice of the real reasons they have been called upon to decide. The inner complexities of modern societies are such that most of the issues are intertwined and ill-suited to fit simple solutions. Sheer anger directed against the mainstream parties is hardly a good basis for any viable alternative. Nationalism and populism rarely lead to harmony. Isolationism and withdrawal into the national self may provide comfort and a sense of security but can easily turn into conflict, with consequences that are hard to predict.

The European Union and its disgruntled citizens

The EU has been the preferred target for European populists for a long time. It encapsulates both ills which have stirred up the revolt of the people: it is perceived as an aloof, faceless establishment, unable to understand their plight. Europe has become the main culprit of disenchanted citizens who feel dispossessed of their national sovereignty and have lost their trust in the idea of a common European future.

So how should the EU respond to this unprecedented crisis? Instead of bowing to populist pressure, it should keep a low profile and stick to its principles, convictions and values by making the best it can as a ‘soft power’ designed to preserve freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Modesty should carry the day. Countless attempts to persuade the EU citizens of the benefits and achievements of EU integration can only draw the ire of those who believe in the opposite. In times of popular revolt when people crave simple solutions, preaching moderate, rational reasoning may be difficult to follow through; especially for the EU given its institutional setup, various layers of power and a complex decision making process. Instead, a few reforms and better leadership could be enough to preserve the legacy of those who have witnessed the horrors of war.

It would be a tragedy if the EU succumbed to the populist forces which tear at the fabric of the very foundation of European unity. Whereas justifiable criticism can give impetus for change, putting the very concept of the European project into question would be a grave mistake which may be deeply regretted by future generations.

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