Research suggests that today’s Europe is increasingly divided. In a poll spanning 27 countries, Europeans believed that their countries were more polarized than they were a decade ago while half of Britons agreed that a divide existed among immigrants and nationals. As Europe battles through Brexit, refugee crises and populist divides, it would be worthwhile to explore the history and underlying values of the European Union. It was Winston Churchill who called for “a United States of Europe” as early on as 1945. The idea was to create an integrated community working towards common ideals of peace and multilateral cooperation, and to provide a structure upon which Europe could thrive. Having witnessed the horrors of two world wars, the establishment of a supranational institution to unify Europe was in the hope of deterring future conflict.
The beginnings of the EU can be traced back to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), as determined in the Schuman Plan. Established in 1951, the purpose of the ECSC was to integrate the coal and steel communities of West European states, primarily those of France and West Germany, making war between them structurally impossible. It was the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which established the European Economic Community (EEC) that laid down the foundations of the modern European Union. The signatories to the treaty declared that each nation was “determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the people of Europe” and called upon “people of Europe who share their ideals to join in their efforts.”
Underlying the material benefits of integration was the idea of a common European community – an idea entertained by the likes of Konrad Adenauer (German Chancellor from 1949 – 1963) and Robert Schuman (French Statesman). That is, a community where war between nations would be unlikely. In pursuing a common Europe, many envisioned a Europe that was not only connected by common markets and institutional arrangements, but also by common values and ideals.
The common vision for Europe is, however, undoubtedly in jeopardy today. Interestingly, Europe’s political chaos today seems to coincide with the emergence of new extreme parties. Populism has caught wind over the last couple of years, though this seems to be a global phenomenon, as observed in recent elections in the US, Brazil, and Mexico. Marie Le Pen, France’s most prominent far right figure, looks primed to make a comeback in next May’s European Parliament Elections. Le Pen rose to popularity during France’s presidential elections, where she campaigned on promises to initiate a referendum on EU membership and institute a national currency in place of the euro.
Populist movements tend to thrive in economies in distress or where large demographics endure hardship. Populism draws strength from issues such as the public opposition to mass immigration and the notion of surrendering national sovereignty to distant international organizations such as the EU. For example, Le Pen’s views on immigration garnered public support as according to her statement that “behind mass immigration, there is terrorism.” Immigration tends to raise cultural insecurities as well as economic displacements, which populists highlight and use to their advantage. Le Pen’s perversion of the values of the European Union to gain political popularity, however, is disheartening.
It is beneath the façade of such claims that certain leaders operate. Victor Orban is largely responsible for the decline of democratic institutions in Hungary – a worrying sign for members of the European Union. Orban strategically relies on escalation and constant enemies (such as his crusade against migrants) to remain in power. In September, the European Parliament voted to initiate Article 7 against the Orban government in Hungary, which could theoretically suspend Hungary from the European Union. Orban’s appeal to nationalism is a strong instrument. As George Orwell wrote, the purpose of the nationalist is to secure power and prestige for one’s nation, a sentiment which differs largely from the concept of patriotism.
In this environment, discussions of the importance of the EU or its successes no longer receive attention. Populist movements are gaining ground. Yet, demonizing populist movements is unfortunately counterproductive. It has the effect of reinforcing the anti-establishment sentiments of the general population without acknowledging any responsibility for its rise. To move beyond this wave of populism and divide, it is important to address the grievances of the public. Inclusive, sustainable economic growth is needed now more than ever. Populists are fond of creating divides, especially by pointing out the success of the elites or economic threats posed by immigrants. Just as the common European market served to unite Europe, sustainable economic growth has the potential to unite people. Economic success will reinvigorate public confidence in the system, which is essential in ending the popularity of populist leaders. Supranational organizations such as the EU undoubtedly have an important role to play in ensuring the survival of democracy and liberal democratic values.
Featured Image: European Union Flag by Hakan Dahlstrom via Flickr. CC 2.0
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