Populism, a vial of poison for European unity

By Ding Yifan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/25 18:23:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Populism runs rife in today's Europe. The Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party led by Andrej Babis, Czech Trump-style billionaire populist, won a thumping victory in Saturday's election. Though Babis faces tough negotiations with potential coalition partners as his votes are not enough to form a new cabinet, people worry whether his election will have knock-on effects in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe.

Northern Italy regions Lombardy and Veneto also voted for greater autonomy following the Catalonia referendum. It makes one wonder when populism will reach its climax in Europe.

People have been worrying that populism will sweep Europe since Brexit. Although the French and German elections somewhat allayed the worst fears, support for populist right-wing political parties Front National and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has risen sharply. The rise of populist forces will damage European integration.

First, it will affect the domestic politics of EU member states, delaying European integration that might have been pushed forward. French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a 10-point European integration plan after he took office, including more consensus with Germany, strengthening the single budget in the euro zone, promoting the convergence of tax and social security systems, further promoting European defense integration, improving the European common agricultural policy and discharging inefficient EU officials.

Macron's plan, however, may be unable to get a positive response from Germany. The rapid rise of AfD in Germany forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to consider cooperation with other parties and take German voters into consideration. Macron's declining approval ratings also make his plan difficult in France.

Second, pragmatic measures aroused mutual suspicion among EU member states, bogging down integration. The debt crisis in the euro zone and the Brexit referendum made European Union leaders feel some member states did not meet the conditions for further integration. To forcibly promote integration might backfire with some member states. But if Europe fails to integrate, it may fall. Thus the EU puts forward a "multi-speed Europe" initiative, so that countries can take the lead in promoting integration.

However, this politically incorrect proposal aroused the suspicions of newly joined Eastern and Central European member states. They had intended to enjoy the benefits of the EU, especially the Development Assistance Fund, but now they had to accept unfair treatment during a "transition period." As they saw it, they must make sacrifices without immediately enjoying the benefits of being full EU members. In a "multi-speed Europe", they worried about becoming second-class citizens. Thus these countries have taken issue with a "multi-speed Europe," making integration even harder.

Finally, populism leads to political instability, aggravates political opposition, reduces government efficiency and interferes with economic recovery plans. Economic stagnation is the root cause of many social ills in European countries. Since the debt crisis, the EU has been hovering between economic recession and stagnation. A weak recovery has been diluted by social protests, terrorist attacks and political opposition.

In fact, to completely get out of an economic crisis needs restructuring and new impetus for economic growth. The EU did not carry out effective economic restructuring. Since the 2008 international financial crisis, it has been relying on easing monetary policy and fiscal subsidies. The political infighting and heavy political burden make society unable to reach a consensus. With populism, a consensus grows ever more elusive, not to mention the mustering of any effective economic reform. As time goes by, the prospects for European integration seem grim.

Initiated during fast post-World War II economic development, European integration benefited participating countries via the common tariff, the common agricultural policy, common currency and market. But when an economy hits trouble, some EU rules - like an austerity budget - have dampened the desire for further integration.

If slow economic development and reduced social welfare become routine, then more people will doubt the benefits of integration. More populist politicians will come into power and the demand for breaking up Europe will grow increasingly strong.

The author is a Yiyang chair professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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