Merkel’s decision showed the strengths and weaknesses of Germany’s ability to cope with such an influx. It also exposed big divisions at home and especially inside the European Union over how to deal with refugees, security, and the ever-increasing rise of populist parties that want strict controls over immigration.
Some months ago, in June especially, the Austrian presidential election showed a rising trend in European politics: voters rejected mainstream parties in favor of outsider candidates, resulting in the first Green head of state in Europe and nearly equal vote share for the second place far-right candidate.
In several European countries including Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Switzerland, right-wing parties have taken the race of government. And everywhere right-wing populists haven’t gained power. Groups such as British UKIP, they played important role at the Brexit and they obtained gain de cause.
In crisis-ridden Southern Europe, meanwhile, left-wing populists have seen a renaissance. A Spain’s anti-austerity movement Podemos obtained a very good result in Spain’s last elections and in Greece Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left-wing SYRIZA party, is leading an unlikely coalition government with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) party. Two core issues lie at the root of today’s rising populism: The challenge of immigration and the lingering euro-crisis. Identifying the problem, however, is not the same as overcoming it. And here, Europe faces a dilemma.
The continent’s problems can only be addressed through increased cooperation, but European electorates refuse to authorize any further transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. The populist surge is partly a rational response to the apparent political failures of the established parties.
It is also an emotional backlash to a sense of disenfranchisement. Increasingly the European Union’s compromise machine is perceived as an institutionalized big coalition between the center-left and the center-right that routinely ignores opposing voices.
In contrast to the U.S., where political differences between Republicans and Democrats have remained deep, European mainstream parties have in the last decade moved even closer toward the ideological center. In the case of many left-wing parties, like the marginal SYRIZA in Greece, the shift was explicit. Parties deprioritized this ideology and embraced what was presumed to be a post-partisan pragmatism. Tony Blair’s new labor andSchröder’s new center in Germany are cases in point. Both parties were rewarded with historic victories in the 1990’s.
Thereafter, years of centrist economic policies generated growth, but also alienated large tanks of the center lefts traditional supporters. Disillusioned leftist voters became easy targets for populists. Although this process was gradual, the effects can be seen in the disappearance of time-honored center-left parties such as the Greek PASOK and the Polish Social Democrats.
A similar pattern holds true for Europe’s center-right parties, which are paying the price for the shift toward more progressive positions, first and foremost on social-cultural matters. Nowhere has this process been more striking than in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has shifted her conservative Christian-Democratic Union to the left in a wide range of issues. According to these situations the EU is caught in the cross-fire between nationalist and internationalists, populists and liberals, and the extreme right and left.
The Eurozone immigration crisis have dramatically accelerated pre-existing trends of polarization and segmentation. So, some long-established parties are disappearing and on the other side anti-establishment movements are gaining support in many countries also outside Europe, as democracies move away from representative politics toward new forms of political engagement. Under these circumstances, political change poses three particular challenges to the EU. One is the struggle for power between the old and the new.
The constellation of power on Brussels is still that of the old establishment, drawing the anger of new forces. Indeed, there is a time lag between national and EU-level political change. New parties gain power at the EU level only once they enter national government while more establish the power basis first at the regional or local level or online. As a result, that may be very influential in setting a new political agenda in national politics but it is the old parties that still represent their countries in Brussels.
This lag has a positive side. It ensures greater stability during times of turmoil at the national level and it protects EU policies and law from extremism. But it makes Brussels look like a defender of the old establishment. The second challenge is to the functioning of the EU. Rapid change makes the EU harder to govern because its political system depends on transnational cooperation and a minimum level of political stability.
The EU works through negotiations that lead to different views and trust among the participants. Disruption of national politics can cause paralysis. Populists often have few detailed policy goals, as there is an identity orientation, so they are not motivated to use the EU system. In that sense, populists are unlike other fringe movements that have promoted new causes through the EU, such as animal rights, data protection and digital freedoms.
So, if populism is shadow casted by democracy, to catch British political theorist Margaret Canovan, it is the dark side of the EU. Xenophobic populists oppose both the EU’s goals and its working methods. The claim that interdependence is dangerous and the national sovereignty should be absolute, supporting majority rule and rejecting pluralism. So, we face a new landscape and at this level the task of politicians, of progressive politicians, of all sides are further challenged as we are entering a new era in democracy’s function.
A function shaped by new stakes, different dividing lines and new narratives against background of globalization, multiculturalism, security fears and emerging 21st technological advances. Democratic forces will be judged by the ability to set a new agenda and by the power to protect democracy’s core principles and values against the rise of populism.
An absolutely vital task as populism has always been more than a threat, it has been an executioner of democracy, societal development, and of peace. Within this context, an EU that helps to restore democracy and prosperity to its members may also be able to rekindle its citizens’ enthusiasm for itself. The vital choice is between reform and revival or decline and decay.