The rise of nationalism and populism in Europe
The wave of populism and nationalism swept through the world over the past few years. Within Europe, the rise of the Eurosceptics has divided and fragmented the European Union (EU). The Brexit referendum as well as the rise of populism within many European countries endangered the unity of the European Union. Not only the EU has to deal with the Brexit crisis, but it also has to respond to the rise of populism and strengthen its unity. Otherwise, further fragmentation of the EU will eventually lead to its demise.
Economic stagnation, Austerity and Inequality
Since the global financial crisis in 2008, the various economies in the EU struggled. Overall, the EU contracted by 4.3% in 2009, according to the latest October IMF data (GDP, constant prices). Many European countries like Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain were in dire shape and had to go through the pains of severe austerity, financial bailouts, economic restructuring and stimulus. To make matters worse, the European debt crisis again pulled down the EU in 2012, contracting the EU economy by 0.4%.
While Italy contracted by 2.8% in 2012, France and Germany barely grew by 0.2% and 0.7% respectively. As for the second biggest economy in the EU, the UK grew by 1.3% in 2012. In fact the economic growth in the UK outperformed the 3 biggest euro zone economies - France, Germany and Italy - from 2012 till 2015. But in 2016, the Brexit risks impacted on growth in the UK, causing it to dip to 1.8% from 2.2% in 2015. Germany took back the crown as the leading economy in the EU for 2016.
" While the EU economy is slowly recovering, the social impact of these financial crises has been enormous with high unemployment rate and increasing inequality in many countries. "
While the EU economy is slowly recovering, the social impact of these financial crises has been enormous with high unemployment rate and increasing inequality in many countries. Voters in richer countries like Germany were increasingly reluctant to bailout countries like Greece and there were calls for Greece to leave the euro zone. All these sap the unity of the European countries within EU and the euro zone.
Moreover, lack of economic opportunities, severe austerity, high unemployment rate coupled with the massive intake of refugees and migrants from the Middle-East and Africa were the right conditions for the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe. There were massive demonstrations against the austerity measures in the Southern European countries. Subsequently, there were backlashes against the migrant crisis and the response of the EU was inadequate with various local governments left to tackle these major issues on their own. As a result, many nationalist and populist leaders advocated for taking back control over their borders and stopping the migration flow.
Brexit wake-up call
The results of the Brexit referendum had been a seismic wake-up call for the European Union bureaucrats, reminding them that not only people in Europe were feeling more and more disconnected with the European politics, but also the unity among the EU countries was indeed very fragile.
Brexit shook the core foundation of the EU, questioning the need of having the EU looking after the interests of all European countries within the union, rather than each country looking after their own national interests. With 2017 being an election for many European countries, there were increasing risks of having more Eurosceptic political leaders winning elections and calling for the breaking up of the EU. In fact, the positive outcome of the Brexit referendum spurred on the nationalistic movement of the Eurosceptics in various European countries so much so that it put at risk the whole vision of having a united Europe.
The far right politicians saw in Brexit an opportunity to push further their cause and even break off from the European Union. In the meanwhile, at the beginning of 2017, the Brexiteers under the Prime Minister Theresa May were feeling more and more confident. The latter even threatened to have a 'Hard-Brexit' by saying that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". All these boosted the confidence of the populist leaders and voters who viewed the EU as an obsolete and bureaucratic institution, that needed deep reforms.
Dutch, French and German elections in 2017
Several far right leaders, like Geert Wilders in Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, were major contenders in their respective elections. Not only these nationalistic and populist leaders were against immigration, but some also supported for exiting the EU; representing an existential threat to the EU institution. Fortunately, the Dutch voters rejected the extreme views of Geert Wilders and voted in Mark Rutte in the Netherlands last March.
Subsequently, in the French presidential elections last April and May, Emmanuel Macron, who advocated for a united Europe, won the elections. These two elections showed the the electors still supported a united Europe and provided better confidence in the EU, albeit the need for more reforms within the European institutions.
As for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she faced the elections last September to renew her mandate. She eventually led her party CDU/CSU to victory and won a fourth term. However the percentage of the popular vote for her party dipped, losing 65 seats from the previous 311 seats. The biggest winner is the AfD, a nationalist and right-wing populist party, with an increase of 94 seats. Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU are still holding discussions for a majority coalition to form the next German government.
For all these elections, the pro-EU leaders have been able to win their respective elections, even if the far right parties have gained more support. All these have given a boost to the EU unity and mitigated the risks of having other countries breaking off from the EU.
The threat of the EU being fragmented further after Brexit has now lessened with the pro-EU leaders of France, Germany and Netherlands winning their respective national elections in 2017. However, within the smaller European countries, populist leaders are slowly taking over and may be part of a bigger wave, if the EU does not reform and rectify the current situation.
The coming years will be crucial for all European countries to feel part of the EU. Moreover, the EU leaders need to ensure that the interests of all countries are taken into consideration, rather than perceived to be mainly controlled by the Franco-German alliance. It's only when everybody shares the vision as well as the benefits of being within the EU, while accommodating for all the European diversities and differences, that the EU will be truly united.