To fight populism the EU has one option: reform or die

The very freedoms that have made the EU an economic and social success now threaten to undermine the entire project. Concerns over immigration drove Brits to vote to leave the EU, and now populist parties in Denmark want to give Danes a referendum too. Europe stands at a crossroads. Can it address the criticisms that it has grown too powerful? Or is actually too weak to save itself?

“Dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” crowed Nigel Farage as the results of the Brexit referendum trickled in.

The leader of the Eurosceptic party UKIP had long wanted a referendum on British membership, and as the Leave side looked set to claim victory, he had reached the pinnacle of his political career.

But in the weeks following the result, it became painfully apparent that one doesn’t simply leave the EU. With no concrete plan for an alternative to EU membership, the pound slumped and the economy showed signs of contraction.

The central conflict is this: most Brits want the country to remain a member of the single market, but don’t want uncontrolled migration. For EU leaders, this is a deal breaker – no migration, no access.

The standoff symbolises a major existential threat to the European project. If the only way to save the EU is by making it less integrated, could we be watching the first stages of its slow decline?

Despite the political, economic and social upheaval resulting from the Brexit decision, some Danish parties want to follow the UK’s lead.

“If the Brits succeed in getting a deal, which we believe they should, then Danes should be asked if Denmark should do the same,” leader of the populist Danish People’s Party (DF), Kristian Thulesen Dahl, told TV2 News.

“Many residents of European countries are tired of leaving it up to the EU to tackle the problem of people ‘wandering’ between countries, when the EU doesn’t have a solution. This applies both to the migration flows we saw last year […] and also to free movement internally in the EU, where the UK has been especially burdened,” he said.

“You can arrive and receive welfare from one day to the next, and many Danes don’t think this is reasonable.”

The far left Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) also supports a referendum on EU membership. They take issue with the EU for lacking transparency, having a weak democratic mandate, and forsaking workers and their rights.

“The EU system creates the perfect conditions for the growth of xenophobia and right-wing populism,” political spokesperson Pernille Skipper declared on the party’s website.

“The combination of an unregulated market, the expansion to the East and lack of efforts to combat pressure on wages is a poisonous cocktail that strikes the lowest layers of society and plays people against each other.”

She added that the UK referendum would be good for workers, who will have better opportunities to fight wage dumping and poverty.

“We need to use the momentum the British referendum has created to have a debate about new European forms of cooperation and alternatives to the EU,” she wrote calling for a Danish referendum on June 5, 2017, following a proper debate on alternatives to the EU.

Tactical Euroscepticism
Danes are overwhelmingly in favour of the EU and polls following the UK referendum showed strengthened support for the EU across Europe. In Denmark, support for EU membership rose from 60 to 69 percent, according to a Voxmeter survey.

DF and Enhedslisten’s decisions to adopt a harder line on the EU may seem counterintuitive at a time when Danish voters are increasingly supportive of EU membership. But Professor Derek Beach of the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus explains that it’s a clever strategy to shore up support at the fringes of the political spectrum.

“Tactically, it’s good to prime the EU issue and bring in voters that way. EU-hostile views are much more prevalent in voters who tend toward the far left or far right. So if they keep the EU in focus, they hope it will spill over into national parliamentary elections and they can steal voters from adjacent pro-EU parties.”

Christine Bosse, businesswoman and president of the Danish European Movement, agrees that the stronger Eurosceptic positions are politically opportunistic.

“DF didn’t call for a referendum until they saw the outcome of the Brexit vote. They flirt with Putin, and I am sure they work with UKIP even though they don’t admit it. They, at least, follow UKIP’s rhetoric on immigration by blaming the EU and focussing on national borders, but without offering any solutions. Bringing up an EU referendum now will keep their core voters happy while they fish for further backing from the Social Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives,” says Bosse, adding that Enhedslisten also lacks concrete alternatives to EU cooperation.

“Pernille Skipper is living in a dream without any foothold in reality. Working within the EU’s social chapters is the only way to safeguard against wage dumping. Capital goes where the conditions are best. An EU exit does not change that. In a globalised world, solidarity has to be global via the EU.”

In a Facebook post, Radikale MP Ida Auken expressed her dissappointment with Enhedslisten’s Eurosceptic position, arguing that they vastly underestimate how complicated it would be to replace the EU with a new type of binding cooperation between countries.

“If someone is ready to burn the house to the ground like Enhedslisten is now, then they need to give some realistic justification why Europe won’t turn into a smoking ruin from which only Geert Wilders and Le Pen will rise with a vision of nationhood: more isolation, more fear of foreigners, more conflict and more hate.”

She adds that she appreciates Enhedslisten’s role in pulling left-wing governments in a greener and more socially conscious direction. She is concerned, however, by the party’s influence on EU issues.

“I am worried that Enhedslisten wants a referendum. They can easily demand more democracy and transparency and keep their hands clean, without ever having to explain how leaving the EU will give Danes more control over their lives.”

Working class
The Brexit vote elicited soul searching in the media from EU supporters. Why had Wales, the largest recipient of EU funding in the UK, voted against its best interests? To what extent had the EU failed British people, and what could be done to move the EU in a different direction?

Central to this question is the impact of European immigration on British communities, particularly in underprivileged parts of the country. Seen through a wide lens, European migrants have helped fuel the British economy, contributing far more in tax receipts than they were paid out in benefits.

But it’s also true that European workers have contributed to the stagnation of low wage workers due to increased competition over jobs, according to a study from the London School of Economics. Low income workers also took a hit from the austerity policies pursued by the Conservative government, while right-wing media peddled myths about European “benefit tourists”.

In a 2013 article, the Daily Telegraph suggested that 600,000 unemployed migrants were living in Britain, costing the health services 15 billion kroner per year.

“These figures show that the wave of benefit migrants has become a tsunami of economic refugees fleeing the Eurozone crisis to try to find jobs here,” UKIP MP Douglas Carswell told the Daily Telegraph.

“We cannot both continue the free-at-the-point-of-use welfare state and benefits system and allow Europeans to flee the Eurozone and come here.”

The figures were later roundly debunked, but the rhetoric resonated among the general public and became central to the Leave campaign’s message.

A shop selling Polish food in Carlisle, England. Large numbers of Polish citizens moved to the UK after their accession to the EU in 2004. Around 800,000 Poles currently live in the UK. Photo: morebyless / flickr

A shop selling Polish food in Carlisle, England. Large numbers of Polish citizens moved to the UK after their accession to the EU in 2004. Around 800,000 Poles currently live in the UK. Photo: morebyless / flickr

Too far?
The British government now faces a difficult negotiations, as it tries to become the only full member of the EU single market with the prerogative to restrict EU migration. Neither Norway nor Switzerland have this deal, which would violate the four freedoms that are central to the philosophy of the EU single market – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people.

Beach argues that these freedoms are more far-reaching than the rights Americans have when moving across state lines. For example, an American moving from California to Texas can’t immediately enrol in a state university with reduced tuition; they first need to establish residency and pay taxes before being entitled to any benefits. By comparison, it is easier for European citizens to establish residency in another EU country.

He argues that the EU has to rely on very broad principles to govern migration, rather than more specific regulations like in the US, because the EU is nowhere near as powerful as the American federal government and lacks its ability to enforce specific regulations.

Recent rulings in the EU Court of Justice suggest that the EU has acknowledged that freedom of movement has gone too far, argues Beach. In 2014, the court ruled that governments can block welfare for jobless migrants, while the European Commission proposed amending legislation on the free movement of persons that would allow for the introduction of an ’emergency brake’, at the request of former UK PM David Cameron.

“The EU system has recognised the issues and has tried to engage in a restoration of balance. So it’s a shame that the UK’s Remain campaign didn’t do a better job of highlighting these changes,” says Beach.

Not a ‘super state’

While support for the EU has grown since Brexit, the rise of populist parties demonstrates growing unease with European cooperation, and particularly with its perceived inability to manage migration and tackle terrorism.

The central challenge is that Europeans believe the EU is much more powerful than it really is, argues Beach.

“There is an expectation-capability gap. The EU is built up to be a super state, but it is very limited and deals with removing barriers to free trade and the movement of people. This does have an impact on people’s lives, allowing students to travel, reducing mobile phone roaming costs, and tackling anti-competitive practices by corporations such as Google. But compared to the British government, it can do very little to alleviate unemployment, stop terrorism and deal with the consequences of globalisation. The EU can’t bring back jobs lost in the post-industrial transformation. The jobs are gone. If they’ve not gone to low-cost countries, they are being automated. What are people going to live off in the future? The EU can’t address this.”

A better Europe
Auken finished her Facebook update by calling for politicians to listen to people’s concerns about the EU, but to stop using the EU as a scapegoat during hard times.

Bosse thinks the EU could increase its democratic legitimacy by letting Europeans directly elect the presidents of the European Parliament and the European Commission, by allowing the European Parliament to propose legislation, and by closing one of the two parliament buildings.

“I would also make sure all school children visit Brussels and learn about the European constitution,” she says.

Beach is cautious about suggesting ways to improve the EU. For a start, any major change requires a treaty revision, which could take years. But, more importantly, although the EU has made an effort to better engage with its citizens, it has not had much luck.

When the EU was drawing up a European Constitution, the European Commission opened up an online forum for public discussion. According to Beach, only around 2,500 comments were left on the website over a period of 18 months.

“So while the EU wants to listen to the people, most Europeans don’t give a shit – especially those who don’t like the EU. The people who engage are like me, members of think tanks and intellectuals. It’s a paradox – how do you reform the EU for people who don’t care about it?” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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