All of this breeds resentment, particularly amongst those who feel abandoned or betrayed by Europe. As a result, Italy, once a leading supporter of European integration, is among the most sceptical of further integration today.
The second camp – including countries like Austria and the Netherlands – makes the opposite complaint. Many in these countries feel that they have suffered as a result of "European solidarity", even as they have worked hard to secure their own prosperity. Given this, they tend to believe that Europe should focus on deepening the single market, not on deepening fiscal and political union. Here, too, resistance to further integration is fuelling support for populist parties.
But economics is not the only factor stoking populism. Three other factors are also contributing, with migration undoubtedly the most important. Since 2015, when the number of migrants to Europe surged, right-wing populists have capitalised on widespread insecurity over immigration and identity, stoking Islamophobia and racism in order to win support.
Identitarianism and Brexit
Whereas Europeʹs divide over the economy is north-south, on migration, the split is between east and west. Central and Eastern European countriesʹ histories of shifting borders and bullying by larger states have made the policing of cultural boundaries central to their political identity. And today, they reject migration so strongly that they have refused to fulfil their responsibility, as EU members, to accept the European Commissionʹs refugee quotas.
For these overwhelmingly homogeneous countries, being compelled to accept migrants could be enough to make EU membership unappealing, despite the massive economic benefits it has brought.
Another source of pressure on the EU – and a potential source of fuel for the populist fire – is Brexit. While withdrawal from the EU will impose massive costs on the United Kingdom, frustrated EU members may now regard the threat of exit as more potent and thus a potentially effective tool for resisting integration in the name of national sovereignty.
And while populists may be the most extreme voices advocating such resistance, they are being enabled by Europeʹs conservatives. The EU reprimands Poland for its governmentʹs illiberal policies, but tolerates Hungary, because Prime Minister Viktor Orbanʹs Fidesz Party is affiliated with the European Peopleʹs Party and thus protected by Germanyʹs Christian Democrats.
The final factor sustaining populism in Europe is U.S. President Donald Trump, whose hostility toward the EU is only thinly veiled. Of course, widespread opposition to Trump could serve as a kind of unifying force in the EU, which would not hesitate to respond if Trumpian protectionism or other policies ended up affecting its members directly.
But, for now, Europeʹs individual countries seem eager to try their luck individually with Trump. Notably, Macron wants to use direct engagement with Trump to strengthen Franceʹs standing both in Europe, where the UKʹs former influence might appear to be up for grabs and more broadly. Others regard Trump as a potential source of protection. Some Central and Eastern European leaders also see him as a source of legitimacy for their own populist agendas.
So Europeʹs populist tide is far from receding. But the extent to which the EU is at risk of being swept away by it is unclear – and is likely to remain so, as the grey area between mainstream and populist parties continues to grow.
© Project Syndicate 2018