“We are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting men.”
—Jean Monnet, founding father of the European Union, 1952
“The EU nowadays is like the U.S.S.R.: It can’t be improved. We need to let it crumble and build after it a Europe of free and sovereign nations.”
—Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, 2014
If French presidential elections were held today, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, could come out on top in the first round. Ms. Le Pen would easily beat the current president, François Hollande, and might even edge out the center-right’s most likely candidate, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to recent polls. Voters hostile to the National Front would still band together to hand Marine a defeat in the second round if elections were held today, the same polls show. She would, however, end up carrying between 41 and 45 percent of the vote.
And that poll was held before the migrant crisis convulsed Europe.
The National Front, the party founded by Ms. Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, has never been as popular as it is today. At the height of his own popularity, Mr. Le Pen won 16.9 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, but was soundly defeated in the second round. His daughter, who took over the party leadership in 2011, beat her father’s best showing on her first try, coming in with 17.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections. With the atmosphere in France increasingly uncertain, she may well have the shot in 2017 that her father never did.
And the National Front is not the only far-right party on the popularity upswing. All across Europe, far-right parties are making big strides. In Hungary, the ultranationalist Jobbik party, whose members have been accused of holding rabidly anti-Semitic views, is riding high in the polls and is now the second strongest party in the country. In April of this year, Jobbik’s Lajos Rig defeated the favored candidate from the ruling center-right Fidesz in a by-election that the party’s gloating leader, Gabor Vona, described as “historic.” Similar successes are on display in Austria, where the Austrian Freedom Party had one of its best performances in 2013 when it captured 20.5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections; in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party is the second largest party in parliament as of the 2015 elections; in the Netherlands, where the anti-immigrant PVV is currently pulling ahead of the mainstream VVD in aggregate polls; and in Finland, where the euroskeptic True Finns have joined the government after getting 13 percent in the latest elections. Even in traditionally left-leaning Sweden, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are the number one force in the country. With far-right parties becoming a rule rather than the exception in mainstream politics, the political landscape in Europe has been transformed.
The appeal of far-right parties seems to have caught European centrists by surprise. But it shouldn’t have. For decades, mainstream parties turned a blind eye to the “crazies” on the right. United behind the European project, center-left and center-right parties forged ahead towards a bright European future. They missed—or more likely simply chose to ignore—the simmering anti-immigrant and euroskeptic sentiment in their constituencies. The financial crisis of 2008 has acted like a force multiplier for these feelings: by showcasing the ineptitude of the ruling elites in addressing the serious challenges facing voters, many people only tentatively identifying as Europeans found they have a real appetite for the resolute certainties offered by strong nationalist programs. And a more mature far-right, groomed by years of failed attempts at power and steeped in a newfound pragmatism, was ready to pounce.
The Weak Roots of Monnet’s Dream
Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Union, had grand ambitions for the European coal and steel partnership that was established in 1951. Monnet foresaw a Europe united not only by markets and political institutions, but by a common sense of cultural belonging: a unique European identity would supersede the nationalist impulses that had left Europe ravaged by two world wars. The new Europe was to be a beacon of democracy and tolerance, a social union of European citizens grounded in shared Enlightenment ideals. A common currency would be more than a medium of exchange: it was to bring this uniquely European identity into being.
For the next fifty years, Monnet’s grand vision appeared to be on its way to being fully realized. The Treaty of Rome established the common market; six member states became twenty-eight; border guards gradually began leaving their posts, ten years after the signature of the Schengen Agreement; EU passports were printed; plans for a common currency were drafted; a state-like bureaucracy emerged, equipped with a parliament, an executive branch and judiciary. By the turn of the millennium, with the euro being introduced, a European United States seemed tantalizingly within reach. France’s Finance Minister Laurent Fabius confidently predicted that “thanks to the euro, our pockets will soon hold solid evidence of a European identity.”
That dream of a shared European identity, however, never gained the kind of purchase its most fervent supporters hoped for. A decade and a half after the introduction of the euro, Eurobarometer polls show that a full 90 percent of Europeans see themselves first and foremost in either solely national terms—as German, French, Italian, etc.—or as an admixture of national first and European second, whereas only two percent see themselves as solely Europeans. Research I conducted with Neil Fligstein and Wayne Sandholtz shows that the two percent of self-described “full” Europeans tend to be an elite group: wealthy, well-educated, white-collar workers who speak multiple languages and travel often. This group of transnational elites, perhaps not surprisingly, has also been the primary beneficiary of the European economic project. While the highly skilled have been able to take advantage of the common European labor market, the majority of their compatriots have had a very different experience. Particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, the “have-nots” of Europe have seen their economic prospects wither.
To further understand how economic decline affects individuals’ sense of belonging, Neil Fligstein and I analyzed Eurobarometer surveys before and after the financial crisis, in 2005 and 2010. In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of European Public Policy, we find that citizens of countries worst hit by the economic crisis—most notably in Greece, Spain, Italy, and Ireland—became more nationalist. Specifically, in countries where GDP fell and debt increased by the largest margins, individuals became more likely to define themselves in national terms, looking to their national governments for protection from worsening economic conditions. This tendency appears to hold across demographic characteristics, political views, or educational backgrounds.
But the Eurobarometer data goes only so far. It suggests that the early theories of visionaries like Monnet and of political scientists like Ernst Haas—that economic integration would beget political cooperation, which would in time birth a new ‘European nationalism’—have not panned out. It tells us that the impressively broad and robust-seeming bureaucratic and economic edifice that has been built on the European continent since World War II has yet to put down deep roots in Europeans’ cultural consciousness. It suggests that the European dream is in trouble, especially in today’s febrile political climate, given the strong relationship between economic hardship and a decline in support for European identity.
It does not, however, explain how the dream is failing and what its vulnerabilities are. My own research, detailed in a recently published book, has found that economic distress alone has historically not been enough of a motivator for Europe’s voters to wholly embrace an anti-European nationalist politics. However, when economic worries are coupled with concerns about immigration in a broader climate of declining societal trust, people start to look to the political extremes. Other research has shown that generalized hostility towards the EU explains far-right voting over and beyond all other socio-political attitudes, including feelings of ethnic threat from minorities and general xenophobic attitudes.
Put those two insights together and you begin to see the broad potential appeal, and staying power, of the new far-right in Europe. Monnet’s dream, for all its grandiloquent promise, has stalled at the economic level. Its successes there are real enough, of course. People understand and appreciate the benefits that a common market and common currency has brought them—51 percent identified the free movement of people, goods and services, and 25 percent identified the euro as among the most positive achievements of the EU in the 2014 Eurobarometer—and this appreciation probably goes part of the way to explaining the attitudes of people who self-identify as national first and European second. Looking across time, the number of these “European second” people has been growing at roughly the same rate as the number of people identifying solely in national terms has been declining. Yet as we shall see, this secondary Europeanness is a weak glue that is relatively easy to pry apart.
Greeks Bearing Debts: Euroskepticism In Name Only
The Greek financial crisis, which has dominated European news coverage for the better part of the year, was the first high-profile case of where a radical (so-called) euroskeptic party, the left-wing Syriza, came to power and challenged Brussels. United under the anti-EU banner, some far-right parties elsewhere on the continent cheered Syriza’s rise. But assuming that this alliance of opposites means that functional differences between the far-right and far-left in Europe have disappeared would be too much of a simplification. Syriza, for example, is ideologically not opposed to immigration, while the National Front has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform for decades. And as the Greek crisis shows, this missing ingredient makes a big difference.
As the financial crisis began to rattle the eurozone in 2008, investors started examining some of the riskier bets they had made in fat times. The Greek government’s outstanding debt in particular started to look unsustainable. Revelations that the Greeks had systematically cooked their books in the past heightened worries. By April 2010, when credit agencies had downgraded Greek debt to junk status, a consensus had emerged: Greece was on its way to defaulting. By May of the same year, the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the IMF—the so-called “Troika”—was offering to step in with what was to be the first of several bailouts, coming in at €110 billion.
Greeks, over 90% of whom self-identified either solely as Greek nationals or as Greek nationals first and Europeans second in 2010 according to Eurobarometer, looked to their own government for leadership and protection amid all the turmoil. What they saw instead was their Prime Minister, George Papandreou of the socialist PASOK, getting ready to agree to a draconian set of austerity conditions attached to the bailout money: demands for deep cuts to social programs, including pensions, healthcare, and government salaries, and an increase in taxes.
In Papandreou’s defense, he realized early that his room for maneuver was limited. Having adopted the euro, Greece could not devalue its way out of its debt pile as many southern European countries were all too fond of doing in the past. He knew he would have to submit to whatever demands were made of him, or preside over an unprecedented default by his country.
But Greece’s voters were having none of it. Protests demanding Papandreou drive a harder bargain began to multiply. The protesters’ logic was not hard to grasp: in the spring of 2010, the rest of Europe was petrified of the knock-on effects that a Greek default would have on the much larger but similarly troubled economies of Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy (the rest of the countries that made up the malevolently-invented acronym PIIGS). Greece actually has a few aces up its sleeve, the reasoning went: Papandreou could get a better deal if only he pushed back harder. A massive strike on May 5, 2010 shut down the country and brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of Athens alone. Protests rumbled on for the next two years, as reforms stalled in parliament and the first bailout was supplemented by a second (bringing the total pledged by the troika to €240 billion).
Finally, after Papandreou stepped down in late 2011 after nearly losing a vote of confidence, the twin elections of the summer of 2012 (the May ballot failed to produce a government, so a re-vote was scheduled for June) allowed voters to fully express their frustrations with what they saw as a feckless national elite that had failed to protect their interests. The conservative New Democracy took over the top spot in Parliament, but Papandreou’s PASOK didn’t come in second. Instead, voters began rewarding Alexis Tsipras and his Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), who captured almost 17 percent of the vote in May, and nearly 27 percent of the vote in June. By January of 2015, Tsipras had a mandate to form a coalition government with 36.3 percent support.
But Tsipras’ seven-month tenure—he resigned last month after desertions from Syriza followed his caving to the Troika’s austerity demands—was a study in contradictions. In negotiations with the Troika, he insisted on debt forgiveness and was an uncompromising rejectionist of austerity. Yet throughout the drawn-out process, he would periodically insist that he would not allow Greece to default out of the eurozone. A few short weeks after he got a resounding “no” from voters in a referendum on the terms of the bailout deal, Tsipras turned around and agreed to most of the Troika’s terms when the last of Greece’s liquidity began to dry up in June. Although it later emerged that his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had set up a contingency plan that would allow the government to issue payments to all taxpayers in what would amount to being a proxy electronic currency, the Greek government chose not to go down the path of Grexit.
His newest rival for the leadership of the radical left, Panagiotis Lafazanis, who spun off frustrated Syriza deserters into a new party, is trying to present a stark contrast, vowing to “smash the eurozone dictatorship” and calling for a return to the drachma. But after Tsirpas’s promise and subsequent failure to secure a better deal with the EU, Lafazanis appears to be equally distrusted. At time of writing, his party, Popular Unity, is hovering around the 3 percent threshold for entering parliament.
These seeming contradictions, however, ought not puzzle us too much. The Greek crisis was predominantly economically fueled, and the solutions Syriza was proposing were likewise limited to that domain. Though Syriza’s leaders at times stoked nationalist impulses, particularly in vilifying the Germans as latter-day Nazis, they were careful to insist that their beef was with the unreasonableness of European demands, not with the idea of the EU itself.
Looking back, it appears as if Tsipras judged that voters wanted to remain in the EU, and were mainly demanding a better deal from Brussels. And it looks like he was right. Though Greece’s voters emphatically rejected the bailout’s terms in what was arguably a rushed and confusingly politicized referendum in early July, public opinion nevertheless continued to back Tsipras even as he concluded his negotiations and accepted the draconian terms of the latest bailout. Though Tsipras’ popularity has taken some hits since the bailout passed parliament, his Syriza coalition, shorn of its most radical left elements, is still running neck-and-neck with New Democracy for the top spot in the upcoming snap elections. It turns out, there was never much evidence that Greek voters had an appetite for the outright rejectionism that many outside observers feared Tsipras would resort to—or that is now on offer by Lafazanis.
The Far Right: All Grown Up
It is important to remember, however, that a certain number of Greeks did turn to the extreme right in the 2012 elections: for the first time in Greece’s post-war history, Golden Dawn, a far-right ultranationalist party with a paramilitary bent, entered parliament with 7 percent of the vote. By the January 2015 election, Golden Dawn was the third largest party in the country, albeit with a slightly diminished 6.3 percent support. And there they’ve stubbornly stayed: latest polls show Golden Dawn capturing around 6 percent of the vote in the upcoming snap elections set for late September. Golden Dawn’s venomous racist platform, openly fascist ideology, and willingness to use street violence, all appear to create a hard upper-limit for their popularity. Indeed, some studies have convincingly argued that the most successful radical right parties are those that frame their nationalism against the external threat of the EU: far-right parties that hold on to the old openly racist, blood-and-soil rhetoric tend to fail at the polls. It’s a lesson that Europe’s slicker, more modern far-right parties—the likes of which just don’t exist in Greece—have properly internalized.
The most successful European far right parties have pitched themselves to voters as protectors of a civic liberal tradition, which they have nevertheless successfully reframed along national lines. In these party narratives, the EU has become a threat to national sovereignty, and non-European Muslim immigrants have become scapegoats for the loss of national values and the threat to liberal democratic ideals. Far right parties have paradoxically become defenders of European values against the encroachment of both non-European foreigners, as well against an effete elite in Brussels that is seen to be undermining European civilization by its commitment to pluralism at all costs. Cultural issues, rather than purely economic ones, have become the key to catapulting the far right into the political limelight.
France’s National Front is a case in point. The battle between Marine Le Pen and her father over the control of the party he founded precisely tracks how the far right has retooled itself all across Europe. In April 2015, Ms. Le Pen publicly distanced herself from her father after he called Nazi gas chambers a “detail of history.” By May, Mr. Le Pen was suspended from the party, a decision that he appealed to no avail. In August, Mr. Le Pen was categorically expelled from the party he helped found, ostensibly for making the same kinds of comments that had won him votes in the past. Holocaust denial and open racism is out; a defense of a uniquely European culture—a Europe for Europeans, but without the meddling EU to muck things up—is in. The appeal to nationalism is still there, but it has been sublimated and made respectable.
It’s worth looking once again at how this positioning plays against the general 2014 Eurobarometer readings. Those that identify by nationality only, without any sense of belonging to Europe, are a natural potential constituency for the far right: those who see themselves in national only terms are more distrustful of EU institutions and tend to see EU integration as a bad thing for their countries, according to Eurobarometer trends. When the economy gets bumpy and Brussels appears particularly ineffective, the euroskeptic pitch resonates. But it’s arguably the “European second” cohort where the real battle for the future of Europe is being waged. The modern far right pulls those people away from what is a weak attachment to the EU by appealing to a more inchoate sense of Europeanness that both transcends, and is under threat from, the bureaucracy in Brussels. Marine Le Pen’s pitch in France, which nets her between 41 and 45 percent in runoff elections according to those recent polls, suggests that her strategy is working.
Leftists, on the other hand, base their whole euroskeptic argument in economic terms, and as such are playing on the turf on which Monnet’s dream is succeeding best. Voters see value in the common market and common currency, and a purely contrarian position (“the euro is a bad deal”) is not as resonant. Put simply, Greece’s Lafazanis may be an economic euroskeptic, but he doesn’t have the cloaked nationalist appeal or the anti-immigration worldview to win over votes.
And the migrant crisis convulsing Europe these days is only likely to strengthen the allure of the far-right’s pitch, even as Europe’s elites continue to remain obstinately deaf and blind to its appeal. “Our answer [to the migrant crisis] must be in line with our history and our values, in line with what Europe is about,” Europe’s Economic Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said as hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Euope. “To be European means to care about humanity and to care about human rights. […] When the world and Europe face such a drama, the answer should never be nationalistic. Never to close borders, never to renounce our values. Never.” Alas, fervently wishing for something does not make it so. Just yesterday, Germany “temporarily” exited the Schengen zone and started requiring passport checks on its border with Austria.
The far-right is licking its chops as the EU struggles to come up with a coherent response to the refugee crisis.
Is an Ever-closer Union Still Possible?
The era of EU expansion appears to be over. Though some states are still knocking on the door of Fortress Europe looking to be let in, they are being told not to hold their collective breaths.
Meanwhile, others on the inside are plotting their escape. A Grexit was narrowly averted with Tsipras’ most recent capitulation, but still cannot be fully ruled out, especially if the Greek economy doesn’t start showing signs of recovery in the next year. British support for staying in the EU is split (49 percent support staying while 44 percent favor leaving the Union, according to a recent poll) ahead of a public referendum currently scheduled for some time in 2016. Even the Danes are getting in on the act, scheduling a referendum on opting out of common EU justice and home affairs rules for December.
Other southern European states are still in economic trouble: Spain’s economy has shown some signs of recovery this summer, but unemployment remains at over 20 percent; Italy is also struggling to cope with its stubbornly high youth unemployment—44.2 percent as of June 2015. In both countries, we are bearing witness to the birth of a permanently scarred generation, a cohort that is likely to have lived through its critical 20s without any relevant job experience, and is likely to be economically worse off for it for the rest of their lives. If they play their cards right and follow Marine Le Pen’s lead, euroskeptic far-right parties will only gain at the polls.
And yet, there is still cause for some guarded optimism. For one, despite the skill with which far-right parties have been able to exploit the EU’s weaknesses, their political program still amounts to a cri du coeur and not much besides. Economically, far-right parties across the continent are peddling little more than warmed-over protectionism in an era of unprecedented globalization. As reactionary grousing, it hits all the right notes; as a prescription for a better life in today’s world, not so much. The EU, for all the real pain it has caused with its elite-driven bureaucratic bungling, is itself not the ultimate source of many of the anxieties far-right parties propose to cure. Limiting Muslim immigration might scratch the itch for some voters, but repealing Schengen will not bring unemployment down.
For another, among the unrelenting doom and gloom prognostication, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the real successes that the European Union has fostered. Monnet’s dream has kept what was once a war-ridden continent whole, free, and at peace. This is no small feat. Perhaps, in hindsight, the rush to implement the common currency was misguided, its integration uneven and hasty. Nevertheless, research shows that European integration and the common currency has allowed Europeans to experience each others’ countries and cultures more than ever before: more Europeans, particularly the young, study and work in other European countries, speak multiple languages, and find romance outside their own borders. As a result of this cultural mixing for work and pleasure, Europeans today are more aware of each others’ interests, and more empathetic to each others needs than ever before. This is not yet the coherent European civic nationalism Monnet anticipated, but it should not be so readily brushed away either.
The young in particular are a key cohort. Europe’s youth face a difficult road ahead—youth unemployment is at staggering highs—but these younger people are also more likely to see themselves as European in some capacity. Europe’s millennials and Generation Z may take the achievements of the European project for granted, but whether they know it or not, these young people are already more European than their parents.
This is a pivotal moment in Europe’s history, and mainstream politicians need to seize it. The progress that has been made towards realizing a European identity has occurred during a time of relative prosperity. Politicians across the continent need to prioritize improving the prospects of those who have sat out the last six years unemployed—especially the young. And they must do it together, emphasizing that the future of Europe’s peoples is in cooperation, coordination and openness, not in beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism.
In the current climate of economic uncertainty, Europe’s youth are searching for something concrete to hold on to; a vision for the future that speaks to their concerns, lifestyles, and values. The European dream, guided by the EU’s founding principles—democracy, inclusion, economic liberalism—could still fill that void. Monnet’s dream may have its moment yet, but only if European leaders realize that without a vision for the future, there can be no path from the uncertainty of the present.