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The Phantom of Populism in the European Union

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Written by: Carmela Vaquero Cepeda

Currently, the European Union is dealing with a handful of crises of different nature; although to some extent they are interrelated. The security crisis posed by terrorism, the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and the austerity agenda of the still recovering economies from the global financial crisis. All these situations have amounted themselves in the recent years, and they have favoured the nurturing of what was thought to be eradicated in Europe: populism. This intoxicating political stream has taken advantage of all kinds of events, little by little diminishing the European Union and its efforts to achieve tighter integration in the region.

Originally, populism used to be associated with a political discourse that attempted to appeal to „the people” by using social inequality breaches to overcome the governing power. Of course, that was only the base of the discourse back when it flourished through Latin America during the last century. However, nowadays populism has evolved to pose a bigger challenge, as globalization helped spreading it throughout Europe.

Unfortunately, in Europe there have been three different currents of problems helping populist politics to gain their role in the play. The first one is the humanitarian crisis of incoming refugees and how the EU is dealing with them, the second one has to do with the terrorist threat and its effects over the internal borders of Europe, and the third is about how the European Union has stopped its integrating efforts after the Lisbon Treaty.

On the one hand, the humanitarian crisis is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges to the EU. The way in which the institutions are trying to distribute refugees among countries is ineffective, not because of the institutions themselves, but because of the lacking will of the governments. Moreover, the recent agreement signed with Turkey to also “distribute” refugees has not helped at all to improve the social perception of the EU in this matter. For these reasons, it is true that a better result could have been expected; nonetheless, it is also understandable that the working structure of the EU is not ready to face such an immense challenge.

On this matter, populist politicians would tend to point fingers. Nothing attracts the masses as much as putting the blame on somebody. For that purpose, the European Union, as a whole, has been directly attacked while no solutions were offered.

For placing one example, Miguel Urbán, member of the European Parliament for Podemos, wrote in an article that “Europe’s elite closed their eyes to the crises affecting the continent and the concerns of those experiencing them.” By creating the term Europe’s elite, the author is giving the masses who are not familiar with the different institutions of the European Union something to both blame and hate for how this crisis is being approached. Nonetheless, instead of giving people enemies to destroy, it would be far more useful to explain society how the European Union works. A proper distinction is needed between the work of the Commission, which is the EU’s purely functional body, and the decisions that the Council, meaning the member states, are willing to take.

Following this line of thought, populist politicians are also taking advantage of the security threat that terrorism brings to the European continent. Once again, an analysis on how the EU is working to create counter-terrorist policies at the communitarian level shows the lack of coordination between institutions. The European Commission’s Directorate General drafts different directives without knowing how or what the Council is working on at the same time. On counter-terrorism, the figure of Counter-Terrorism Coordinator lacks a properly defined role. The European Parliament does not even have a role in the drafting but is merely consulted once there is a policy to be approved. This lack of coordination is slowing down the communitarian role in making the EU safer and its allowing for political discourses claiming how each state should decide on its own national security. As true as this last affirmation is, it also usually continues with haltering coordination between other states which could benefit from cooperation of those states who have already dealt with terrorism. In the end, this regional institution was created with a cooperative purpose which is being diluted by poisoned populist propaganda.

Lastly, the EU, as any other international institution is also facing what is a natural response to globalization. After the 2008 global financial crisis, all political efforts were bent over by economic priorities, and populism aims to prolong the illusion that it will be like this forever. They argue that the single-market objective is the main stream of the European Union, and that any other integrational outcome has been possible only when money allowed for it. Nonetheless, history proves differently.

Populists claim that the 2008 crisis was the most notable failure for the citizens of the European nations as it had direct tangible consequences for them, which seemed to stem from “the higher structure”, that is, from the supranational European authorities. Nevertheless, the European Union had suffered its biggest political failure, that of the missing European Constitution of 2004 just four years before the 2008 crisis.

Having dismissed that project, the political efforts carried out by the Union seemed exhausted; they seemed to have found their glass-ceiling. Some European nations were not ready to engage in such a strong and interrelated political structure, and so, the Union had to find new ways of keeping the integration process going. Only a year after the Lisbon treaty had entered into force, the Union would have to face its first financial earthquake. The people of Europe had a natural reaction to this with rejecting the visible effects of the flaws of a hyper liberalized economy. Against that, nationalistic discourse – firstly in a protectionist sense, but then also in a xenophobic one – began to dominate the political arena.

In conclusion, there is no use in placing Eurosceptic nor populist politicians in power. Giving them a say in European negotiations will not help alleviating any of the crisis currently taking place, as they do not contribute to overcome the structural failing elements, but only create new ones.