Responding to Europe’s populist challenge


Picture of Philippe Maze-Sencier
Philippe Maze-Sencier

Global Chair of Public Affairs at Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Philippe Maze-Sencier is Senior Director at McLarty Associates, Washington D.C.

Europeans are scared, angry, lost. Their world is in turmoil, their children’s future suddenly uncertain, their way of living under threat. Europe’s politicians need to listen, tell hard truths and rise to the challenge, offering a way forward if Europe is to avoid the undoing of its post-WWII achievements and legacy: peace and prosperity. Austria’s recent presidential election sent ripples of concern across the continent and beyond, and while there was an audible sigh of relief at the final outcome, the final 30,000-vote lead for Green party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen over his right-wing populist opponent wasn’t exactly a comfortable margin.

This populist surge was not just an Austrian issue, but yet another sign of rising economic, ethnic and social tensions across the continent. And Europe’s political class is largely responsible. Throughout much of the EU, resurgent right-wing populist movements rally throngs around anti-immigration and eurosceptic slogans, finding strong electoral support in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. France’s Front National is today an ‘established brand’ after over 30 years during which the Le Pens were an exception in Europe – it is no longer so. The spectacular results obtained by Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) last March shook up Germany’s political landscape, dramatically upping the stakes by entering three state parliaments for the first time. This breakthrough – from a party that did not even exist little more than three years ago – is arguably the most striking element of these elections.

Overwhelming majorities disapprove of the way the EU has handled the current migration crisis

If the refugee and migration crisis has clearly fuelled a backlash against traditional political parties, the current pan-European wave of discontent also taps into long-standing fears about globalisation, jihadi terrorism, as well as a dilution of national identity and traditional structures. Unresolved issues following the 2008 economic downturn, consistently-high unemployment, uncontrolled migration and failed integration, the euro and the perceived impotence of traditional parties have contributed to making the bread-and-butter issues of hard-right populist movements acceptable if not mainstream.

While I do not believe this swing to the far right means Europe is about to succumb to its old demons, I feel we should certainly take our cues and learn from the continent’s past. Europe’s politicians need to squarely confront the profound and understandable angst that is gripping the peoples of Europe. They need to give them a sense of being heard and of seeing their fears and concerns addressed. They also have to credibly and courageously chart a course that allows the EU to overcome its challenges and preserve its decades-long achievements while still remaining faithful to its values.

In 1952, Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers, wrote that ‘Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening, […] by successive steps, […] which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.’ This ‘leadership by stealth’ is no longer accepted, nor acceptable.

The results of a Pew survey released on 7th June – of more than 10,000 participants – showed strong disgruntlement with the Union is on the rise across the continent. Only 51% of those polled expressed a positive view of the Brussels-based institutions, while 42% expressed the desire to have certain powers restored to their national governments. The poll data indicates ‘overwhelming majorities’ in each of the 10 countries surveyed disapprove of the way the EU has handled the current migration crisis. Furthermore, the EU’s management of economic issues was seen as ‘another huge source of disaffection with the institution.’ Quite clearly, Brussels needs to be much more attentive and responsive to the messages sent back by Europe’s peoples. Actions such as circumnavigating the loud and clear ‘Nay’ votes in 2005 from the Dutch and the French on the European Constitution by rolling out the Lisbon Treaty, or forcing the Irish to vote twice on that very treaty because the results of the first referendum were unfavourable, do little to help Europeans feel heard.

While European elites may see themselves as citizens of a globalised world, the great majority of Europeans have longstanding emotional ties with their nations

The EU, or rather its ancestors the Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community, was created to make war between its member states impossible. But to achieve this, Brussels constantly denigrated patriotism and national pride, offering in its stead a post-modern vision of the world in which such national identities were a parochial relic to be stamped out or relegated to the football pitches. While European elites may see themselves as citizens of a globalised world, the great majority of Europeans have longstanding emotional ties with their nations and to this day still primarily define themselves through their affiliation to their home country.

Mass migration – not just the Syrian refugee crisis, but the movement that started decades ago – is seen by many as changing the face of Europe in a radical way. Since 2014, nearly 2 million refugees have entered Europe – less than 0.5% of the EU’s population, but a formidable number nonetheless. Denying the impact and the challenges this movement of people presents is at the root of Europe’s populist test. Indeed, many in Europe feel that changes affecting their lives have been imposed on them without ever having been discussed. And if they were, it was either under the caveat that questioning or opposing immigration meant that you had to be racist and were, therefore, disqualified from any debate, or that Europe’s ageing societies needed immigration to self-sustain and preserve its welfare-state, and that was that.

The lack of debate as to what these changes mean, and the lack of any serious discussion as to an arrangement between newcomers and their host societies – such as the recent Integration Law in Germany – have steadily fuelled the rise of populism. The EU’s motto, ‘unity in diversity’, may be very appealing, but it has to translate into more than pretty rhetoric and good intentions for the EU to remain stitched together. While Europe certainly needs immigration for its labour markets and social systems to function or to protect its prosperity, it also has to be able to debate and to address issues raised by largely unassimilated and disaffected immigrant communities – many of whom are Muslims. European countries in general have done a poor job of ensuring that immigrants integrate and of proposing a clear set of rights and duties for both immigrants and host countries. Islamophobia has no place in Europe, no more than anti-Semitism or any other form of religious, ethnic or sexual-orientation prejudice. But ‘unity in diversity’ also means we need to agree on a set of core values that represent our shared understanding of the world and bind us together, and for those wanting to live in Europe to embrace them and abide by them.

Brussels also needs to focus more on what will help create a better life for the Union’s citizens. This means economic growth and jobs, especially for Europe’s youth. European growth rates are anaemic at best and socio-economic inequality is on the rise. The newer members of Central and Eastern Europe, even relatively successful Poland, have failed to bridge the income gap with the richer half of the continent. Youth unemployment remains catastrophically high, and the activity rates of senior workers are just as depressingly low across much of the EU. Europe’s ailments are deeply embedded in economies that lag behind on investment, innovation and competitiveness. There is a consensus, however, on how to fix these issues, even if it means difficult and painful reforms in the short term. Such growth-orientated reforms, including lowering taxes, opening up labour markets and offering a more supportive environment for risk taking, are well-known. But it will take courageous politicians, in Brussels and in member states, to lay open the hard truths and map a clear course forward.

Europe’s politicians need to squarely confront the profound angst gripping the peoples of Europe

Brussels should lead Europe on the issues that are best or can only be tackled together, such as migration, commercial agreements, and common economic and financial policies. Countries that want to pool more sovereignty on these issues must be able to do so. But let’s also make sure the famous ‘subsidiarity principle’, as defined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, is put back at the core of the European project. Decisions need to be taken as closely as possible to the citizens, and the EU should not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

After decades of European integration, the role of the nation-state as the heart of political life remains unchanged. Brussels needs to both acknowledge this and celebrate much more forcefully the extraordinary achievements of the European Union: for the first time in history, close to 30 countries and 500 million people have come together without anyone coercing them to do so. As we remember the centenary of the battles of Verdun and the Somme, as we think of the 60 million lives lost in two world wars, it is important to realise that the citizens of the European Union live in the safest place on Earth. The EU can boast one of the world’s lowest violent crime rates, its governments abolished the death penalty, and it has renounced war within its borders. For now, it may look as if the limits of integration have been reached. But if the peoples of Europe feel they are being heard by Brussels, and its responses are of relevance to their daily lives, then, and then only, some of Europe’s nations may yet return to the path of ever-closer union.

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