The Murky European Future

European Commission building in Brussels (Photo: Paulgrecaud/Dreamstime)
The elites who make laws and the public that must follow them do not agree on the future of the Continent.

The second decade of the 21st century has been a difficult one for the European Union. The ongoing repercussions of the financial crisis of 2008 plagued the Continent for years, threatening to sink first the national economies of the countries on the European periphery and then the euro itself. The refugee crisis — and Angela Merkel’s opening of the German borders to any refugee who could make it across the Austrian Alps — weighed heavily on the structure of the entire system, nearly dissolving the Schengen area and bringing into question the entire future of Europe as a recognizably European place. (The Schengen area consists of 26 European states that have officially abolished passports and all other types of border control at their mutual borders.) And, just under a year ago, Britain’s vote to leave the EU set in motion a collective paroxysm. With the French presidential election impending, the question began to arise: Would Europe survive?

Well, survive it has. The euro-zone crisis finally came to an end in the great drama of July 2015, when Greece finally relented to its creditors and accepted the harsh terms dictated from Brussels. The refugee issue has recently moved to the back burner as the flow of refugees from the Middle East has slowed; for now, Europeans can ignore the refugee question, placed on a low simmer. Brexit has been transformed from a knife pointed at the EU’s heart into a means of regeneration. It may integrate European economic and political systems in a way that would never have been possible while Britain was blocking the path. And, most important, Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency was decisively beaten back by the young centrist Emmanuel Macron, who has partnered with Merkel to, shall we say, make Europe great again.

So the future looks rosy, at least for the moment. Or is it?

A major survey by the British think tank Chatham House provides some answers. The survey is a unique one — in addition to a representative sample of 10,000 Europeans, it queries some 1,800 members of the European elite, the people who make the important decisions in politics, media, business, and civic life across the European Union. The aim of the survey is to assess how attitudes toward the European project differ between the two groups: the general population and the elites. Has the much-discussed divide between them dissolved after the tumult of 2016, or has it persisted, perhaps diffused into some new form?

There are certainly many issues on which the elite and the public agree. Both groups concur, for instance, that “richer member states should financially support poorer member states,” though support is higher among the public than among the elite. Perceptions of the benevolence of Germany’s role in the union are surprisingly similar, with the public having only slightly more negative views on German actions. This runs counter to a conventional view that sees Germany as the true emperor of Europe, despised by many of the people over whom it reigns.

It is on the question of values that a distinct gap begins to open between the elite and the public. Only 14 percent of the public feels “very proud” of being European; 30 percent feel little pride at all. Among the elite, the proportions are 29 percent and 11 percent respectively. Similar proportions — about 40 percent for each group — feel “quite proud” of their Europeanness, but the data present a clear picture of divergent attitudes on the extremes.

Crucial points of divergence concern the allocation of benefits and preferences for further expansion of the EU’s capacity and geographic reach, questions that reach to the heart of the European future. Of the elite, 37 percent feel that “people like [me] have benefited from being members of the EU,” while only 9 percent of the public feels the same. Ambivalence is far more common, with just over a third of the public neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Elites associate the EU with democracy and confidence; the public associates it with bureaucracy and indifference. Elites support further expansion of the EU much more than the public does — 58 percent for the former, 34 for the latter; while the public strongly opposes the inclusion of Turkey, the elite is somewhat more lukewarm. The public believes, by and large, that the post–Cold War enlargement of the EU has gone too far, while elites generally do not. Elites concomitantly display higher levels of support for deeper integration, but the people, by an overwhelming majority, favor either a return of powers from Brussels to the individual nation-states or a maintenance of the status quo in that domain.

On immigration, the gulf between elites and the public is like a gaping, unbridged chasm.

The most significant split, though, may be on the issue of immigration — no surprise for observers of contemporary European politics. Here, the gulf between the groups is more like a gaping, unbridged chasm. Of elites, 57 percent believe that immigrants have been good for their countries, and 58 percent believe that immigrants have enhanced cultural life. The respective figures for the public are 25 and 32 percent. A majority of the public believes that immigrants have worsened crime and strain the treasured welfare state; a majority and near-majority, respectively, of the elite disagree. Fifty-six percent of the public believe that “all further immigration from Muslim states should be halted,” and that “European and Muslim ways of life are irreconcilable.” This is not an image of a public widely supportive of the immigration policies adopted by national governments or the EU. It seems more like a tinderbox waiting for ignition.

Broader difficulties for the future of European integration exist as well, these ones operating at the grand level of society. The politics of the post-war European world were defined by class and the ideological confines of the Cold War. The period since the end of the Cold War has seen a shift — first gradually, then all at once — away from a class-based definition of politics toward a value-based one. The definitive cleavage today is not one’s level of income but rather one’s values and how one views the values of other people. This necessarily makes the project of European integration and assimilation more difficult, as integration is seen not as an extension of national-level class politics but as a debate over the meaning and role of the nation-state itself. Nowhere is this difficulty more prominent than on the issue of immigration, where the preferences of elites and of the public differ widely.

Recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe make this tension clear. Under orders from Brussels to accept refugees, three EU nations — Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic — refused. Last week Brussels announced plans to impose sanction on the three, as punishment for their non-compliance. All three countries have seen rising waves of Euroskepticism and illiberalism: Hungary is governed by the increasingly autocratic Viktor Orban, who has infuriated Brussels with his attacks on liberal institutions and a common refugee policy; Poland is under the rule of the Law and Justice Party, which has assailed the country’s top constitutional tribunal and raised anxieties in the West; and the Czech Republic, though truly democratic, is home to many Euroskeptics, with polls showing that the country would vote to leave the EU if such a vote occurred.

These three countries, then, lay bare the tension between elites and the public, and the tension manifests itself as a dispute between the nation-state and the supranational authority of the EU. That this tension is, for the moment, confined to the fringes of the EU is a product of current political circumstances. We should not expect this to last. Europe’s current stability, so happily accomplished after Brexit’s great dagger to the heart, may well be a temporary phenomenon, the product of profound geopolitical anxieties and an aching desire to place the unpleasant memories of the financial and refugee crises in the past. But it would not take much to disrupt the placidity.

A return of the refugee crisis, perhaps triggered by whatever is to come after the eventual defeat of ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul, could tear the cracks wide open again, returning us to the uncertainties of September 2015, when the flow of refugees reached its peak and the populist Alternative for Deutschland party looked like the future of German politics.

A descent back into financial turmoil, now seemingly dispelled but always lurking beneath the surface, could do something similar, giving rise to the social and political frustrations that take hold when economic growth falters. It is not difficult, in such conditions, to imagine the resurgence of a Le Pen–style ethnic nationalism or a Syriza-style anti-austerity movement, as we saw in Greece, once again threatening Europe’s sense of buoyancy.

Cracks in the grand European façade have not disappeared. Pieces that tout the grand pan-European future need rethinking. Integrationist overreach always runs the risk of inspiring a nationalist backlash, and the preconditions for such a backlash — namely, a high level of disagreement between the people making policy and the people experiencing it — have not dissipated since the Brexit vote. The people and the elite still have vastly differing perceptions of the benefits conferred by the European Union, and they still disagree on the course the union should take in the future.

The obvious youthfulness of Emmanuel Macron may have injected new life into the European project, but neither he nor his partnership with Angela Merkel has yet managed to eliminate the fault line that has characterized this strange period of European history: the division between the people and the elite. Macron and Merkel must tread carefully if their project is to be a lasting one.


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