How the EU Inflamed Populism

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban (center), Federal Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz (left), and Prime Minister of Slovakia Peter Pellegrini (right) attend a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, June 21, 2018. (Tamas Kaszas/Reuters)
It is an institution condemned by all sound political philosophy.

The recent success of right-wing nationalism in Europe has the Left worried about the demise of democracy and ethnic diversity. Viktor Orban of Hungary, Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, and Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic are cited as examples of leaders who have illiberal aspirations and contempt for the rule of law, and who are profiting from the anti-migration resentment of their voters. Sebastian Kurz of Austria, while not himself far-right, has enacted some anti-migrant and anti-Islamic policies supported by the Freedom party, which drew sanctions from the EU the last time it was in power. Giuseppe Conte of Italy, with his newly formed coalition of Euroskeptic parties, this week ordered the closure of the country’s ports. The Brexit vote was motivated in large part by migration concerns. The Alternative for Germany party won its largest-ever share of parliamentary seats by attacking Angela Merkel’s open-borders policy. And finally, Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, though not in power, have brought their parties into prominence on a platform of anti-Islamization and restricted migration.

A ponderous catalogue, to be sure. A resentment of foreign commitments and a suspicion of free trade are the new attitudes of peoples who have concluded that the international integration of the last two decades has produced economic problems and cultural decay instead of prosperity and progress.

The European Union itself is a leading cause of this conflict, for it is an institution condemned by all sound political philosophy. A regime binding several communities can exist in only two ways: a treaty, which is a contract between sovereign territories, or a government, which is an authority over governed territories. The precursors of the EU were the former. The 1957 Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, for example, was a customs union by which member countries agreed to trade freely with one another and maintain common external tariffs.

With the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht, which established the EU, and its subsequent amendments, European integration began to look less like a cooperation of equals and more like a submission to a supranational authority. This has been especially true since the establishment of the common currency, for which the European Central Bank has the exclusive right to decide monetary policy. The result is a limbo between treaty and government: too much power for one and too little for the other.

The euro-zone crisis combined with the recent refugee problems has created discontent all over, especially in Eastern Europe, where migrants tend to arrive first. Thus the rise of political parties suspicious of the common market and resentful of centralized immigration policy appears to threaten the longevity of the EU, along with its professed goals of liberal democracy and ethnic diversity.

The Left alleges that this nationalist groundswell disturbingly resembles the interwar period of the last century, which produced the murderous dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. This fear is not unfounded: Orban last year urged the maintenance of “ethnic homogeneity” for Hungary’s economic success, and Poland passed a law in February banning reference to “Polish death camps” to combat the phrase’s implication that Poland cooperated in the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, the Left’s criticism of these regimes is dishonest. On the one hand it worries about populism and overreliance on referenda, while on the other it praises the “democratic” installation of infanticide in Ireland last month. It decries a majoritarianism that tramples the rights of the minority, yet it enjoys terrorizing Christian bakers who continue to oppose homosexual marriage. When these European governments transgress justice or veer toward despotism, we indeed ought to denounce them, but the Left mustn’t pretend zeal for liberal democracy when it is really concerned with the enforcement of its goals by hook or by crook.

European leaders must give up their dream of a borderless world and revisit their ancestors’ healthier forms of globalism.

One outcome of the Left’s habit of tendentious allegiance is a preposterous and shifty nostalgia whereby it pines for something that it previously wanted to incinerate. George W. Bush, sometime imperialist and war criminal, now receives roaring ovations at fashionable awards ceremonies in Washington. A hilarious example of this affectation appears in an article in the Guardian that investigates how “xenophobes” are changing Europe. To show how bad the present situation is, the author makes a flattering reference to the highly multicultural Austro-Hungarian empire, in which 14 languages were commonly spoken and dozens of ethnic groups lived side-by-side. The disintegration of the empire after World War I was a significant contributor to the rise of nationalism that produced Hitler’s pan-Germanism.

If the Guardian wants to restore the Habsburg monarchy — the last occupant of which was beatified by the Catholic Church — I am all for it. I have always wanted a hat that says “Make the Holy Roman Empire Great Again.” When one considers, however, that the society able to sustain this multiculturalism was deeply religious, traditional, conservative, and deferent to authority, one suspects that the Guardian is perpetrating an enormous ruse. There is little question where it would have stood in the revolutions of 1848.

Whereas the Middle Ages, for instance, combined local diversity with a continental intellectual network, internationalism in its modern form has often been a means of destroying traditional cultures and imposing on the world a stultifying monotony, not to mention dangers to Europe’s security from the migration crisis. While certain countries’ recent resistances do show concerning signs, they are far sounder than Merkel’s open invitation to migrants, which has driven the rise of jingoist parties across Europe. A united effort to control migration, as Kurz in Austria proposed this week to Germany, would both mitigate the refugee problem and deflate the more dangerous nationalist movements.

In the long term, the options are not merely the EU status quo on the one hand and fierce ethnic nationalism on the other. European countries have been cooperating since the eighth century, always — until recently — in ways that preserved their sovereignty but promoted a broad common culture. The deep flaws of the present system having been exposed, European leaders must give up their dream of a borderless world and revisit their ancestors’ healthier forms of globalism.


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