Populism and European Integration: when wrong policies give space to protest voting

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I took few days to think properly about the future of the European Union after the decision of the United Kingdom to quit the bloc. Honestly speaking I and many others would have expected a”Remain” victory, even a small one.

At the same time as a convinced “federalist” I knew that the opposite result would have actually opened up the door for a truly leap towards a more integrated and united political union.

Under many aspects, the EU is already a sort of confederation with many institutions resembling the ones of a nation state, though its governance is still pretty complicated and often confusing.

We have a parliament that although that in the last few years assumed a much stronger relevance. We have the European Commission that acts as the Executive and then we have the Council that represents the national governments( The Council to be specific has two formats, one representing the heads of State and the other one led by a rotating presidency share among the  member states).

Now the Union is experiencing a moment of shock and trauma and there are an increased number of voices asking for holding Brexit like referenda in other nations, primarily in France and Netherlands.

Many new comers from Eastern Europe, instead of sharing an unshakable belief into the “European Project” are asking for less Europe and are pushing for revision of the Treaty of the Union to return power towards the member nations.

On the other hand, there are the six founding members of the Union, led by Germany and France, who, despite divergences, know that sooner or later a fiscal integration, the bedrock for a federal union, will be indispensible to make their monetary union viable.

With so many differences and multiple crises faced by the Union, all the Heads of the state agree that it is not the right time to open the “Pandora “box of a treaty revision.

The biggest fear is that populist parties at both the right and left of the political spectrum can take advantage of the current uncertainties and exploit the current situation win national elections and start dismantling the European Project.

The common citizens ended up believing in the populist propaganda that the current challenges they are facing are only responsibility of the far away politics done in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union.

After all it easy to find one scapegoat and blame it for all the existing problems: high level of unemployment, an increased perceived sense of insecurity due to the mass migration from the Middle East and terrorism acts threatening the citizens.

Add that the governance of the European Project is still too complex and difficult to grasp for the European citizens and you can easily understand how the European Union became the target of all criticisms and the perceived source of all the problems.

The real true is quite the opposite: populism and therefore the protest’ votes gain strength and thrive in Europe not because of European Union itself but because of the policies adopted and imposed by the member states in the last decade.

For example let’s look at the economic situation across the continent: years of austerity imposed by Germany have left a deep scar all over the Union especially in the Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and also France and the costs related to the “fiscal orthodoxy” being adopted by far outweigh the benefits.

It is very possible that the “bitter” medicine imposed on so many member nations was necessary and unavoidable but this approach should have also be accompanied by stronger welfare programs.

Instead the quite opposite happened with financial resources for the social sector being slashed and with the social fabric, the foundation of any thriving and prosperous society, being severely damaged.

Another example is the migration: we all applauded Chancellor Markel for her bold stand on migration when she decided to open up the doors to thousands of refugees.

At the same time her decision backfired with more and more Syrian refugees from middle classes trying to make it to Europe, a fact that pushed many eastern European members to break ranks with Germany and block the migrants’ inflow, creating a real divide within the Union.

Though unfortunate, it was inevitable that some fringe political forces would have exploited the “open door” policy and build on it to increase their vote bank.

The policies taken by the member states and their fallouts at the grassroots should be blamed for the ongoing rise of populist parties in Europe.

Austerity must be softened with a vigorous investment plan in the social sector.

Most of the European citizens, even the few who have not had the chance to move around Europe too much, are common sense people and while deploring some aspects of the European Union, in the right circumstances, will understand that only united European countries can thrive.

Left alone, the same citizens can easily be manipulated and once the feeling of their disentrancement get bigger, they have no other options but to support populist parties, voting against the system.

Mainstream politics must become more responsive and able to positively impact the daily lives of the common citizens. We do not necessarily need big governments for this.

In an era where cross collaborations have flourished, we need to create new solutions for the welfare and wellbeing of the people.

At the same time, false propaganda must be fought back. The European Union is not an undemocratic project. After all, the European Parliament is elected by all the citizens of all the member states and member nations, who increasingly steer the policies of the Union, are all democracies.

Populism exploits real problems to propose old formulas that can be easily sold to the people.

The real problem is not that we have too much Europe but the fact that we had too many wrong policies in place that exacerbated the lives of the common people.

So far fringe parties have the lead because they are the only one able to connect with the grassroots.

Mainstream parties must reinvent themselves and put at the center of the policies the wellbeing of their citizens and invest their energies to strengthen the process of European integration.

A federal EU does not imply weak member nations but the opposite. With clear divisions of responsibilities, a prosperous common destiny will be the pathway for a thriving continent, united by a political vision based on justice, fairness and equality, the pillars of the European Union.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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