THE BLOG

Europe's Ghosts Are Here to Stay

In Europe we are used these days to witnessing unpopular decisions for the sake of saving the euro, our common currency. "If the euro fails, Europe may fall behind" is a common mantra among eurocrats. However, I fear we are trying to save the euro by leaving the very idea of the European Union behind. Europeans who haven't lost their sense of history know that forgetting about peace and solidarity is a risky business.

The austerity driven response to the crisis is not only proving to be erratic and very painful for the man on the street, but it is also very dangerous politically. Popular support for the European Union (EU) in Member States is declining dramatically. It goes without saying that there is no bright future for the EU without its citizens on board.

The whole EU project is at stake here, not just the common currency. The Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organisation based in Washington, has just published a survey measuring support for the EU among citizens from Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic. Positive views of the EU are at or near their all-time low in most EU nations, even amongst young people. This study follows many others alerting about this dangerous path. Academics seem to be aware, but leaders in Brussels and Berlin continue to be "deficit obsessed", ignoring all the side-effects of their short-sighted policies.

Not only in the South, where the toughest austerity measures are being imposed on the population, but also in the relatively well performing North and Eastern Europe, the EU is simply not popular and those against it are on the rise. As José Ignacio Torreblanca and Mark Leonard argue on a recent European Council on Foreign Relations policy memo, what is so striking is that everybody in the EU is loosing faith in the project, both creditors and debtors, and eurozone countries, would-be members and "opt-outs".

As the lack of trust and discontent continue growing, the citizens are turning their back on the traditional pro-European political parties and supporting others who are against the EU. "If Europe is the problem, let's vote for those against it" is a coherent democratic choice that nevertheless gives increasingly more power to political figures reminiscent of the ghosts of the past.

It is true that these phantoms are greatly diverse, as is Europe itself. Not all are xenophobic and even openly anti-European. However, they all share at least two features. On the one hand, they emphasize the protection of their national interests against the idea of European solidarity mechanisms. On the other, they see next year's European Parliamentary elections as their great opportunity to take over the only democratically elected European institution.

The most recent example is ATAKA, a populist and xenophobic party that reached 7, 3% of the share in last week's Bulgarian elections and it is now the 4th largest group in the Parliament. The party is likely to play a key role in the forming of a new government in the next days.

In the UK, Nigel Farage, the charismatic leader of the UK Independent Party (UKIP) is a rising star in British politics. The UKIP came in second in the 2009 European elections and recently won 25% of the votes in the local elections. His mixture of anti-EU and nationalistic rhetoric is pushing PM David Cameron to more radical euro-skeptic positions. A referendum regarding the permanence of the UK in the EU is foreseen by 2017.

Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian, reached a quarter of the votes in the last Italian election. His anti-establishment messages are becoming more and more popular, even outside its borders. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic Front National, declared that she is the "French Grillo" and is advocating a referendum on the euro.

Last but not least, Golden Dawn, far from being Ridley Scott's latest blockbuster, is an emerging neo-Nazi Greek political party. They are already in the parliament and polls suggest they currently have 10% of support which would turn them into the third political force. Up north, in a wealthier landscape, a group of economists has recently launched "Alternative for Germany", a new political party which calls for an exit from the euro and a return to the Mark. The General election in September will be their first political test.

These are only a few examples of the most prominent new anti-EU forces. The list is long and it gets bigger as the economic crisis worsens.

Some time ago, Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini, two prestigious academics, argued in the Financial Times that Berlin is ignoring the lessons of the 30's. Merkel, as the most powerful EU leader, is pushing in favour of Germany's interests, but she is doing "too little, too late" to lead Europe out of this crisis. It is too early to assume that those new parties represent a threat similar to the Nazism and Fascism of the 30's that turned the continent into a battlefield. Nevertheless, it is clear that these populisms reinforce the geopolitical conflict which is dividing Northern and Southern Europeans, and whose ultimate consequences are still to be seen.

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