THE BLOG

In European Elections, Populism is Against People's Interests

Leena Saarinen CC

Nicolas Berggruen is President of The Berggruen Institute on Governance and Pierpaolo Barbieri is advisor to the institute's council on the future of Europe, which is chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Last May Day and under a banner reading "No to Brussels, Yes to France," Marine Le Pen told thousands of supporters -- and millions through the enraptured media -- that it was the "duty of patriots" to stop European Union "gravediggers." She urged voters to "send shockwaves" by choosing her Front National at this weekend's European elections. A Le Pen victory is plausible and it would make her the front-runner in France's next presidential elections. Anti-European populists are on the march not just in France, but also in Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Austria, Finland and even Germany.

Amidst veritable media frenzy, we hear the populists and their critiques loud and clear. It is time that someone stand up for the European project. So let us make the argument loudly: a strong, increasingly federal Europe is the best path to freedom, prosperity, and influence in the world.

Interconnectedness is a reality, not a choice. In our era of globalization, national regulation is far less effective than continental regulation, which protects consumers from monopolies and unfair practices. From energy to roaming charges, the EU can regulate imperfect matters more effectively than national bodies ever could.

In financial markets, the EU has been at the forefront of better regulation to prevent another crisis: from limits on bonuses to the European Central Bank's banking union, we are building a more resilient banking system to protect both depositors and taxpayers alike.

Meanwhile, the European single market is the key achievement of the Union that has improved standards of living for citizens in every single member state. Today, it provides a strong incentive for countries in the Union to support each other, a truth born out during the financial crisis.

Euro-populists fear markets. France has been losing export ground to Germany and Spain, but this has nothing to do with the value of the euro. It has only to do with France's own protectionism. The enemy is not Brussels, but rather the domestic entrenched interest groups that block all necessary reforms to make welfare states sustainable in time.

After painful but necessary adjustments in Greece, Portugal and Spain -- underwritten by a Europe that provided support when markets were closed to them -- peripheral prospects have brightened. In spite of a gargantuan real estate bubble and burst, Spain is already growing faster than France. So will Portugal and Greece, all three countries that joined Europe as a way to transition from autocratic dictatorships to functioning democracies.

European crisis management has been far from perfect; but the alternative of euro exit was to turn the periphery into pariahs, returning to the old ways of inflation and routine devaluations. It as the path to Venezuela. While the populists criticize reforms to make our welfare systems more sustainable, they have not succeeded in articulating what the alternatives are for countries like Greece and Portugal.

Lest we forget this Union protects and encourages democracy, which it helped cement from Lisbon to Vilnus. And the EU itself is becoming increasingly democratic at the supranational level, with a parliament that looks increasingly like an empowered and representative House of Representatives. Democracy is the promise of more Europe, not less.

Yet institutions are not representative everywhere in the continent, particularly in countries that populists would like to embrace. Eager to dump the very Atlantic alliance that underwrote post-war reconstruction and integration, populists admire a Russian government that is increasingly authoritarian, corrupt, and socially regressive. In a time of record unemployment and crisis, it is easy to point the finger at migrants. But let us not forget -- in a continent of emigrants -- that immigration enriches our societies, both economically and culturally. Member states can and do retain the right to decide who accesses their welfare systems. But free movement within the Union is a non-negotiable ideal: it roots our increasingly shared identity.

The great paradox is that the solutions that populism espouses will work against the interest of our societies, leading to a poorer, weaker, and less free Europe. We may be complacent, but at Maidan Square Ukrainians literally bled for the very same freedoms Hungarians died for in 1956. Europe embodies those freedoms. Our Union is a reality worth fighting for: our guarantor of peace and human rights, our best source of economic opportunity, and our strong voice in the wider world.

This weekend, on May 25th, let us stand for it.

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