A world based on development can by no means avoid challenges. Dynamism – a fundamental characteristic of modern society – creates shifts in all areas related to economics, politics, and ethics.
People are forced to constantly adapt to a system in perpetual transition. These shifts might be happening at such a speed that makes it unbearable for the world population to completely assimilate them before having to face the following ones. This generates a condition of ceaseless conflict between the system and who lives in it, thus allowing for breaking points to generate, and dissatisfaction to spread.
When peace becomes a curse
Europe, despite its increasing relevance in the international arena, still fails to steadily affirm itself. A building based on weak foundations is doomed to collapse. Political discontent may end up being the earthquake that will put an end to the dream of interstate cohesion.
Critical junctures (i.e., turning points that alter institutional development) such as the financial crisis of 2008, the immigration crisis, and the more recent covid one, aliment anti-European sentiments in the citizens of each member state.
The establishment of the Union made it possible for European countries to coexist peacefully, allowing for the longest period of peace in the whole history of the Region. With peace, higher living standards are achieved. Ironically, this very increase in life conditions is what makes dissatisfaction possible.
When war is not a direct concern and absolute poverty is not widespread, inequality becomes a source of social outrage. This is exacerbated by the previously mentioned critical junctures, which shake the system’s equilibrium by nullifying economic growth.
Dissatisfaction and its implications
With economic insecurity, people fight over scarce resources, and the distinction between “natives” and “others” obtains socio-political relevance. Because of fear and market instability, the Outside is not seen as an opportunity anymore, but as a threat from which citizens of each state need to protect themselves.
As the economy shrinks, job insecurity becomes a concern. Faith in institutions decreases as people experience first-hand their inability to grant them a certain living. When the (labor) market cannot satisfy everyone’s needs, foreigners become another source of unease. Bodies such as the European Union appear more as constraints imposed over Sovereign States that limit national freedom, rather than a greater promoter of peace, prosperity, and human rights.
We have a never-resting system, consistently shocked by shifts in technology, popular beliefs, ethical issues, and economic factors. Such shocks come with structural transformations of society, which generate conflicts and discontent. This has worked in favor of populist parties.
Populism is defined as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”.
Leaders of such parties take into consideration voter’s dissatisfaction, while also alimenting it by claiming that “the sovereignty of the people ought to be restored” (Kriesi, 15).
By being the same political parties that advocate for Euroscepticism, they represent the myth of European stability that emerges from the dynamics of a developing society.
Populism: how the hopes of the "Worst-offs" became an electoral advantage
Populism is based on the idea that what must be obtained is independence from the elite at the national level, and from foreign powers at the interstate one.
Junctures frequently create economic regression. Certain individuals – those that are part of the most fragile side of the market – suffer consistently due to the consequential spiral of changes, as they do not possess the means to effectively adapt to them. This condition has to do with the issue of inequality: a phenomenon which belittles the idea that through a common welfare, equal opportunities can be assured to everyone. Established politicians have failed them. They have failed to grant them security, and so did institutions.
The demand for representation emerges, and populist parties strengthen by satisfying this need. In this scenario, the EU – by limiting states’ fiscal autonomy – constraints sovereignty, thus impeding these parties to work freely in the interest of the people.
In times of crisis, national interest reinforces. European states that experienced higher degrees of unemployment following the Great Recession are the same in which populist parties obtained more support. There is a relation between economic degradation, populism, and mistrust in institutions. The larger the share of fragile individuals in a society, the higher the level of Euroscepticism that generates in that same society.
Recessions cause people to lower their trust in ruling parties. Through the offer of short-run solutions with unclear long-run economic consequences, populist coalitions can affirm their influence in the country.
In some cases, dynamics of this kind may result in a member state leaving the Union, just as happened in 2016 with Brexit.
A related issue
As human rights and democracy constitute a major part of the EU's essence, the presence of illiberal democracies between the member states minifies its institutional credibility.
Countries such as Hungary and Poland, although having entered the Union, do not share the same values of the latter. The democratic principle of free and fair elections through which the people can cast their will has been defied. Information sources work under strict government control. Minority groups see their liberties being reduced as time passes by.
Such governments base their propaganda on nationalism and the fear of foreigners. Being those the same concepts over which populist campaign is based on, populist parties in democratic countries openly support illiberal democracies’ rulers. This makes attempts to decry the neglection of basic human rights to have low levels of efficacy.
Despite all the economic-related consequences of these continuous shifts, what really constitutes the main remedy indispensable for the EU to heal from its precariousness is the development of a strong Social Identity. People have the need to know the pillars and the goals of Europe, while also having them being respected by the actions and the claims of the Union itself.
Institutional faith must be reestablished if Europe wants to remain one of the central players in international relations.