Europe is preparing for the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May next year. The elections come at a time when Europe seems to be divided between anti-European (illiberal) nationalists and pro-European liberals. Political legitimacy is always based on feelings of European unity, a shared narrative. As former shared narratives are losing their credibility, is a possible new narrative already coming to the forefront?

Our observations

  • While European parties are getting ready for the elections, trust in traditional parties is currently at a low. While trying to get voters’ attention, new transnational lists and populist movements have become increasingly popular, as we have written before. Meanwhile, the latest Eurobarometer shows that trust in the EU is at its highest level since autumn 2010. In 15 member states, a majority of respondents trust the EU. The disparity between high trust in the EU and low trust in traditional parties shows that traditional parties need a different narrative to convince voters.
  • Recently, the European Parliament voted to punish Hungary for cracking down on democratic institutions, which could lead to a suspension of Hungarian voting rights in the EU, further increasing the tension between Eastern European and Western European EU member states. Several parliamentarians from Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania voted against the resolution. The punishment could further radicalize Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s stance instead of moderating it: he has already said he will further resist centralized control and pro-migration policies.
  • Last week, in his final State of the Union speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his worries about “unhealthy nationalism”. Across Europe, populism is growing, with most momentum on the right. Recently, the Swedish elections resulted in the Social Democrats remaining the largest party, but the nationalist right made the biggest gains, making Sweden the latest in a long string of countries showing a surge in nationalist right-wing political parties.
  • Eastern Europe is facing a depopulation crisis, according to the UN’s 2017 Revision of World Population Prospects. The data points to low fertility rates and the move of young workers towards Western countries, meaning that the population staying in these countries is getting older. Main contributors to migration of the younger citizens are low income, insufficient growth, and better opportunities in the West. This further creates a tailwind for populist parties in Eastern European countries.

Connecting the dots

Earlier this year, during the Italian elections, it was clear that the populist and Eurosceptic wave had not only affected newer member states on the periphery of the continent, such as Hungary and Poland, but had finally reached a core member of the Eurozone. Indeed, the leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, said about the European elections of May next year that: “The fight in 2019 will be a fight between the nationalist populists on one side and a pro-European alternative.”
There are multiple ways to understand these times of heightened Euroscepticism, criticism of the EU and European integration. One way is through understanding the narratives that (used to) bind European countries together and to show how these narratives do not suffice anymore or how they are somehow ruptured. Ivan Krastev, author of After Europe (2017), argues that the narratives that once united Europe are not appealing anymore and are collapsing as reasons for citizens to trust in the unity of the European Union.
In his analysis, three different narratives of Europe constitute today’s legitimacy of the EU: that of postwar Europe after 1945, the narrative of the post-1968 Europe of human rights, and then that of the united Europe that emerged after the end of the Cold War. The postwar European unification was an indirect result of the bloody first half of Europe’s 20th century, with two world wars and disastrous economic crises. A common expression after 1945 was “Never again,” which symbolized a Europe-wide desire to avoid another world war, as the peoples of Europe had been severely affected by the cruelties of war. Although the Yugoslav wars of the 90s already showed the blind spots in this postwar belief, it is currently falling apart even more, since the youngest generations have no associations with WWII, except what they learn during history lessons: they have had no formative experience of the idea why Europe should be unified rather than decentralized. Post-‘68 Europe arose after the revolutions of 1968, the year of social changes. Krastev calls the result a “Europe of human rights” and particularly the “Europe of minority rights”, advocating rights for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. This version of Europe is currently also under threat as transformative demographic changes have threatened the majority. Majorities have become the losers of globalization; the global economy

has only served the elites. The latest refugee crisis has further intensified their fear that they will become minorities in their country in the future. This is especially true for Eastern European countries that face a depopulation crisis.
The third version of Europe is that of post-‘89. The post-Cold War period brought together communist Eastern European countries and Western countries in their firm belief in the liberal markets and democracy as the only way to prosperity. The Eastern European countries imitated the West, which unavoidably fed a feeling of inferiority and lost identity. In that light, a generation of authoritarian populist leaders, who presented themselves as the authentic voice of the nation and as protectors against external enemies, became increasingly attractive. Particularly in light of depopulation and massive immigration, which are still perceived as a threat to the very existence of some Eastern European countries today.
In After Europe, Krastev concludes that because these three narratives are now collapsing and the movement for further European integration lacks big ideas to push it forward, the union faces the threat of falling apart entirely. Especially the last major threat, massive immigration, could be a blow to European identity. However, there might be reasons for a surge of interest in integration of Europe. First, there is a new external motivation for cooperation between countries: the external threat of a new geopolitical reality. The future of NATO is uncertain as the U.S. president has threatened to pull out of a military alliance. Europe can no longer rely on the U.S. for protection and, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed, has to “take its destiny into its own hands.” As a result, Europe is now moving closer to a joint military force. A second dimension of this new geopolitical reality is the global competition for digital hegemony. As both China and the U.S. are showing leadership in technological development, Europe is facing the threat of falling behind and of being outperformed by U.S. and Chinese tech-companies. Awareness about this has already led Brussels to call for a €20 billion fund for artificial intelligence research. The question is whether these external threats will be sufficient motivation for Europe to redefine itself and legitimize integration in the run-up to the May 2019 elections.

Implications

  • Stronger integration will always face resistance, since Europe is not to be seen as one bloc but as three blocs, each with its own narrative: Southern Europe, North Western Europe, and the Eastern bloc. The blocs are uniting against the dominant Franco-German plans for further European integration. For instance, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has shown the ability to position himself as a counterweight to Berlin and Paris and to step to the forefront as a defender of the North Western European interests in a Dutch-led northern alliance.
  • As we have noted before, 18 of the 20 largest tech firms are from the U.S. West Coast (i.e. Silicon Valley) and the east coast of China. As Europe is facing the risk of being left behind, the continent is in search of its own European champions.