How can the EU regain public support?

Europe is now associated, in public opinion, with neoliberal economics rather than social programs or socialist policies.
- Dr Tommaso Milani
747 560 European_Parliament_Strasbourg
European Parliament Strasbourg Diliff (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the most pressing challenges to centrist parties across Europe is the rise of populism. While the populist parties, such as AfD in Germany, People’s parties in Scandinavia, and Austria’s Freedom party, may differ in their policy prescriptions, they are preoccupied with the same concerns: immigration and a remote, detached EU which they claim favours corporate interests over those of voters.

The criticism that the EU is ‘anti-democratic’ long precedes its creation. Dr Tommaso Milani of the Department of International History latest study reflects on the origins of the unresolved tension between economic cooperation and sovereignty that has been a persistent target for critics of the European project.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many countries adopted centralised economic planning with the aim of rebuilding their weakened economies and improving living standards for citizens. During this period, there was an optimism amongst Europe’s socialist intellectuals that membership of European bodies could provide the framework for countries to begin supranational economic planning.

Dr Milani says: “Some socialist intellectuals were trying to find ways to control and transcend free-market economics through integration and supranational governance. They hoped post-war European bodies would be capable of pooling economic resources, managing them in the interest of Europe as a whole.”

Around this time, a competing vision of Europe was also emerging. The European Coal and Steel Community was set up in 1952 to allow France, West Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium to to establish supranational control over coal and steel production.”

Dr Milani says: “The eventual creation of the common market in 1957 was more centred on the intra-European trade liberalisation, rather than on the launching of supranational social policies. The basis for cooperation was mainly open borders between member states and free exchange of goods and services.”

When European Union was created four decades later, economic cooperation along free market principles was the defining idea. The community grew in size with the accession of new member states, and many EU states enjoyed steady economic expansion until the 2009 global financial crisis.

But the perception that free-market economics was the EU's overriding priority left it vulnerable to attacks on its democratic legitimacy, especially during the economic recession and declining living standards for European citizens that followed the crisis.

Dr Milani says: “The current malaise towards European integration may be to do with how welfare policies become more significant when the economy is fragile. But Europe is now associated, in public opinion, with neoliberal economics rather than social programs or socialist policies.”

This perception has been relentlessly exploited by political populists. The most serious challenge to the EU came when Britain voted to exit in mid-2016, with advocates of Britain leaving citing the portrayal of the EU as anti-democratic as a key factor in mobilising supporters.

“Britain has a particularly strong attachment to the notion of parliamentary sovereignty. This has been a frequent part of the political discourse, particularly on the right-wing of politics,” Dr Milani adds.

With European economies so heavily dependent on trade with neighbouring countries, any individual country erecting economic barriers is likely to experience an economic decline. The idea of a truly sovereign independent nation state within Europe, that is politically viable is being tested to the limit as Britain tries to imagine life outside the EU and decide its future.  

Dr Milani says: “This idea of getting out by severing all ties with the European single market works much better in theory than in practice. This is due to the level of economic interdependence that has grown between Britain and the rest of Europe since the 1970s.”

“Unless the British government decides to pursue an economically self-destructive policy, it will have to find common ground and compromise with the other 27 member states as well as with the EU institutions. But it is hard to see how any British prime minister will deliberately choose to inflict economic self-harm on the country.”

The lessons of Brexit may act as a warning to those contemplating a better life, independent of the EU. And one aspect of the EU that appears to have high public support, both in Britain and in countries where populists’ support is growing, is the social protections many Europeans benefit from.

Dr Milani says: “While the kind of supranational economic planning socialist intellectuals envisaged in the 1930s would be unthinkable now, the fact that social policies and protections at the hearth of the welfare state remain popular may lead to critically revisit the current model of European integration.”

“The EU is still a relatively young organisation, hopefully it will be able to meet demands for change in constructive and imaginative ways.”        

Behind the article

Retreat from the global? European unity and British progressive intellectuals, 1930-1945 by Dr Tommaso Milani was published in the International History Review in November 2018.