Anti-Europe Parties Aren’t Anti-Europe Anymore

Instead of promising to protect people from the European Union, populists have started promising to make the EU protect the people.

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stands with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a press conference following a meeting in Milan on Aug. 28, 2018.
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stands with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a press conference following a meeting in Milan on Aug. 28, 2018. Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Like every other member of the European Union, Britain is preparing to participate in the coming EU parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of this month—and across the continent, populism seems likely to perform very well. But Britain stands apart in one important respect: Only in the United Kingdom does populism still widely take the form of anti-EU ideology. (Polls suggest Nigel Farage’s strident Brexit Party may emerge as the largest vote-getter.) Elsewhere, the parties that once advocated for leaving the EU are still campaigning—but over the past two years they’ve fundamentally changed their central message.

In 2016, the European Council on Foreign Relations counted at least 15 parties across Europe campaigning for a referendum on their country’s EU membership. Today that message is practically nonexistent. Instead, in an ironic twist, nationalist parties are joining hands across the EU under Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s banner demanding a “Common-Sense Europe”: not the end of the European Union but a changed European Union, one that focusses more on security, manages immigration more closely, and takes a “nation first” approach to the economy.

In one sense, this evolution in messaging is an effect of Brexit. The U.K.’s deep political turmoil is hardly an enviable destination to be promising to take voters. Of course, this also suggests that if Britain’s departure eventually concludes noncatastrophically, the other anti-EU parties will snap back to their original rhetoric.

There are deeper motivations, however, for their transformation—motivations that pro-European parties would be wise to study. Populist parties have understood two important things about the European electorate in 2019. They know that this election is not, in fact, a battle between two competing visions of an open, internationalist Europe versus a closed, nationalist Europe. European identity remains strong, and Europeans feel a level of protection within the EU that they do not want to lose. That is not to suggest they are content with the status quo. Indeed, to successfully connect with voters, parties must present themselves as advocates of change.

Recent Eurobarometer survey results show 30-plus year highs in the number of respondents believing that EU membership has been good for their country—68 percent in February and March. A large-scale pan-EU survey carried out for European Council on Foreign Relations over the past four months by YouGov has also shown that European identity remains very important to Europeans. Majorities in each member state expressed that European identity was as important as national identity. What EU citizens value about EU membership became clear when respondents were asked what would be the biggest loss if the EU ceased to exist. The most popular answers centered on the benefits of being part of a single market—being able to live, work, and travel in other EU member states. Also popular was the idea of the EU as a global actor in a world of continent-sized powers—to cooperate on security and defense and to form a bloc against superpowers such as the United States and China. Interestingly, people’s choices centered not only on what the EU offers, but also what it stands for. The third-highest set of answers focused on a commitment to European values: protection of democracy and rule of law.

This positive view of the EU also came through in the question of whether membership of the union protects citizens from the excesses or failures of national governments or, rather, prevented those national governments from acting in their best interests. Most respondents endorsed the protective role of the EU—with Romania, Spain, Poland, and Hungary offering that answer in the greatest numbers. (This should give the lie to any notion that the Visegrad states of Central Europe are less committed to the European project right now.)

So much for the popularity of nationalism. When it comes to the “closed” part of the vision that supporters of populist parties are presumed to want, there doesn’t seem to be much demand either. In every member state the European Council on Foreign Relations surveyed except Hungary, migration was not identified as one of the top two threats to Europe. Instead, the most popular answer was Islamic radicalization, indicating that voters are most concerned with integration and community cohesion, rather than border control. In Austria, Germany, and Greece, nationalism was identified as much of a threat to Europe as migration.

Meanwhile, in Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Salvini’s Italy, as well as in Greece, Spain, and Poland, emigration is just as big a concern as immigration. In Greece and Spain, concerns about emigration are so great that majorities said their governments should consider policies preventing nationals of their countries from leaving for long periods of time—63 percent in Greece and 60 percent in Spain. What lies behind the concern over emigration is complex: a toxic mix of brain drain stunting economic growth, younger generations moving away, and traditional communities falling apart.

What emerges overall from surveys is a Europe that wants more support for integration of migrants and more support for populations absorbing change—whether from new arrivals or the loss of the local population—rather than a tightening of border controls or even a limit to migration.

If anti-system parties have understood that voters’ views on nationalism are more nuanced than they may have appeared at the height of the migration crisis in 2016, they have also clearly understood that Europeans have had enough of the status quo. In the European Council on Foreign Relations/YouGov survey in February 2019, three-quarters of European voters said they believed that either their national political system, the European system, or both are broken. Two-thirds of them believe that their children’s future will be worse than their own. Simply promising more of the same will never deal with this level of disconnect between voters and the political system. That is the power of Salvini’s idea of a different, common-sense Europe: He is successfully pushing mainstream parties into defending the status quo—perhaps a smart tactic for a politician who himself forms part of a sitting national government and might therefore otherwise be liable to a midterm backlash from voters in these European Parliament elections.

It is time for pro-European parties to deploy smart tactics too. To compete successfully in these elections and the political environment that will come after them, pro-Europeans need an approach that encapsulates these two truths as well. They need to show that they recognize the deep level of disconnect between voters and parties, and they must offer a vision of a European future that makes the silent majority feel it is worth coming out to vote at the end of May. It’s not yet too late—but with less than three weeks to go until the elections, it soon will be.

Susi Dennison is a senior fellow and director of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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