Skip to main content

The Populist Brake on European Integration

Peter Rough

It’s now clear that the high-water mark of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship was August 31, 2015—the day she opened Germany’s borders to a wave of asylum seekers. In October, German voters rebuked her and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), severely, and the exit polls make it unmistakably clear that the punishment was largely a result of her immigration policies.

For years, Merkel has styled herself as a reliable technocrat in an age of turbulence, but voters increasingly see her as listless—or worse, as an accomplice to the excesses of globalization. The big winner in the election was the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an ugly, upstart party that cleverly exploited public disdain for mass immigration, energy regulations, and aspects of the European Union (EU).

Merkel’s response to this electoral drubbing has been to ignore it. As she put it after the election, “I don’t know what we should do differently.” Unsurprisingly, she now prefers another so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats, who are unsure of their own future after sinking to an historic low. To sweeten the pot, Merkel has emphasized the power of the next German government to shape the future of Europe in the next year. “There are European elections in 2019,” she reminded reporters recently. “So there is a big expectation that we take positions.”

For the SPD leader, Martin Schulz, such entreaties are like honey to a bear. Schulz made his career at the European Parliament in Brussels, rising to power as a visceral supporter of EU integration. Just last week, he mused aloud that in a grand coalition the SPD would push for a Eurozone budget managed by a European finance minister. Days later, he pressed his case further, arguing that his party would insist on “a positive answer to Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for Europe.” Summing up his ideas, Schulz remarked that “We need to reinvent Europe.” If this vision prevails, it would be a big mistake for Europe.

For decades, Europe has pursued an “ever closer union” as an escape from the destructive passions of continental nationalism. Paradoxically, this idealistic creed has now produced the opposite effect—fueling a rebellion from voters writhing under the centralizing writ of transnational authorities. Europe’s elites have long assumed that the rough and tumble of politics would fade as the scientific logic of dispassionate administration asserted itself. In one referendum and election after another, that wager has come up craps.

In 2002, European authorities instituted a common currency, the euro, a decision that has proven geopolitically calamitous. The euro is the EU’s crown jewel. So long as economic progress seemed inevitable, it proved a glittering tribute to economic efficiency. Over time, so the thinking went, a common European political culture would take hold to reinforce the economic progress embodied by the Eurozone.

The flaw in this vision is that it vastly underestimated Europe’s diversity. An emotionless supranationalism cannot transcend the affect-laden bonds of nations. The financial crisis exposed the EU’s political identity as brittle, robbing the euro of its legitimacy. For the past decade, the currency has made it impossible for national authorities to resort to devaluations as an escape from economic malaise. In response, Greeks, Italians, and Spaniards have taken to the streets and voted for fringe parties.

Europeans are of two minds on how to proceed. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, represents one extreme. He argues that Europe’s problems are a function of incomplete integration. Verhofstadt proposes a fully-fledged United States of Europe to solve the continent’s problems, which, in turn, he believes will earn it the support of the people. During the federal election campaign, Schulz toyed with endorsing just such a concept himself. In effect, Verhofstadt and Schulz are for dousing the flames of public discontent with gasoline.

The other approach, embodied by such politicians as the German Free Democrat (FDP) Christian Lindner and conservative members of Merkel’s party, counsels caution. Instead of leaving the field to the AfD, these politicians are staking out strong positions against large-scale immigration and the Eurozone’s bailout fund. In neighboring Austria, Sebastian Kurz has taken a similar approach, endorsing European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s concept in which the EU is “Doing less more efficiently.” Both Lindner and Kurz have been rewarded at the ballot box.

The United States has an enormous stake in Europe. If Europe is destined to undergo reforms, it is essential for Washington to play a constructive role. For decades, however, the U.S. has blindly endorsed the principle of an “ever closer union.” As a first step, the Trump administration should shelve this commitment. If European integration proceeds without the requisite public support, the opportunities for anti-American spoilers like the AfD will only grow. Instead, American policy should reward forms of European solidarity that are responsive to the will of the voters. At base, this means ensuring that Europe rebalances toward the nation-state, and does so in an orderly and pro-American fashion. Reinforcing the EU’s principle of subsidiarity, which pushes decisions as close to the people as possible, is a good place to start.

The German elections are like a brightly lit sign flashing “caution.” Instead of slowing down, however, Angela Merkel is eyeing the accelerator at the urging of Martin Schulz. The AfD is watching with glee. The U.S. should make clear that it sees danger in proceeding along a path that lacks public support and democratic checks. How Germany’s elites process such a message will determine if Europe forges a new, more responsive order or descends into ugly rebellion.

Related Articles

German Elections Analysis

Kenneth R. Weinstein

Kenneth R. Weinstein on VOA Radio...

Listen Now

Transatlantic Trade War Over Dispute Between Boeing and Bombardier?

Irwin M. Stelzer

On September 28th, Irwin Stelzer appeared on BBC World Service to discuss the risk of a transatlantic trade war in light of the dispute between Boeing...

Listen Now

Winning Again Is Angela Merkel’s Easiest Task

Walter Russell Mead

The world may be expecting more than Germany is able to deliver...

Continue Reading