Last summer Angela Merkel said that if it was no longer possible to show a friendly face to people arriving in need, Germany wouldn't be “my country” anymore. She may now remember the European Summit of 18 March as the moment when the EU ceased to be “her Europe”.
While Turkey agreed to take back refugees that were refused entry in return for visa-free travel to the EU – which might be possible from June – EU member states have so far failed to agree on quotas for settling the refugees that have still not been granted asylum. For governments, the fear of inciting the wrath of xenophobes in the electorate is too great.
This triumph of populism is not solely a European problem. In the United States presidential elections often tempt fringe candidates to try their luck, but when the moment of truth comes, responsible people get the top job. For Europeans, similarly, it used to go without saying that though the EU might be confronted by severe threats, overcoming them always led to an even stronger union.
But these old certainties will soon be put to the test. After the March primaries in the US, a demagogue looks set to be the Republican nominee, ripping not only the GOP apart, but also putting at risk the delicate historic balance of political, ideological, and geographic forces in the country. The failure of the EU refugee summit in Brussels means member states remain clueless as to who should take how many refugees – if any at all – and coupled with the British discussion over exiting the EU what remains of European unity might finally break down.
In both the US and the EU, the root cause of these scenarios is the same: the pussy-footing approach of mainstream politics towards even the most unrealistic populist contentions.
The pattern is always the same. Populists express their distrust of mainstream politics. The globalising world is ever more complex, ever harder to fathom, and threatens traditional livelihoods. Technocratic politicians seem overtaxed. So populists pretend to possess simple answers to the problems that they construct out of people’s fears, and spread them through social media. Donald Trump promises to make America “great again”, proponents of Brexit assert that Britain would flourish by leaving the EU, and the Front National in France warns of Muslims taking over the country. Fears multiply and, in so doing, incubate increasing contempt for slow democratic processes.
Next, mainstream politicians – fearful of losing votes – accept populist pretences as truth and feel compelled to overtake them with their own rhetoric. In this vein, mainstream US presidential hopeful Marco Rubio ran from his own immigration bill, David Cameron argued that “power must flow back to member states” and Viktor Orban built his own fence to keep refugees out. Meanwhile, in the real world, the US economy grows so strongly it pulls the world along. In the real world, as the Bank of England proved, Britain is one of the member states that benefits most from EU membership. And in the real world, refugees can be shown to have always given European economies a boost. But facts are for losers. As mainstream politicians twist and turn their rhetoric to accept the populists’ reality, causing people to feel that there must be some truth to these fantasies.
Then, populists feel the danger of losing their original unique selling points. Consequently they stoke the fires further. “We're going to build a wall” says Donald Trump, “Use firearms if necessary…to prevent illegal border crossings” says AFD’s Frauke Petry and Brexit backer Boris Johnson accuses the EU of committing “legal colonisation” of Britain. Rhetoric spirals out of reality and creates a persuasive pseudo-reality of its own.
Gradually, the political discourse is centred around these unreal, but seemingly insurmountable, problems. People react with more fear, and fury. As a result, Trump ends up at the threshold of power, pulverising his party in the process, Britain may indeed leave the EU, leading to exactly the kind of economic disaster that populists pretend Britain now faces, and the European Union may fall apart into smaller groupings of countries, none of which can realistically solve the refugee problem on their own. The self-emasculation of mainstream politics, out of fear of being beaten at the polls, will end exactly where populists intended to drive it.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.