- The Great European Unraveling?
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The United Kingdom woke up to a new political and economic reality on June 24. Having narrowly voted the day before to leave the EU, Britons watched on as a vote for Brexit sent the British pound into a tailspin, dropping to its lowest level in 31 years. But the result of the referendum—won by the leave camp by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin—was not a disaster for all: Populist right-wing groups across Europe, including the U.K. Independent Party (UKIP), which did much to spur anti-EU sentiment in the run up to the U.K. vote, moved quickly to exploit the chaos. [End Page 68]
France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen described events across the English Channel as the beginning of a “People’s Spring.” Her fellow travelers across the continent—such as the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Germany’s Frauke Petry, and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache—called for referenda similar to the U.K.’s. The far-right Danish People’s Party declared the EU “without a doubt” the greatest threat to inhabitants of the Nordic nation.
The Brexit result does not necessarily mean the beginning of the end for a united Europe. Many Europeans who grew up not knowing border controls or currency exchanges remain optimistic about the future of the EU—but not all. A sizable chunk of Europe’s youth have not seen their economic prospects improve of late and as a result may be attracted to the populist messages offered by anti-EU groups.
To this group, EU leaders must present an alternative, giving them a voice in Europe’s future while creating opportunities for them to reap the benefits of the economic bloc’s accomplishments.
It is a counter effort that is long overdue. For decades, mainstream parties either sought to actively exclude or passively ignore the small opposition parties running on platforms of stricter immigration, a return to traditional family values, and stronger national identity. Social scientists who studied the emergence of Europe’s “new right” in the 1980s and 1990s dismissed them as “single issue” parties, whose appeal would fade once the issue they campaigned on was resolved.
Meanwhile, a narrow focus on fulfillment of the European dream from political elites blinded mainstream parties to the building anti-EU resentment among their own constituencies.
But events have made the march of Europe’s anti-EU right impossible to ignore. The aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, which saw harsh austerity measures foisted on already struggling southern European countries, revealed cracks in the EU project. At the same time Germans objected to their tax dollars bailing out member states deemed fiscally irresponsible, Greeks protested painful cuts in social programs.
An uncoordinated response to the refugee crisis—which in 2015 alone saw more than 1 million people enter Europe—further highlighted EU disunity. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared an open door policy for refugees, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban sealed borders and refused to accept any EU-mandated quota.
As the EU muddled through the last eight years in crisis management mode, many became disenchanted with the bloc’s ability to deliver growth and protect its borders. At the same time, terrorist attacks in France, Germany, and Belgium have rattled any sense of security. [End Page 69]
Center-left and center-right parties are still failing to provide a credible blueprint for Europe’s future. Mainstream politicians too often rely on the worn-out trope of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace”—a phrase that spoke to generations that remembered World War II and the Cold War. But younger Europeans are searching for a vision for the future that speaks to their values now, not to ideals that emerged out of past calamities.
The advent of the EU ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity in what had been a war-torn continent. Today’s young...