Europe’s Splintered Union
In the wake of the Brexit vote, many Europeans are turning a fearful eye to anti-European movements elsewhere on the continent. In France, Marine Le Pen has announced her intention to withdraw France from the European Union if she wins the presidency in April 2017. Meanwhile, emboldened by the defeat of Matteo Renzi’s referendum on constitutional reform, Italy’s Five Star Movement is calling for a plebiscite on Italy’s Eurozone membership. These movements are gaining momentum and in order to understand what is fueling them, we need to move beyond traditional explanations for anti-EU sentiments.
Opposition to the European project is a bewildering phenomenon to some. Integration has removed barriers to trade, travel and communication, allowing greater freedom of movement and commerce in Europe than ever before. Europe has become a role model for other regions, showing how previously warring states can coexist in prosperity and peace. What’s not to like?
Conventional wisdom points to those who have not benefited from European integration. The so-called “losers” of regional integration and immigration – people who have lost (or fear losing) their jobs, or whose wages have stagnated – are opposed to the European project. Other standard explanations include cultural backlash against immigration derived from fears of losing cultural identities, and the notion that Europeans are simply dissatisfied with the way in which democracy functions in the EU.
These explanations provide a helpful starting point. But in order to capture the whole story, the following five trends must also be taken into account.
First, perpetual economic crisis is eroding faith in the European project. According to surveys, trust in EU institutions has plummeted since the 2008 financial crisis and ever fewer people believe their country has benefitted from EU membership. Today, Eurozone GDP per capita is only slightly higher than before the crisis and unemployment still averages over ten percent, compared to just over seven percent in 2008. In debtor states like Greece and Italy, resentment is simmering over austerity imposed by the European Commission and the European Central Bank, while many citizens of creditor states like Germany and Austria feel victimized as supporters of the ‘undeserving’.
A second factor is the migration crisis. The burden of accommodating migrants and refugees has fallen so unevenly that it is now straining European unity. In 2015 alone, over half a million asylum applications were registered in Germany and over 100,000 in Italy and Hungary, while countries like Portugal and the Czech Republic received next to none. This is largely due to the Dublin Regulation, the law underpinning Europe’s Common Asylum System, which has ensured that states receiving the migrants first need to process the applications. This has allowed most states to shirk responsibility, while others are being pushed to breaking point.
A third point is that people feel increasingly estranged from political and economic institutions and the elites that run them. The convergence of left and right wing parties towards technocratism has created space for radical political parties to present themselves as alternatives to ‘the system’. Meanwhile, many Europeans feel patronized by elites, who demonize the lower classes yet seem incapable of responding to a series of social and economic crises.
Fourth, Europeans lack sufficient connection to a European identity. Despite the EU’s efforts to promote pan-European identity, one third of Europeans still do not identify as European citizens, and people who do not identify with Europe are far more likely to oppose integration than those with even mild identification. Meanwhile, the post-1945 “liberal/left consensus” in which the ideals of social equality and peace united the left and right, has been shaken by the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of neoliberalism and increasing immigration. With these changes, much of the public’s connection to the founding purpose of European integration has been lost.
Finally, misinformation and rising political disengagement has created fertile ground for populist, anti-establishment thinking. In particular, public dissatisfaction with the EU has grown as political parties skew statistics to blame the EU for socio-economic problems, exaggerating its role in domestic lawmaking, and framing immigrants as a threat. Such rhetoric is often riddled with misleading information, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party’s false promise that a Brexit would curb immigration and free up hundreds of millions of pounds for national healthcare expenditure.
People are liable to be persuaded by this kind of messaging when they are uninformed. And this is clearly an issue in Europe: one post-Brexit survey showed that the voting public was uninformed on central questions related to immigration and financial contributions to the EU budget. Similarly, surveys show that many Europeans have little understanding of how the EU works, with half of the European public even unaware that the European Parliament is an elected body.
The emergence of social media “echo chambers” and fake news are only set to make matters worse. Echo-chambers form when people’s own opinions are reinforced as one-sided news reports, posts, and tweets that reverberate personalized Facebook and Twitter accounts. Combined with the decline of professional journalism, and the rise of mindless, addictive activities online, these trends are undermining the public’s capacity to think critically and engage in political debate.
Europe is headed into uncertain times. Tackling the most obvious hurdle to integration, Europe’s financial and political crises, will require urgent migration reform and policies to boost inclusive economic growth. Overcoming disdain for elites will require political parties and governments to reinvent their relations with the public. Combating political apathy and disinformation will require multifaceted efforts in cyberspace, public spaces and schools. With hard work and a bit of luck, Europeans can still salvage their withering bonds of unity.
 John McCormick, Why Europe Matters: The Case for the European Union, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 2, 88.
 Neil Fligstein, Alina Polyakova and Wayne Sandholtz, “European Integration, Nationalism and European Identity,” Journal of Common Market Studies 50, no. S1 (2012): 118.
 Fligstein, Polyakova and Sandholtz, “European Integration, Nationalism and European Identity,” 116; Cas Mudde, review of Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right: The New Cultural Conflict in Western Europe, by Simon Bornschier (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010) and Immigration and Conflict in Europe, by Rafaela M. Dancygier (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 3 (2011): 663–5.
 Michael Gallagher, Michael Laver and Peter Mair, Representative Government in Modern Europe, 5th ed. (Maindenhead: McGraw-Hill Education Ltd., 2011), 155–6. Jose Ignacio Torreblanca and Mark Leonard, “The Continent-Wide Rise of Euroscepticism,” European Council on Foreign Relations, May 16, 2013, 6, www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR79_EUROSCEPTICISM_BRIEF_AW.pdf; Daniel Oesch, “Explaining Workers’ Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence from Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, and Switzerland,” International Political Science Review 29, no. 3 (2008): 349.
 John McCormick, Why Europe Matters, 73; Torreblanca and Leonard, “The Continent-Wide Rise of Euroscepticism,” 3; European Commission, “Standard Eurobarometer 75,” Spring 2011, 34, as cited by McCormick in Why Europe Matters, 72.
 Joseph Stiglitz, “The problem with Europe is the euro,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/10/joseph-stiglitz-the-problem-with-europe-is-the-euro; Tejvan Pettinger, “European unemployment crisis,” Economics Help, September 12, 2014, www.economicshelp.org/blog/1247/economics/european-unemployment-2/.
 Torreblanca and Leonard, “The Continent-Wide Rise of Euroscepticism,” 1.
 BBC News, “Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts,” March 4, 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911.
 Julian Lehmann, “Excuse Me, What’s the Fastest Way Out of Dublin?”, Global Public Policy Institute, June 18, 2016, www.gppi.net/publications/human-rights/article/excuse-me-whats-the-fastest-way-out-of-dublin/.
 Frank Furedi, “Populism: A Defence,” Frank Furedi, November 29, 2016, http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/populism_a_defence.
 European Commission, “European Citizenship,” Eurobarometer Report 83, Spring 2015, 15, ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb83/eb83_citizen_fr.pdf.
 Tanja A. Börzel, The Disparity of European Integration: Revisiting Neofunctionalism in Honour of Ernst B. Haas (New York: Routledge, 2005), 79; Neil Fligstein, Alina Polyakova and Wayne Sandholtz, “European Integration, Nationalism and European Identity,” Journal of Common Market Studies 50, no. 1 (2012): 118.
 Ian Buruma, “The Trouble with Europe,” Project Syndicate, May 15, 2014, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ian-buruma-traces-the-success-of-anti-european-populist-parties-to-the-absence-of-pan-national-solidarity.
 Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks, “Sources of Euroscepticism,” Acta Politica 42, no. 2 (2007): 125; McCormick, Why Europe Matters, 5; Fligstein, Polyakova and Sandholtz, “European Integration, Nationalism and European Identity,” 114; Sara B. Hobolt, Wouter Van der Brug, Claes H. De Vreese, Hajo G. Boomgaarden, and Malte C. Hinrichsen, “Religious intolerance and Euroscepticism,” European Union Politics 12, no. 3 (2011): 363.
 Alan Travis, “The leave campaign made three key promises – are they keeping them?”, The Guardian, June 27, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/27/eu-referendum-reality-check-leave-campaign-promises.
 McCormick, Why Europe Matters, 8.
 Gallagher, Laver and Mair, Representative Government, 131; European Parliament, “Results of the 2004 European elections,” accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html.
 Nina Khrushcheva, “Trump’s Brave New World,” Project Syndicate, November 15, 2016, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-reality-tv-politics-by-nina-l–khrushcheva-2016-11.
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