How could it have come to this? For the first time an anti-system and anti-European government has been formed in a founding Member State of the European Union (EU). Like previous elections in Europe, the Italian election has demonstrated once again that voter rejection of Europe is largely driven by a sometimes vicious campaign rhetoric against incumbent politicians and the EU’s failures, but also by the death of information about what the Union does in fact accomplish. Brussels simply leaves the average citizen cold.
In a modern Europe and a globalised world, it is regrettable and alarming that nationalist populist movements are gaining ground in nearly all Member States. Those of us who support Europe should not lose heart, but we must not bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem will go away. After all, populist parliamentarians have been democratically elected and the reason they excoriate Brussels is that the EU has failed to come up with practical ways to address deep-seated voter apprehensions about border security and migration and Europe’s cultural identity.
For decades, the EU has done much to ensure that Europeans can live together in peace. If it does not now demonstrate that it can bestir itself and take visible and decisive action instead of sticking to its usual bureaucratic routine, the gap between the institutions and citizens will further widen. Business as usual is a recipe for disaster. But how can the EU strike the right balance among the different interests of European states? Practical solutions are urgently needed and must be spelled out to the public, but there is also a need for trailblazing ideas. It doesn’t help that Brussels and the Member States are having to take their fate into their own hands at a time when they are largely unprepared to cope with the incipient collapse of the current international order – especially following the G7 meeting in Canada on 9 May 2018, which the US president torpedoed with his trademark tweets, bringing into sharp focus once again his determined efforts to undermine the rules-based international order and destabilise the EU. Shifts in the global trade and security framework call for European realpolitik. They also call for a realistic assessment of US economic and military power in light of the fact that the current occupant of the White House will have to pack his bags in just under seven years at the latest. Another seven years is not much more than one legislative period of the European Parliament. That is not a reassuring prospect, but it does set a time limit.
In the face of these global upheavals and crises at home, it is important for Europe to address two crucial issues that could, if solved, give it fresh momentum and pull the rug from under nationalist populist movements across the continent: security and defence. These are enshrined in Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and it is high time to flesh it out and give it real substance, particularly against the background of a possible paradigm shift in US security policy and the US attitude towards NATO. A decisive factor for Europe’s security, and the way electorates perceive it, would be a common guarantee of Europe’s external borders. How else can Europe be perceived as a strong player if it cannot protect its own borders with respect to human rights and migration policies based on burden sharing? A moral condemnation of populism is not enough. Instead, we must combat its causes.
2019 may be a decisive year for Europe. If Europe is to survive, it must virtually re-invent itself!
Hartmut Bühl, Editor-in-chief