EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

  • Since the advent of the financial crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015, populism and Euroscepticism has gained traction within the EU, particularly amongst the member states that joined the EU in its 2004 expansion.
  • With this surge of populism, authoritarian state leaders have risen to challenge the foundations of the EU itself; liberal democracy.
  • The European Union was founded on the principles of liberal democracy; the Copenhagen criteria assures that all members adhere to acceptable standards of democratic governance, human rights, market economies, and obligations to the EU.

However, antidemocratic illiberal sentiment has begun to creep in from the interior of the union. This not only goes against the founding principles, but also threatens the future of European integration.

Members of the European Union enjoy four freedoms. With the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital, there is a greater sense of cohesion within the regional community. The job market has been opened to foreigners, the populations of many nations are comprised of citizens from other countries, and internal markets are permeated by outside goods. Therefore, some states have begun to fear for their own national identity.

The quest for national sovereignty is at the forefront of this debate. The sentiment that nations may be losing their identity has forged a path for the rise of populism.

The form of populism seen in Poland, Hungary, and Italy, directly challenges the Copenhagen criteria. Policies of xenophobia, disrespect for human rights, especially those of minority populations, and the abandonment of the rule of law are threats to the integrity of the European Union. They go against the institutions that have and continue to contribute to European success.

This political trend in large part stems from an influx of migration and economic inequality. Countries under the influence of populism are under the impression that these maladies have arisen because of the European Union. This is because populist leaders have used the European Union as punching bag for their own political purposes. Through politicizing this issue, they have begun to manipulate their citizens against supporting the EU. This populist ideal is outdated. In the age of globalization, it is no longer conceivable to rely solely on one’s own country. A nation’s wellbeing relies significantly on their relations with their partners. Countries within the European Union, especially actors such as Hungary and Poland, benefit greatly from their membership in the Union through funds. The question of how to combat these dangerous politics is difficult to address, but an answer is crucial.

As for Hungary and Poland, the issue seems to be more advanced and more radical. These nations are currently some of the largest beneficiaries in the EU. However, at their current state, they are acting like the problem child of the EU family.

The EU budget should not reward these difficult countries with a continuously large share of the carefully designed budget. These economically lagging nations would be put in a precarious situation if cut significantly from EU funding.

However, the rhetoric of Mr. Orban and PiS does not align with the values held by the European Union. Their offensive and frightening tirades should be subject to assessment procedures and, if found to be undermining the fundamental principles of the EU, sanctions. The EU must draw the line and communicate that such policies will not be tolerated or rewarded. Budgetary sanctions stemming from the apparent legal issues in Hungary and Poland seem to be the most efficient way to combat this populist threat. It is highly unlikely that either Hungary or Poland would decide to leave the EU, even if they are subject to sanctions. Despite their big talk, they are acutely aware that they, and their entire economies, are highly dependent on the European Union and its funds.

In an effort to preserve the integrity of the European Union, measures must be taken against these harmful populist regimes. The disregard for liberal democracy, human principles, and the protection of human rights threatens the validity of the Union in Europe and internationally.

It is important that now, in the face of multiple populist threats, the EU takes decisive action and make a stance leaving no uncertainty that such tactics will not be tolerated. In the quest for a better-integrated Europe, populism has no place.

Rachel Warren

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