Back to the Future (of the European Union)

Jeremy Thompson || CC 2.0

The politics of fear reign in the West. Globalization, international terrorism, financial crises, deindustrialization, and increasingly less stable labor market lead to the emergence of social anxiety that fuels right-wing populism. Its representatives try to lure voters with anti-EU, nationalist rhetoric, and a promise of security, which – according to them – will be ensured by building walls on the borders and introducing restrictive anti-migrant laws.

The future, according to populists, is one that should be deeply rooted in the past: in the golden times of nation states, when governments were capable of controlling all the social and economic processes. The problem with such a vision is that such a return to the past is impossible.

Although nation states are (and will probably remain) important instruments of creating social and economic world, re-nationalization of politics will not bring about the results anticipated by its advocates.

After all, we live in the age when many of the most urgent issues require supranational solutions. Exerting democratic control over financial markets, fighting terrorism or countering climate change are the kind of challenges in face of which nation states often lack instruments to tackle them. This is precisely why the populist politics of fear might lead us to a dead end.

Needed Solutions

Defending the status quo is not the answer either. Social anxiety and frustration used by right-wing populism stem from the shortcomings of globalization and European integration.

In the past two decades, anti-EU radicals managed to secure voter support in those regions of Western Europe where good jobs in industry disappeared, which was accompanied by a sense of social insecurity. The domination of institutions devoid of social mandate diminished trust in democratic institutions, whereas social dumping within the EU strengthened skepticism towards further integration.

Therefore, what we now need is politics of hope, which would show that the European project can be fashioned in a way that would be consistent with people’s expectations of what a good life shall look like.

We must move away from the integration paradigm of the past decades, which valued competition more than solidarity, and instead move towards harmonizing social policies, introducing European labor standards and EU minimal wage, putting a stop to the process of commercialization of public services, increasing the EU budget, and initiating a program of public investment.

The debate about the future of Europe can no longer focus on whether the final stage of integration is to be a federation, a kind of the United States of Europe, or rather a Europe of Nations. We can no longer be preoccupied with the question whether transferring the competencies of nation states to the European level is to be encouraged, or maybe it is subsidiarity that should be followed.

We must rather consider how best empower European citizens and enable them to voice their political will also on the EU level, which extends beyond the national sphere, so that all Europeans could decide what kind of Europe they wish to inhabit.

We should therefore do our utmost to strengthen the European Parliament and standardize electoral laws for selecting MEPs.

In the times when globalization blures the borders between states we cannot leave the citizens bound by a strict corset of both national political and social laws. It is time to start treating the European Union as a union of citizens, not as a union of states. Then we might realize that the interests of an average Pole, Frenchman, Greek or Estonian are usually quite similar. After all, everyone wants to have good working conditions, a fair wage or a chance to plan their future as they please.

This may be achieved by countering the logic of EU states competing for the lowest social standards. EU taxes (on financial transactions or environmental pollution) or common electoral laws for all EU citizens might be the instruments that would help achieve this goal.

Regional Focus

Regional support should be another key aspect of EU policy. In July, I wrote for Politico that EU funds that are being suspended due to violating basic values – such as the rule of law – should be then made available to local governments, enterprises, and non-governmental organizations via EU programs.

This may be achieved while by-passing state governments, thus sending a strong message to the ruling politicians that the scope of their power – including financial resources – will suffer if they do not respect the EU law.

Another positive side-effect of such a plan would be increasing grassroots activities for the benefit of local development and providing average Europeans with a stronger sense of being connected to Brussels. In order to achieve this, more EU funds are necessary. Funds that are actively aimed at the poorly developed regions and that might be redistributed by local governments.

False Sense of Stablility

The accession of Poland to the European Union back in 2004 was accompanied by a sense of relief (as the positive result was not set in stone) and understandable euphoria. Nevertheless, these feelings obscured our understanding of the fact that the first symptoms of the EU crisis was about to break out were already visible.

At that time, the Dutchmen and the French rejected in referendums the notion of introducing an EU constitution. Yet, these two cases did not cause a broader discussion among the Polish political elite. Lack of interest in the future of the EU became a common denominator for all political powers.

In Poland, the European narrative was based on protecting Polish interests in Brussels. The extent to which Polish European policy was successful was measured by the capacity to procure financial resources for local investments and placing Polish citizens in prestigious EU positions.

Now, when the European project stands at a historic crossroads what we need is a strong pro-EU voice from Poland. We need a strong political force that would present a strong vision of reforms.

The stakes are high and will affect not only the future of Poland in the EU, but rather the future of the entire EU community.

The article was originally published in the XXIXth issue of the Liberté! quarterly magazine (September 2018). Available [online]:

Translated by: Olga Łabendowicz

Robert Biedron