Europe's Self-Defeating Lurch to the Right

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) supporters hold Union Jack flags and placards as they take part in a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in central London in 2011 Photograph by Carl Court/AFP via Getty Images

Europeans are deeply depressed. That’s the conclusion of a recent Pew survey (PDF) about the state of Europe’s economy. In Spain, the percentage of the population suggesting that economic conditions are good has dropped from 65 percent to 4 percent since 2007. In the U.K., the figured has gone from 69 percent to 15 percent. Only Germans are more positive than they were in 2007. No wonder David Cameron is busy flying to anywhere but Europe to discuss global development and Francoise Hollande jetted off to Beijing to try to increase his country’s charcuterie imports. Staying home must just be too depressing.

Some Europeans are reacting to the poor economy by turning against integration—not only with the European Union but more broadly. What makes that grim news is that it occurs at a time when Europe is becoming more dependent than ever on global connections. Turning inward is probably the best way to guarantee that the region’s pessimism about its future will come true.

Europe does, of course, have a lot to be gloomy about right now: The EU’s economy shrank in 2012 and is forecast to shrink again this year. But the most striking aspect of the European mood is how many seem to have given up hope that things will improve. Two-thirds of Europeans suggest their children will be worse off than they are. That proportion reaches 90 percent in France.

Only in Germany, among countries surveyed by Pew, did the majority believe economic integration had strengthened their economy—and even there it was only 54 percent. In the past year, favorable opinion of the European Union has dropped by a median of 15 points across the countries that Pew surveyed, to less than 50 percent. In the U.K., in particular, exactly the same proportion favor staying in the EU as do leaving it—46 percent in either direction.

It isn’t just Europe that the Brits are increasingly keen to forget. The British Social Attitudes Survey reports (PDF) that in 1995, 39 percent of Britons felt the number of immigrants coming to Britain should be reduced “a lot.” By 2011 this had climbed to 51 percent, and fully three-quarters of the population was in favor of less immigration. Across Europe, German Marshall Fund surveys (PDF) have found a slow but steady rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, with the percentage of respondents saying immigration is more of a problem than an opportunity rising from 39 percent to 46 percent in France, for example.

You might think Europe’s turn away from integration and fellow-feeling is the inevitable product of the recession. Yet there’s some evidence that moves toward democracy are more likely to occur during periods of slow growth. The rapid transformation of American attitudes towards gay marriage –and the election of an African-American President— suggests that hard times don’t necessarily mean hardened social attitudes.

Recession is, however, a moment for new ideas to find an audience—and the ideas that are catching on in some European countries are those of the UK Independence Party and France’s Front National. The timing for a resurgence of xenophobia is awful. Europe’s share of global trade fell from 15 percent to less than 10 percent in just the first 10 years of the new century—which means it needs the rest of the world to sell things to. Meanwhile, a full third of Europe’s population will be retirement age by 2050, and there just won’t be many young people around to do the heavy lifting. If there was ever a time the region needed to be integrating more with the outside world to ensure economic prosperity, it is today. Whatever the recent failures of the European project, that broader truth remains undeniable.

The other reaction that many in Europe have had to the regional recession is increasing disenchantment with national leadership. Some of those leaders have responded by flirting with reactionary policy positions themselves. But as the rise of the UK Independence Party proves, if people want reactionary policies, they’ll just vote for the reactionary party. It might be better for mainstream politicians’ long-term prospects—and might show some actual leadership—if they laid out a positive vision of how integration could help get European countries out of the mess they are in.

It’s not too late. Polls across a number of countries suggest the median respondent remains in favor of at least some immigration, supports the euro, and is pro-trade. That reflects a long-term pattern of increased cosmopolitanism. There’s no need to laud yet another treaty passing ever more power to Brussels. But it’s time for Europe’s leaders to point out the benefits of Europe’s connections with the rest of the world. That shouldn’t be so hard for a bunch of people who spend so much time on the plane visiting it.

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