Populism Doesn't Mean the EU Will Fall Apart

Populist victories may be more likely to bring a transformation than disintegration of the union.

Fully committed.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The global populist revolution is widely seen as an existential threat to the European Union. The parties pushing it are mostly anti-EU, and after Brexit, more exits don't look impossible. It's probably wrong, however, to equate the strength of populist movements with anti-EU sentiment. 

Bertelsmann Stiftung, an organization that regularly measures attitudes toward the EU, has published the results of a new survey that show euroskepticism has receded throughout Europe after Brexit, including in countries where nationalist populists have recently won elections or may win them in the near future. A spate of recent political surprises has proved public opinion surveys increasingly useless, but one thing polls can still do accurately is indicate the direction in which opinion is moving. In that respect, the Bertelsmann survey's results are unequivocal.

Post-Brexit, the EU Looks Better

Share of population that would vote for their country to stay in the EU

Source: Bertelsmann Stiftung

The only big country where the EU's popularity went down between March and August was Spain, exhausted by its government crisis. Even in Italy, long one of the most euroskeptic countries in the bloc, support for the EU has edged up. Brexit, with all the uncertainty, the political infighting and the pound's dismal performance, has reminded Europeans why they backed a union in the first place. Faced with a choice between the often dysfunctional and interventionist Brussels bureaucracy and this, many people will take the known evil. 

There is, however, no corresponding drop in the popularity of nationalist-populist parties. It's been steady or rising throughout the EU. That looks like a logical disconnect, but it doesn't have to be. 

Poland is ruled by a populist, nationalist party with dictatorial tendencies that have Brussels concerned, if not exactly up in arms. And yet more than three quarters of Poles are pro-EU. Hungary's nationalist, authoritarian ruler, Viktor Orban, who has clashed with the EU on immigration policy and other matters, would never dare try to take his country out of the union. By contrast, the people who ensured a victory for "leave" in the U.K. weren't government figures. They needed a protest vote and they got one; it allowed them to come to power. Populists who win elections, not referenda, are already beneficiaries of protest. There's no point for them in going further: Instability is only useful in moderate doses to any pragmatic politician.

Even Donald Trump realizes the limits of populist policies, as he talks to a relatively broad spectrum of candidates for administration jobs, including some people who emphatically opposed him. It's highly unlikely Trump will take the U.S. out of its alliances just because he's more of an isolationist and anti-globalist than his predecessors.

That's why it's not a foregone conclusion that, if Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement wins (and gets to govern, which won't necessarily be the case) in Italy, there will be an EU referendum as the party has promised. Even a National Front victory in France won't mean automatic Frexit given that a clear majority support remaining in the EU at this point.

Instead of imagining the collapse of the EU under the onslaught of nationalism, it's useful to picture a different union in which some major member states are run by populist governments. It would probably be less values-oriented -- or less sanctimonious, as the politically incorrect populists would put it. It would be less geared toward common social and environmental policies -- but more interested in the terms of international trade. One could even see it turning more protectionist. It would be more security-centered, too, helping members protect common borders while also defending their right to move freely within the union. It might get tougher on "benefits tourism," fostering free movement for work but not for the harvesting of social aid.

It's difficult to imagine such a turnaround now, given the Brussels bureaucracy's current mood and makeup. But there are already seeds of this different kind of EU within the organization, given its increased bias against U.S. business, the efforts to enhance common border security and the willingness of key members such as Germany to compromise on the details of the free movement of people within the EU: They did, after all, offer the U.K. an "emergency brake" on social payments to EU immigrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is strongly pro-EU, is also in favor of a strong role for nation states in the organization -- something that would dovetail nicely with the populists' interests. 

The European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, doesn't appear to have drawn any lessons from Brexit -- its officials just appear vexed and offended by it. That doesn't mean, however, that the EU is unreformable: Changes in the leadership of key countries may eventually lead to change rather than disintegration. The change won't necessarily be for the better, but at least it will be more in line with the political shift the continent is going through. In that sense, the U.K.'s drastic move may have been premature.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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