Only serious reform will avoid more exits from the European Union

A lack of constructive critique of the EU’s failings is giving rise to widespread European populism and dissent. Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Since the announcement of the Brexit result, there has been considerable debate about the rise of populism in both the UK and Europe. The success of Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in having a leading role in the UK referendum – and rejecting European Union membership for the UK – has stunned many observers. For a long time he has spoken of the EU as a failed project, a burning building.

Farage’s euroscepticism, like that of many members of the British Conservative Party, rejects the very idea of the EU. This stance resonated on June 23 with voters who were influenced by simple and questionable slogans about getting money back from Brussels and taking control of borders.

The UK is not the only country in Europe to be gripped by euroscepticism, although it is the only country to have entered into a serious debate about leaving the EU. There are many populist parties across Europe, most of which are eurosceptic in tone and oppositional in rhetoric. They have flourished in an economically weakened EU in the grip of perpetual austerity.

Populist parties across Europe have mobilised support by arguing that immigration and free trade represent a real threat to national economies, borders and security. There has been a resurgence of extreme nationalism and populism since the Eurozone crisis and, more recently, the refugee crisis.

In some member states such as France, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and Austria, populist anti-EU parties have made significant electoral gains. Since the Brexit vote, there have been calls for referendums in France, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Hungary. These calls will surely encourage EU powerbrokers to adopt a tough position on Brexit negotiations in the knowledge that a soft landing for Britain will have unintended consequences for the rest of the EU.

Economic hardship, racism and xenophobia are presenting challenges for social cohesion in many of the EU member states. Many political leaders are rapidly losing the trust of their people as populism hardens contestation into rejection of the EU’s objectives and achievements that have been cultivated through 60 years of European integration.

At the same time the EU is not dealing well with questions about its democratic legitimisation. Citizens currently have few opportunities to engage with the EU. The opportunities that do exist are little known or irrelevant to most people, demonstrating the EU’s shortcomings in communicating with citizens.

The success of an uncompromising euroscepticism, as represented by the Brexit vote, has in effect drowned out the voices of those who are critical of the EU yet who do not wish to leave it. We are talking about popular contestation of the EU by those who wish to change it, not exit.

Albert Hirchman wrote of the choices of exit, voice or loyalty when dissatisfied with an organisation. The UK choice of exit has been made. There is a second choice: to remain loyal to the EU with all its faults, which is proving to be increasingly difficult.

Is there not a third choice? There is – it is called voice. The voices of contestation do exist – they want a reformed EU, an EU with what is often called a public space or public sphere.

We therefore suggest that there is scope for challenge of the constructive kind – giving voice to objections about the way the EU is managing its affairs and the perceived policy failure of the EU and the nation state. The EU can, and must, be changed from within.

We believe that the EU’s continuing viability is dependent on its ability to transmit its values and to deliver on its essential function as a producer of public goods. Those good were not adequately recognised during the UK referendum campaign. The public goods for which the EU is known include workers’ rights, health and food safety regulations, the right to maternity leave and gender equality, and rights of minorities, among many others.

There is doubt as to the UK’s continuing commitment to some of these rights, freedoms and regulations. There is growing citizen hostility towards elite or “expert” solutions, even if these are beneficial to British or Greek or Spanish regions, for example.

Instead, there is populist appeal to something called “common sense”. This is part of the electoral successes of populist political parties and movements in many EU states, which have successfully tapped into the rhetoric of anti-elitism and dislike of “career” politicians.

This all forms part of the EU’s crisis of legitimacy. The precarious nature of European society in terms of security of employment, work opportunities and class division remains high. Regions and social groups feel alienated from the EU processes of decision-making.

Will European leaders come to an understanding that it is OK, even beneficial, to criticise the EU? Will they admit that the EU has little relevance to many citizens?

It is time to learn from the past. Populism can lead to exclusionism and even fascism. Appeals to a glorious past of British sovereignty will not solve unemployment and problems of poverty and access to just social policy.

The EU promotes itself as a community of values – of solidarity, fairness, justice and equality. But these values are not clearly in evidence to many who wish the EU to be better. What we are seeing a great deal of in the EU are ideological contradictions, with many conservative forces seeking to dismantle it.

We are witnessing a lack of constructive opposition to the problems of EU policymaking; a lack of social consensus. There is widespread dissent with very few opportunities for people to voice their dissent in ways that lead to constructive rather than abrupt or irreversible change.

The time has come for critical friends of the EU to influence decision-making, to contest xenophobic populism and to mount a structured reform of the EU.

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