Events & News


Fear and Fury: How Europe respond to anxious and angry voters


by Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (Director, EU Centre in Singapore)

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or the EU Centre in Singapore.

A printable version of the commentary is available HERE.

On 9th of May 1950 Robert Schuman, then foreign minister of France made a statement calling for French and German production of coal and steel to be put under one common High Authority as the first step to eliminate the age-old rivalry between France and Germany in making war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible” between them.

French and German leaders in 1950, faced with anxious and angry voters still struggling to overcome the devastation and destruction wrought by World War II, took a bold step and made a solemn promise to bring about peace, reconciliation and reconstruction to continental Europe. 68 years from now, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) created following the Schuman Declaration has evolved to what is known as the European Union (EU) today.

Today, the EU despite its overall success in bringing about peace and prosperity to 28 member states and 508 million citizens is faced with a rising tide of anxious and angry voters because of a multitude of challenges. Instead of offering solemn pledges to deal with the challenges the Union and the member states face, some politicians are simply fanning the fears, anxieties and anger of the voters leading to xenophobia, euroscepticism and the Brexit vote in the UK.

No political leaders could or should ignore the anxieties and insecurities of their citizens in the shadow of rapid socio-economic changes. There are genuine reasons for the fear and fury arising from economic dislocations as a result of technological changes, increased foreign competition, rising inequality due to market triumphalism and increasing financialisation and de-industrialisation of the economies, cultural displacement and anxiety from large scale immigration.

As the EU commemorates Europe Day on the 9th of May it is time to reflect on how the EU and its member states should respond to the fear and fury of their citizens. However, as the largest trading bloc, and an important global player, in thinking of its “domestic agenda”, the EU should also ponder its global responsibilities in this trying times when global peace and stability is increasingly threatened by disruptions brought about not only by technology but an unpredictable America, a revanchist Russia and an assertive China. It is revealing to note that the Schuman Declaration 68 years ago began with this poignant sentence “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”.

From Economic Community, European Union to a Practical Union?
“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. …”

The EU is a work in progress. It began with the pooling of coal and steel production under the ECSC as noted, and then in 1957, with the signing of the Treaties of Rome, the European Economic Community (EEC) came into effect in 1958. The Single Market with the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – created unprecedented economic integration and growing political interdependence. However, while overall the economic integration project has been considered successful, the political and in particular the sociocultural consequences are not always as intended. Social and cultural integration for instance has not followed economic integration.

The EU has not yet realised the vision of a politically and socially united Europe. Instead with the advent of the financial crisis in 2007-8 and the ensuing euro debt crises, the last decade has exposed the cracks in the European project. Austerity measures imposed in the wake of the financial crises, rising inequality with the relentless pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the unprecedented refugee crisis triggered by the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa had led to backlashes against the EU for its handling of these crises.

While eurosceptism and sentiments against the EU have subsided in the wake of Brexit, and sustained economic recovery in 2017 have begun to generate a more positive mood in the EU, much still needs to be done to turn the tide against populism and reassure the citizens of their future in the EU. The broad answer to this is to forge a better Europe – one that focuses on delivering concrete benefits and taking measures to protect the citizens in order to allay their fears and anxieties. Taking small, practical steps to reinforce the social contract to protect the most vulnerable and the losers of globalisation, strengthening external borders against potential terrorists, better border control and burden sharing to manage migration, intelligence cooperation to deal with radicalisation, among others are all necessary to rekindle the faith in the European project.

While the EU focuses its attention on addressing the discontents within Europe, it needs to be aware how its internal direction would have an impact on regional and global dynamics.

A Global Europe in a Changing World
Europe cannot close itself to the outside world. Even in 1950, Schuman recognised the importance of an open Europe and its responsibility to the world.

“This production will be offered to the world as a whole without distinction or exception, with the aim of contributing to raising living standards to and promoting peaceful achievements. …”

As Europe enters the 21st century where power is much more diffused and norms and values that the EU promote and subscribe to are being challenged, the response cannot be to build borders and disengage.

Even with Brexit, the EU remains a formidable economic power, second to the US. The EU is the top trading and investment partner of all key Asian economies – China, ASEAN, Japan, Korea and India. The EU has the necessary resources, knowledge and innovative capacity to compete in the global economy and as a regulatory power it must become more resolute in defending the rules-based multilateral trading order. Trade is in the DNA of the EU, and free trade has benefited and lifted millions in Asia out of poverty.

Beyond trade, the EU in the face of the threats by Trump to undermine the transatlantic security alliance has taken steps to ensure its own strategic autonomy and invest more in defence and security.

In approaching the outside world, the EU needs also to become more pragmatic. And instead of spending time debating what kind of global order, the EU should be more focused on specific objectives that can be achieved by working with different partners – to prevent spread of nuclear weapons, avoiding major trade wars by maintaining an open economic system, and working to achieve global climate goals, etc. Principled pragmatism as presented in the 2016 EU Global Strategy is the way to go.

On the 68th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, the EU should above all be proud of what it has achieved thus far. At the same time, it has to reflect on the challenges and embraces the changes needed to respond emphatically to voters’ concerns without undermining its own values and the responsibility of being an important actor in an increasingly inter-connected world.