What makes European politics particularly interesting is that politics plays out at different levels of government. At the local level, governments are learning how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, but before that spent considerably time attempting to regulate tourism, like Airbnb, or manage housing issues. At the regional level, areas like Catalonia are attempting to gain more authority from their central governments. At the national level, politicians must grapple with all these issues and more, like immigration, taxation, and even the politics of the EU itself! At the highest level, the European one, all of these issues are present. While the European Union likes to operate on the basis of consensus, where all or most members agree on the same path, national governments’ positions on EU issues often reflect what is going on in their home countries’ politics.
In this final chapter, we will take a glance at four ongoing issues in European Politics.
The United Kingdom has always had a hot and cold relationship with the European Union. It was a late joiner in 1973 after the first application was denied in the 1960s by French President Charles de Gaulle. While it was a member, it has been an advocate for wider, not deeper, integration, opting to expand the free trade zone but often stepping back from commitments like joining the Eurozone and Schengen agreement. While it was in the single market, there are still border controls when entering and leaving the U.K. and one has to convert euros to pounds. The origins of the Brexit vote come from a promise the Conservative party made to members that there would be a simple yes or no vote on British membership in the European Union in the mid – 2010s.
The Brexit campaign was bitterly fought on both sides, and the effect of politician’s rhetoric around Brexit unquestionably played a role in forming the public’s attitudes. Importantly, political parties were often split over the issue; the Conservative Party remained neutral, while the Liberal Democrat and Labour Party’s official stance was for Remain. The Prime Minister, David Cameron (Conservative), publicly supported Remain. Boris Johnson, then mayor of London and current Prime Minister of the UK, also campaigned for Brexit in 2016, and was elected as PM in 2019 with the promise to get Brexit done. Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, was a strong advocate of the leave campaign. One Leave campaign bus was painted with “350 million pounds for the NHS [National Health Service]” implicitly arguing that the money the UK was using to pay into the EU could instead by invested into health care in the UK. He disavowed this pledge shortly after the referendum.
The political rhetoric supporting Brexit stoked anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiments and connected those attitudes to national identities. The combination of these attitudes played a major role in the decision to leave the European Union. While anti-immigration attitudes existed before the Brexit referendum, politicians and some media outlets linked immigration to the European Union. They supported a narrative that the U.K. could curb immigration if it was not subject to the free movement principle of the E.U. This was particularly appealing to those who held strong national identities and who have a conceive of their national identity as excluding immigrants or those who are culturally different. These people see immigration as threatening the social fabric of the nation. This rhetoric was also combined with an economic message arguing immigrants and the EU were taking jobs and resources away from the native-born British. One study post-Brexit has found that those living in places with rapid rates of change in immigration, combined with anti-immigrant attitudes, were strong predictors of Leave votes.
The term “populism” has been used to describe the movement for Brexit. Populism is not itself a political ideology, but rather an appeal made by politicians that pits the “pure everyday citizen” versus a “corrupt elite.” The anti-establishment rhetoric was closely connected to issues of ‘freedom’ and UK sovereignty. The European Union does reduce a country’s ability to make independent decisions, especially when it comes to trade and issues related to the single market. Countries do have to pay money into the European Union’s budget, and EU countries have in the past agreed to bailouts in the wake of the Eurozone crisis that began with financial collapse in 2008. However, much of that money also returns to the UK and other countries in the form of grants, subsidies, and investments, for example from the Regional Development Funds.
The both anti-immigrant and establishment messages were linked to national identity. But national identity in the United Kingdom is complex because the U.K. is comprised of several national groups: the Welsh, English, Scottish, and Irish. English identity – which is not necessarily held by all English – became most commonly associated with anti-immigrant and pro-Brexit sentiment, while Scottish and Irish identity reduced support for Brexit. Some UK citizens with strong European identities also had very low levels of support for Brexit.
In the end, the vote was to leave the UK, by a narrow margin of 52-48. Political scientists have sought to make sense of this vote. Studies often find that the strength of a British identity was associated with a propensity to vote leave, and that “remainers” tended to be better educated, younger, and in urban areas. These differences, according to Sara Hobolt, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, maps onto a divide between the “winners” and “losers” of globalization. Regional differences also mattered. As we discussed earlier, Scottish and Irish identities were more pro-Remain, and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, even while the overall vote was for Leave. This has sparked a renewed interest in pursuing Scottish independence, on which a failed referendum was held in 2014.
What are the main issues around Brexit?
While the vote to leave the EU took place in 2016, the process is still incomplete four years later, demonstrating how difficult it is to untangle the UK from the European Union. There have been several major sticking points. First is the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Second is what will happen to the EU citizens who live and work in the UK, and conversely for UK citizens living in the EU. Third is what a future relationship between the EU and the UK will look like.
The issue of the 310-mile Ireland – Northern Ireland border has a deep and troubled history. After Irish independence, the mostly Protestant Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. Religious and nationalist conflict between Protestant Northern Irish and Irish Catholics, known as the Troubles, was a low-grade war fought along the Northern Irish border for several decades that was ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The battles centered on the rights and position of Catholic Irish nationalists (meaning those who wanted for Northern Ireland to be a part of the Republic of Ireland) in Northern Ireland versus the Unionists who wanted British control over Northern Ireland. The British army was also sent to Northern Ireland to perform counter-insurgency activities and policing, primarily to combat Irish nationalists. The Irish nationalists, on the other hand, engaged in guerilla warfare against the Unionists and British. This conflict was resolved eventually, but not after significant loss of life. A critical part of the resolution was an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This open border was potentially threatened by Brexit. If the UK were to leave the single market, the EU and UK would need to impose border controls to collect duties on goods and to monitor the movement of people across this border. This has been partially resolved. Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union to preserve movement across the Irish borders, which creates a customs border down the Irish Sea, where goods passing from NI to the UK (and vice-versa) would be subject to tariffs and duties.
A second issue revolved around the rights of British nationals and EU citizens living in the EU and UK. As a part of the free movement principle, EU citizens can live and work anywhere in the EU, including in the U.K. As a result, many EU citizens live in the United Kingdom and many UK nationals live in the continental European Union. Brexit would threaten to take away that right, and negotiations have guaranteed the right of these people already living in the UK or EU to remain there.
A third sticking point is about what a future relationship between the UK and EU will be post-Brexit. The Withdrawal Agreement that went into effect on 31 January 2020 resolved several of the issues mentioned above and set a timeline for withdrawal, which is to conclude at the end of 2020. During this transition period, leaders from the UK and EU have negotiated the future of the relationship while the UK remained in the customs union and single market. If the two did not come to an agreement, it would mean the UK suddenly crashing out of the single market. But the two did come to an agreement just a week before the deadline, which retains a free trade area but reimposes barriers to trade like customs declarations, regulatory checks, and export health checks on products moving between the EU and UK.
The Consequences of Brexit
While many consequences of Brexit will not be known for years to come, the uncertainty associated with Brexit has already affected the UK, and the issue has remained a top political issue since the referendum. In the lead up and aftermath of the vote, several multi-national corporations with offices in London said they were considering or in the process of moving their European offices from London to Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or other major European financial and economic centers. These companies often cited concerns about the free movement of goods, people, and money that would come along with the re-imposition of stricter immigration controls, import and export tariffs, and money controls. For companies that relied on British access to the single market, the consequences of a no-deal Brexit or even one that makes trade significantly more difficult could be catastrophic. Most assessments, however, see a slight to moderate negative impact on the British economy.
What is climate change and why is it an important issue?
Climate change has already and will continue to affect societies around the world, and scientists are increasingly certain it will have dramatic consequences for the way we live. Climate change is often referred to as global warming, meaning the average temperatures on earth are rising as a result of increased carbon and greenhouse gas outputs from a range of sources. But really, climate changes will result in greater climate variability. Some places will experience drier and warmer conditions, while others may experience cooler and wetter climate patterns.
Europe is facing several environmental pressures related to climate change. It has melted glaciers in the Alps, threatening the winter skiing tourism industry and increased the strength and frequency of forest fires on the Iberian peninsula. The Netherlands, only half of which is more than a meter above sea level, is threatened by rising sea levels. The Gulf Stream, a current that draws warm water from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to Europe, is part of the reason Europe has a warmer and milder climate than Canada, despite being at a similar latitude. Climate change threatens to weaken or slow this current, with dramatic implications for agriculture. Some currently productive areas will be subject to desertification as rainfall decreases. In turn, some areas are threatened not only in terms of climate, but in the implications it carriers for their economic well-being.
What are different EU countries doing to combat climate change?
Europe was the home to the industrial revolution, which relied on the harvesting of fossil fuels. But it has also been home to the first large political parties dedicated to fighting climate change. In 1980, German activists and politicians founded the German Green Party, which is today the strongest Green party in Europe. Almost every European country now has a party with an environmental focus, and in many countries they are key to electoral alliances.
Although these parties may not have been leading governments, their voices have certainly raised awareness of climate change and advocated for measures to curb climate emissions. In 2019, Germany passed a major climate initiative aimed at reducing emissions and investing in new technologies. Spain has passed a similar initiative to be carbon neutral, and invested heavily in solar energy. It is important to note that while action is being taken, critics in Green and other parties say many of these policies do not go far enough. As a major industrial group of countries, the European Union faces opposition from car and other manufacturers, who have opposed steep cuts in emissions. They argue there is a difficult tradeoff between carbon emissions and economic output.
The EU has also created initiatives to curb climate emissions. The European Green Deal is a set of initiatives aimed at making Europe carbon-neutral by 2050, and to enshrine carbon neutrality in EU law. This will be achieved through a combination of reductions in emissions paired with investments in new research and technologies. It includes an EU Emissions Trading Scheme for carbon emitters, which is a cap and trade scheme that will help reduce carbon emissions. Early research shows that it has been effective. It also includes national targets based on historical emissions; the largest emitters in Europe – the more industrial western European countries – have more to cut.
Europe has always been a continent of immigration, and has remained an important political issue in the European Union. Since the World War II era, there have been two important “waves” of migration. The first was intended to fill labor shortages in Western Europe after the death of working age men during World War II, but had unintended consequences. As a result, many countries invited workers from Turkey, Morocco, and the developing world to come work in their countries in new factories to support increased industrial output. These men’s families eventually gained the right to join them in Europe. Former guest workers and their descendants today comprise between five and ten percent of Western European populations.
A major challenge of immigration is how to integrate newcomers to their new host societies. Integration of migrants contains many components, including economic integration (getting the skills necessary to work in a new environment), social (customs and language), and political (participation in civic life). How to best do this has been a subject of significant political debate. Countries have taken different approaches, at times promoting multi-culturalism, the idea that multiple cultures can and should live in harmony and respect for one another while maintaining cultural differences. Others – notably France – have an assimilationist approach, or the idea that migrants should give up their previous identities and cultures when migrating.
For the first decades after World War II, European countries did not see themselves as destinations for migrants, and their laws were written accordingly. European citizenship in many countries is granted on the basis of descent, rather than place of birth. In the United States, any citizen born in the country is a citizen, which is not the case in Europe. For several generations, these migrants had residency status, but were excluded from citizenship in their host country. Political Science research has shown that naturalization and the granting of citizenship rights results in better integration outcomes for citizens.
More recently, between 2015 and 2016 European publics have seen over a million refugees from Syria and the Middle East migrate to Europe. Refugees are different from other kinds of migration because it carries with it a particular definition and international law to back it. The Geneva Convention, signed in the wake of World War II, defined a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Signatory countries agree to protect these individuals if these claims are approved and to not send refugees back to their home countries.
Their livelihoods destroyed by civil war, many of them left their homes with little and took a very dangerous journey over sea and land to get to Western Europe. You can read about one refugees’ perilous journey to Europe here. Many attempted to cross the Aegean Sea, where dramatic images emerged of migrants drowning or narrowly escaping capsized boats. There was a rise in human trafficking that sold migrants passage to Greece, often for thousands of dollars apiece. After arriving in Greece, they went by bus, foot, or train to Western Europe.
This was a major challenge for the European Union, in part because the authority over migration mostly remain in the hands of its member countries. The EU sought to coordinate the placement of refugees through a quota system across the union so as to spread the burden of processing, accommodating and integrating refugees into their host societies. This agreement did not succeed because of the reactions of national governments and citizens to the idea of welcoming potentially tens of thousands of refugees in the country. Many countries argued they could not take the financial burden. Others, particularly in Eastern Europe, leveraged anti-immigration sentiment to prevent consenting to this deal. In the end, Sweden and Germany accepted the overwhelming majority of refugees. In 2016, the EU agreed to a deal with Turkey, whereby Turkey agreed to keep refugees in Turkey, limiting the flow to Greece and the EU.
The reactions in the European Union were mixed. The humanitarian disaster captured many European hearts and minds, and major campaigns began to collect basic necessities and to welcome migrants as they arrived in Western Europe. German chancellor Angela Merkel declared all migrants welcome, saying that Germany as a country can successfully accept and integrate refugees into society. However, xenophobic reactions also emerged, with calls for them to be deported or their asylum claims denied.
Migration as a Political Issue
Migration has reshaped European politics in every EU country. Historically, parties and politics focused on issues related to the economy, like taxation and social safety nets. But the political and social challenge posed by globalization, which includes European integration and immigration, have forced parties to take positions on these issues. As a result of the increased importance of immigration and the EU, a stark divide has emerged between supporters and opponents of immigration. In particular, this period has seen the rise of anti-immigrant parties and populist politicians.
Migration as a political issue tends to be talked about in two ways: as an economic and cultural/social issue. Migrants, particularly from the Middle East, tend to be Muslim and more socially conservative, and lack the necessary language and/or job skills to participate in the labor market. In certain places in Europe, they are the fastest growing parts of the population, which means native citizens notice the change in a dramatic way.
The “threat” of migration is similar to the perceptions of threats posed by the European Union. Both challenge the idea that a nation is an autonomous and sovereign body and that there is an essential or traditional way of life in need of being defended. The European Union’s free movement principle has come under fire because it allows for free labor migration from poorer parts of the Union to richer areas. A major part of the Brexit campaign was that the EU was an expensive cost for countries, which might have otherwise been used on its citizens. Migration is perceived by some as disturbing the social fabric of a country and its effects are often compared to a nostalgic vision of society that never truly existed. A key flashpoint is often over cultural practices from conservative societies, like head coverings for women. In a twist, the radical right in the Netherlands has campaigned against migration it says in order to preserve the sexual liberties of women and LGBT individuals.
This has not been lost on politicians. Politicians have leveraged it as an issue, and it has been an important topic of debate for the past decade or more. Immigration, like Brexit, is another example where populist rhetoric has emerged. Again, populism is not itself a political ideology, but rather an appeal made by politicians that pits the “pure everyday citizen” versus a “corrupt elite.” These politicians capitalize on the fact that most other parties generally supported labor and other migration, and transformed these attitudes into new parties generally considered on the radical right. In nearly every EU country there is now a radical right party that campaigns mostly on anti-immigrant issues.
What defines these attitudes? Those with anti-immigrant attitudes tend to be less educated, have fewer ‘globalizing experiences’ like study abroad, knowing another language, and travelling abroad, and are somewhat older. They also often earn less money or are affected by changing economic structures like the decline in manufacturing and economic stability associated with it. But the major thing dividing these groups is education. Education has the potential to transform someone’s world view, give them abilities and reasons to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and strengthens their skillset to compete in a global economy.
What is democracy? What differentiates democracies around the world? While many countries have democratic institutions, like legislatures and elections, not all of them meet the standards of liberal democracy, which the European Union uses as a marker of governance. A liberal democracy includes the elements of democratic governance (free and fair elections, turnover of political power, respect for civil rights, rule of law) but critically also entails respect for individual and minority rights and freedoms.
Unfortunately, after twenty or so years of democratic governance in Eastern Europe, democracy is again threatened, particularly in Hungary and Poland, where dramatic reversals have taken place in the past few years. Here, the definition of liberal democracy becomes important. Despite continuing to have elections and legislatures, the balance of power in these democracies is becoming more tilted towards those already in power. At the same time, opposition voices and institutions have been sidelined. According to several organizations monitoring the state of democracy around the world, Poland and Hungary have moved from belonging to the category “liberal democracy” to “illiberal democracies.”
Backsliding in Poland and Hungary
Poland and Hungary were once success stories of the transition from state socialism and authoritarianism under the USSR to liberal democracies with functioning market economies. These countries had strong resistance movements against communism and political organizations that pushed for political and economic reforms in the years following their independence in the early 1990s. The EU pushed for and funded organizations that would diversify the media coverage in that country. Once they met the criteria to join the EU, the EU opens several “chapters” to ensure compliance in the areas of justice, corruption, rule of law, etc. and each of these countries has since closed those chapters. By the time they joined the EU in 2004, all new states had successfully transitioned.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban and his party, Fidesz, have slowly eroded democracy. Fidesz and Orban himself used to be centrist figures that emerged as the country became independent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and were some of the stronger advocates for modernization and joining the European Union. After being in power for a while in the 1990s, they lost power for eight years, after which Orban emerged as a changed figure in 2010. During this time, Hungary had joined the European Union and weathered the global economic crisis.
The party – led by Orban – gradually drifted further and further to the right to harness the energy of nationalist sentiment. He has granted citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living outside of the country, angering its neighbors, particularly Slovakia and Romania, and has made a national issue out of the Treaty of Trianon, a century old treaty signed at the end of world war I in which Hungary lost much of its territory across Eastern Europe. The country has grown closer to Russia and mirrored his political tactics to both remain in power and reduce the voices of the opposition movements. In fact, he has openly embraced the term “illiberal democracy” and supported the idea by invoking national security and national sovereignty.
Concretely, Orban has changed democracy in Hungary in these ways. First, he has silenced the press. The government under his direction has sought to remove and jail critical journalists and force or take over media outlets. He has painted remaining critical media outlets as “anti-Hungarian” or foreign agents.There is now a pro-government media conglomerate (KESMA) which serves to distribute propaganda to keep his political regime afloat. You can read more about Hungary and freedom of the press here.
Second, his power is the largest and dominant party such that other parties are effectively sidelined in any political process. Moreover, this party has become synonymous with the government and state itself, such that there is little difference between those in the party and those in the bureaucratic institutions. In particular, he has used constitutional reforms beginning in 2011 and again in 2013 to subvert the rule of law. Through this process, the judiciary especially has become less independent and subject to political interference.
Corruption was a major challenge not just for Hungary, but for every post-Communist country. As state owned enterprises were privatized, this provided ample opportunity for former elites to get rich quickly. Corruption was reduced after the transition to democracy – but has re-emerged, with EU funding and other government funding being siphoned off to Orban’s allies.
Hungary has become a less welcoming place for those who belong to any minority group. During the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, Orban and his party have used their media outlets to amplify anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric, labeling refugees and migrants as criminals or terrorists. Orban and his outlets have regularly used anti-Semitic rhetoric, particularly referencing conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros, who has funneled money into opposition groups promoting freedom of the press in Hungary. In 2018, the parliament passed a law that made it more difficult for international organizations to provide aid to refugees and migrants, and in fact made it a crime to provide support to migrants.
During the COVID pandemic, he has operated under emergency powers – effectively allowing him to rule unchecked and by decree, rather than submit to parliamentary procedures and acknowledging opposition movements.
Poland has experienced similar change. At issue in Poland is the rise of a single dominant political party that uses populist rhetoric combined with anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric. The largest issue in Poland is therefore reduced political competition, which has come along with a less free press and a bias against opposition politicians and non-governmental groups. It has therefore weakened the institutional checks on power. The PiS has sought to reduce the independence of the media by bringing under political control the state-owned media’s broadcast agency.
A major judiciary reform initiated after the PiS, the ruling party, took over in 2015, forced into retirement senior judges who were against the party’s consolidation of power. Importantly, these reforms also allowed judges to be liable for their court rulings. The ruling party now controls the National Council of the Judiciary, which appoints judges to various courts.
Both of these countries look like democracies on paper. There are elections, there are opposition parties, and there are institutions that theoretically could challenge these powerful rulers. But these institutions have been captured by politics and allies of their ruling parties – especially bureaucracies and judicial branches meant to provide important checks on power. Second, while opposition politicians and media are technically still allowed, in practice the ability of opposition figured to be heard has been dramatically reduced.
The Role of the European Union
The European Union spent the better part of the 1990s encouraging eastern European countries to democratize and join the ranks of liberal democracies. How could these countries begin to slip so soon and under the EU’s watch?
As part of the process of joining the EU, countries must demonstrate they have made significant reforms away from a state-owned economy and authoritarian government to one that respects market economic principles and liberal democracy through reforms in the judiciary, regulatory bodies, and control of civil society. But once a country joins the EU, the EU loses much of its leverage against these countries. Because most decisions – for example to sanction one of these countries – requires consensus and can be vetoed by any country, it has been easy for either Poland or Hungary to do just that. This includes any move against the two, including removal from the EU, reductions in funding, or other sanctions. Nonetheless, the EU has initiated proceedings on its own through the European Court systems on individual issues.
Part of the answer is political. Both of the dominant parties in Poland and Hungary are members of a network of Conservative parties in the European Parliament – the EPP – or European People’s Party. So far, this group has not had the political will to sanction its own members for their actions against democracy, even as the EU itself attempts to crack down on their policies.