Some New Year’s thoughts on European populism and the EU

It’s New Year’s Day 2017 and we are, again, in transit. We’ve just left Seville, Spain and in less than an hour we’ll cross into Portugal and make our way up to Lisbon until we fly to Ireland on Friday for the last leg of our journey.

For a Cold War kid like me, it’s hard not to walk and travel around Europe in 2016 without thinking about the politically-fractured Europe of my youth. Had we visited Europe prior to 1989 we couldn’t have done half of the things that we’ve done over the course of the last five months. Romania was in the throes of a 40-year dictatorship, and while the Fulbright program was open for much of that time, I doubt I would have taken my family to live under a totalitarian regime. Karoli Gaspar University, the university in Budapest where I visited and taught a few classes in early November, was closed in the 1960s by the communist government on account of its faith-based mission. It wasn’t reopened again until 1993. Even visiting my friend, Todd Waller, and Regis student, Adleigh O’Neill, at Spring Hill College’s Bologna program wouldn’t have happened in that few universities in the 1980s were offering full-service, single-institution run programs like what Spring Hill is doing. We may have made it to Bratislava to visit Eva and here parents, but it would have been under very different circumstances as, then, Czechoslovakia was under a communist regime as well.

When the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989 and the Cold War effectively came to an end, Europe was on the cusp of an era that twentieth-century Europeans like the Stefan Zweig could only have dreamed of. With the fall of communism and the gradual expansion of the EU, borders and markets opened and the dream of a secular, unified Europe became a reality, at least for a time.

We benefitted economically from being in post-1989 Europe and most of those benefits are directly related to the EU.  The free trade and non-tariff barriers that EU countries enjoy keep prices of goods and services affordable. Yesterday, for example, we bought 22 Euros worth of groceries in Seville, Spain for our New Year’s Eve dinner. In the States, that would have cost double that. Of course some of that has to do with the relative strength of the US dollar. EU trade policies also allowed us to buy Italian clothes in Romania, Spanish wine in Slovakia and Italian and Spanish oranges in Austria. Beyond that, though, the collapse of communism and the benefits of EU membership have, from what I could see, made the Europeans nations we visited vibrant, open, interesting and very safe places to visit.

Waiting on a train in Milan

Underneath the ostensible laid-back optimism, safety and good will on the streets of any given major or minor European city, though, is a deep undercurrent of anxiety and frustration. Romanians told me about their frustrations with a corrupt political and economic system that is weighted against ordinary people and looks to many of them like the old Communist Party members in new suits. I talked with many Italians who expressed frustration and anger that there were no opportunities for the to succeed–many young, educated and ambitious Italians seek employment in other EU countries. And while Spain is a wonderful country to relax and enjoy the Spanish sunshine, it suffers from 23% unemployment.

I know that a majority of Americans who voted on 8 November in the States are still reeling from what happened on 9 November and are bracing themselves for what’s to come in 2017, and beyond. Europeans, on the other hand, have been dealing with far-right, populist movements for some time and in many ways, the new American populism looks a lot like European populism: both are soundly anti-pluralist, both fear immigrants, both use the term “the people” in an exclusionary manner and both are dangers to democracy.

European populists rail against the EU in the same way that American populists fume against Washington, DC and I wouldn’t be surprised if #45 was stealing his tweets from his kindred spirits in Europe. In early 2016, for instance, Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski condemned the previous Polish government (pro EU) for governing “as if the world . . .  were destined to evolve only in one direction—towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.” (Hey! That’s us!) Actually Waszczkowski’s anti-EU comment is probably too sophisticated for #45.

Watch out! A vegetarian cyclist in Milan. Very dangerous.

The US immigration issue looks like small potatoes compared to what Europe is struggling with right now. Some 60 million people are on the move in the world right now and a good chunk of them are moving north into Europe from war-torn, climate-ravaged African and Middle Eastern countries. European populist sentiments are, of course, directly related to these mass migrations and the anxieties they produce among many Europeans.

Already, the European immigration problem is affecting changes at many borders of EU member states. As I write, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Norway and Austria have instituted ‘temporary’ border controls. Hungary’s populist, anti-EU prime minister, Viktor Orban, erected a fence on the southern Hungarian border with EU money. All of these countries are Schengen members, meaning they have agreed to eliminate border controls between other EU member nations, except in extenuating circumstances and the the current immigration crisis is certainly a set of extenuating circumstances.

The Dacia Duster we drove across the Hungarian, Slovakian and Austrian borders without ever stopping at border control 

Given the outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of populist movements and governments across Europe, I wonder how much longer this post-1989/EU-governed Europe will last or what Europe will look like in 30 years when, hopefully, my children have a chance to bring their children here.


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