EU's future: time for mainstream parties to change (dis)course

European populist parties have changed their position on EU’s future - mainstream parties should seize this opportunity.

European populist parties are aiming high in the 2019 European elections. In the 2014 ones, they managed to increase their number of seats. However, they were not able to create a united front, which substantially weakened them. But this time, they are determined to make it better.

Behind the scenes, significant energy is being used by these populist parties to ensure a formation of a wider populist group after the 2019 elections. Their strategy is simple: to focus on the points that unite them and to ignore the rest. Interestingly, they do not even agree on the EU’s role in managing immigration - the most crucial issue for them. Additionally, there are many more dividing topics, such as the proper approach towards the Kremlin.

But something else is different than in the previous European elections. Many of the populist parties can no longer be labeled strictly as ‘anti-EU’ because, based on their current statements, such label is debatable. The looming Brexit disaster has made it very clear to European citizens what it means to exit the EU and, despite the challenges, Euro’s popularity is still high.

As wiping out Brussels and the EU is no longer a good electoral idea for populists to promote, what is there to do? As a result, the populist parties have decided to skip the ‘burn-it-all’ agenda. Instead, they started framing the debate as them leading the historic reform of the EU, based on the nation states against those who want to create the European super state. In essence, the leading populist parties are pushing for a very strict intergovernmental model.

How should mainstream parties react? Simply demonising populist views on the EU question would likely backfire, as polarization is the driving force of the populist parties’ ‘people-against-the-elite‘ campaign.

There is a hesitancy among populists to start elaborating on the details of their vision, as the opinions of different members of the populist parties are oftentimes contradictory, and they are unable to agree even on the most crucial questions. In addition, despite their emphasis on a ‘Europe of nations’, populist parties have very contradicting expectations on many EU policy proposals. For example, many populists are calling for strong European military cooperation i.e. a European Army, which would require de facto high-level political integration. 

In essence, the leading populist parties are pushing for a very strict intergovernmental model.

Mainstream parties need to be very tough and demand from populists to respect the fundamental EU values: human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.  Nevertheless, as populist parties are claiming to have a vision for the EU, it is necessary not to dismiss this straight away, but challenge their vision with proper argumentation.

The idea that Europe as an alliance of 27 fortresses which keep the focus strictly on the level of national interest would be able to solve all European global and national challenges is utterly unrealistic. But even though this kind of 21st century ‘this-time-it-will-work-great’ version of Europe during the league of nations times might be a fantasy, it is a legitimate fantasy - and therefore a basis for debate.

Brexit changed the circumstances surrounding the European debate and forced the populists to leave behind their simplistic EU hostile approach. They had to become more moderate and consequently start elaborating on their ideas concretely. Mainstream parties should seize this opportunity to hit back at the populists: force them to layout their vision in detail – and then challenge it.