The Progressive Post

How should progressives respond to the EU’s many crises and challenges to democracy?


In recent years, the European Union has suffered through a cascading set of crises. But rather than bringing the EU together, with concerted responses that would demonstrate the EU’s common values at the time of its 60th anniversary, these crises have revealed cross cutting divisions among member-states. In the Eurozone crisis, Northern European creditor countries push for strict adherence to rules of austerity and/or structural reforms while Southern European debtor countries ask for flexibility and growth-enhancing policy. In the refugee crisis, Western European countries press for shared responsibility for refugees in the name of human rights while Central and Eastern European countries resist in the name of sovereignty and identity. In the security crisis, EU member-states have been unable to forge a common security and defence policy—and this despite the rising risks of terrorism and continued standoff with Russia. As for Brexit, the negotiation process risks splitting the member-states on the terms of engagement at the same time that British exit in any form challenges the very idea of European integration, and raises the spectre of EU disintegration. Finally, regarding the Trump presidency, there is no sense dwelling on the many possible splits that could develop among European countries, especially in light of the announced hostility by some Trump spokespeople to the very idea of the European Union.

As if these policy-related crises are not enough, they have been accompanied by major crises of politics and democracy for the EU as well as its member-states. At the EU level, questions are increasingly raised not only about the EU’s (lack of) effectiveness in solving the various crises but also its democratic legitimacy. The causes are EU governance processes seen as characterised by the predominance of closed-door political bargains by EU member-state leaders in the Council and by a preponderance of technocratic decisions by EU officials in the Commission and the European Central Bank, without significant oversight by the European Parliament. At the national level, concerns focus on the ways in which the very existence of the EU has diminished elected governments’ authority and control over growing numbers of policies for which they had traditionally been alone responsible, often making it difficult for them to fulfil their electoral promises or respond to their constituents’ concerns and expectations. The result has been increasing political disaffection and discontent among citizens across European countries, with a growing Euroskepticism that has fuelled the rise of populist parties on the political extremes.

Populism: Sources and Processes

Populism presents a special challenge. What do the British referendum vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s winning of the US Presidential election, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Orbán in Hungary all have in common? In a world in which citizens have become increasingly dissatisfied with current economics, politics, and society, populist politicians have been able to find the words to channel their anger. Using rhetorical strategies and ‘uncivil’ language in a ‘post-truth’ environment that rejects experts and the mainstream media, they have reshaped the political landscape by framing the debates in new ways while using new and old media to their advantage as they upend conventional politics.

This raises a number of questions: Why were mainstream politicians unable to stop the upsurge of populist anger, or to channel it in productive ways? Why were analysts caught unaware in the UK and US, their predictive models and polling methods unable to capture what was happening? Up to and beyond the very last minute, everyone—or at least pollsters and elites—failed to anticipate that the British electorate would vote for the country to leave the European Union (Britain-out) while the American electorate would vote to put Trump in the White House (Trump-in).

To be fair, analysts had already identified a number of the potential causes of the malaise that led to Britain-out and Trump-in, as well as to the rumblings elsewhere in Europe. These include the increase of inequality and of those ‘left behind’, the growth of a socio-cultural politics of identity uncomfortable with the changing ‘faces’ of the nation, and the hollowing out of mainstream political institutions and party politics. But although these analyses help explain the sources of citizens’ underlying anger, they do not address the central puzzles: Why now, in this way, with this kind of populism?

The Ideational Sources of Discontent

To explain the rise of populism, we first need to consider the ideational root causes. These include the resilience of neo-liberal economic ideas that have led to today’s socio-economic problems of inequality and insecurity; the liberal socio-political ideas promoting the cosmopolitan and multicultural values that have generated cultural backlash; and the rise in political distrust that may also be a by-product of neo-liberal ideas and their consequences.

The socio-economic problems at the roots of contemporary discontent have a lot to do with the resilience of neo-liberal ideas that began with a focus on global free trade and market liberalisation in the 1980s and ended with the triumph of financial capitalism and ‘hyper-globalisation’.[1] The economic crisis that began in 2007/2008, far from changing direction, also demonstrates the resilience of such neo-liberal ideas.[2] Notably, the EU’s ‘ordo-liberal’ ideas that promoted austerity policies have had particularly deleterious consequences in Eurozone countries, including low growth, high unemployment (in particular in Southern Europe), along with rising poverty and inequality.[3] Ideas pushing regressive taxation as the way to encourage private investment have additionally promoted inequality everywhere, while ideas focused on cutting back the welfare state in order to encourage individuals taking responsibility for themselves have generated rising poverty.[4] Moreover, neo-liberal ideas promoting the opening of borders to trade through globalisation have led to uneven development and significant economic disruptions, in particular the shift of manufacturing from advanced to developing countries that has left more and more people being and/or feeling ‘left behind’.[5]

The social sources of dissatisfaction do not only come from reactions to the consequences of neo-liberal economic ideas, however. They derive equally from ideas linked to culture and identity, with the populist backlash fuelled by another aspect of neo-liberal globalisation: cross-border mobility and the increases in immigration. Although there is nothing new about anti-immigrant sentiment, it has arguably not reached such a fevered pitch since the early 20th century. Nostalgia for a lost past together with fear of the ‘other’ have increased massively, along with the targeting of immigrant groups.[6] Fear of terrorism naturally also plays a role, but it does not explain why this has led to such hysteria.

The social discontent has not only been related to immigration, however. Social liberalism has also been of concern. Socially liberal ideas are represented by the rise of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, which have generated a cultural backlash by people angry that ‘others’—immigrants, non-whites, women—are ‘cutting in the line’, as the perceived beneficiaries of affirmative action and social welfare programs.[7] The supporters of the populists are not only the economic left-behinds affected by neo-liberal economic ideas, they were also those unhappy with social-liberal political ideas.[8] These are people who may be well off financially, but subscribe to socially conservative philosophies and/or oppose the socially liberal policy programs.

Political ideas also play an important role in the discontent. Citizens generally have developed a growing distrust of governing elites and a loss of faith in their national democracies as well as in the EU.[9] The votes for populists attest to strong desires to register protest against the sitting parties, the elites, and the establishment. Corruption and collusion of elites has long been a populist theme. But votes for populists are also a protest against citizens’ growing sense of loss of control as a result of the removal of more and more decisions from the national to supranational level, whether to international institutions because of increasing globalisation, or to the EU because of increasing Europeanisation.[10] Because EU level decision-making is largely apolitical and/or technocratic, and has sidelined both national mediation and deliberation, it has generated a crisis for mainstream political parties while weakening national party democracy. As such, it has helped create openings for populist leaders claiming that they alone ‘truly’ represent and can speak for ‘the people’.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in the UK, the Leave campaign slogan ‘Take back control’ resonated so much, as similar such slogans have across Europe.   The slogan itself worked so well also because it meant different things to different people. Some British citizens rallying to the Leave campaign’s cry to ‘Take back control’ may very well have been racists or nationalists, nostalgic for ‘Little England’. But others voted for Brexit in protest at a freedom of movement that they believed overtaxes the welfare state, undermines labour standards, or limits the number of non-EU immigrants from Commonwealth countries. Yet others complained of a remote EU that regulates at a distance, without paying sufficient attention to national preferences. And many more decried an un-elected EU that seems to impose policies that elected national politicians cannot (or do not) challenge.   These kinds of complaints are mirrored across the EU, lending fuel to the populist parties.

Other slogans by populist parties on the right have been more unambiguously nationalist, in particular those focused against immigration. The French National Front chant at rallies ‘On est chez nous’ quite clearly evokes a range of nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments. And many slogans have been downright racist, such as the posters in the Swiss referendum campaign against the building of a mosque that depicted minarets looking like Burqa-clad missiles, or Nigel Farage’s poster against EU visa-free immigration showing long lines of darker skinned non-EU refugees. Needless to say, the barbed wire fences put up by Orbán in Hungary against the influx of refugees speak even more loudly than words in terms of populist message.

Discursive Dynamics of Populism

Although the focus on the content of ideas and discourse is essential to understanding the sources of the problems, we still can’t explain why now, and in this way, with a turn to the populist far right, without also considering the discourse of ideational leaders and their supporters, including the spin-doctors in the campaign, populist coalitions, and social movements, that help convince the electorate to move farther and farther away from centrist ideas focused on politics as usual

For one, populist discourse has increasingly blurred the lines between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, while blatantly violating the rules of political correctness through intolerant language. All of this points to the rise of a new ‘uncivil’ language of politics connected to new rhetorical strategies that challenge traditional mainstream political discourse and use language in ways that can play on the unconscious and the emotions in ways that serve to reframe the debate.

The UK Leave and the US Trump campaigns in particular violated the tenets of mainstream political discourse when they used slander, lies, and verbal bullying to make their case. For the Leave campaign in the UK, lying was used not only to get a persuasive (but false) idea across to the citizens, it also served to push the opposition off their topic—e.g., the exaggeration about the cost of the UK’s EU contribution led the Remain campaign to remain focused on cost even as it denied that it was as high as claimed. Trump himself freely admitted that he engaged in ‘exaggerating’ in his own favor through ‘truthful hyperbole’. In so doing, his false allegations, for example, that Hillary had received ‘millions’ of illegal votes, leaves the impression in the listener’s mind that a large number was involved, even if not that high. Even repetitions, along with ‘Believe me’ or ‘Many people say,’ appeal to unconscious cognitive mechanisms that serve to reinforce peoples’ acceptance of what is said, even (or especially) when they are lies and exaggerations.[11]

Thus, ideas and discourse, when activated through a range of rhetorical strategies, may convey a persuasive message not only directly, through the content of the message, but also subliminally, through linguistic and psychological mechanisms. And this is only amplified through the social media, which can create echo chambers for the lies and the exaggerations, with people believing different ‘truths’ in a post-truth world. The populists who tweet outrageous comments in 140 characters have been best able to use the social media to their advantage, reaching their own followers instantly even as their message is amplified massively by traditional news media reporting. Tweeting, whether by Trump or Beppe Grillo, also serves to reinforce the direct connection that charismatic populist leaders typically seek to establish with their followers, without the mediation of traditional media or the filter of other institutions.

Often we think about the communicative process as top down, as political parties designate rhetorical leaders able to communicate their ideas in ways that resonate with the larger public. Thatcher and Reagan are prime examples for the 1980s, Clinton and Blair in the 1990s. But such top-down logics of elite coalition formation, coordination, and communication to the public is only one of the ways in which ideas circulate. Social movements in bottom-up mobilisation around non-mainstream ideas have become more active and successful either in creating parties of their own, such as UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement, or in taking over mainstream parties to push their own agenda, as in the case of the Tea Party pushing the transformation of the Republican Party. The increasing personalisation of politics has also made it possible for individuals, as rhetorical leaders outside conventional mainstream parties, to become figures on the national stage (i.e., Nigel Farage or Beppe Grillo), or even to capture a party nomination (i.e., Donald Trump).

How Do Progressives Fight Back?

The rise of populism, in particular on the extreme right, constitutes a challenge to political stability and democracy not seen since the 1920s and 1930s.[12]  Progressives need to come up with new and better ideas that rally citizens around more positive messages that serve better ends than those of the populist extremes on the right. These need to be ideas that they can communicate effectively through the new social media as well as the old, and that resonate with a broad range of citizens. But which ideas?

With regard to economic and socio-economic ideas, progressives have some rethinking to do. Social democratic parties have yet to come to terms with their own complicity in the resilience of neo-liberalism, and the myriad policies focused on liberalising the financial markets, deregulating labor markets, and rationalising the welfare state that left large portions of the electorate open to the populist siren calls of the extreme right. Such policies, in many cases led by the social democrats in the name of a progressive agenda, benefited some people a lot: the top classes—not just the 1% but the upper 20%, in particular since the financial crisis and eurozone crisis—but not the in-betweens, who neither benefited from the boom for the top nor the welfare for the bottom. These are the people who feel left behind, and are! They are increasingly frustrated, resentful, and insecure; they are looking for explanations and answers; and only the extreme right speaks to them! But what the extreme right proposes, involving increasing protectionism and an end to free trade, dismantling the EU and getting rid of the Euro, closing borders to free movement and to immigration, are potentially disastrous for themselves, their countries, Europe, and the world. At the same time, the populists’ concerns ought not be dismissed out of hand, in particular with regard to protecting the welfare state and jobs, nor should the populist desire for more national control over the decisions that affect people the most be ignored. The questions are: How to do this in the context not just of globalisation but also of the Eurozone crisis, with its austerity rules for countries in trouble, and its stability rules for all, which limit investment for growth. And what to do about the EU more generally, which appears to control what national leaders can do, thereby limiting their responsiveness to their own citizens?

For progressives, the way forward requires changing Eurozone governance as well as the way in which the EU works as a whole, in both cases to give more power back to the national level while at the same time enhancing the EU’s coordinating ability.

Progressive Ideas for the Eurozone

For countries in the euro, the EU needs to give back to the member-states the flexibility they have had in the past to devise policies that work for them. The Eurozone has been ‘reinterpreting the rules by stealth’ for quite a while now, by introducing increasing flexibility in the rules and numbers while denying it in the public discourse.[13] As a result, the Eurozone operates with suboptimal policies that, although revised to allow for improving performance, still haven’t resolved the Eurozone crisis once and for all. Countries in Southern Europe in particular suffer as a result. It is about time that political leaders—and in particular progressives—push harder for a rethinking of the rules, so that everyone can benefit from being in the Euro and, indeed, in the EU.

One way of rethinking the rules would involve making the whole exercise of the European Semester more bottom up and flexible, rather than continuing with the top-down ‘stability’ policies of the European Semester—however flexibly interpreted through derogations of the rules (e.g., to France and Italy in 2013 and again in 2015) and re-calibrations of the numbers (for Spain in 2013). The Eurozone already has an amazing architecture of economic coordination, reaching into all the Eurozone ministries of finance and country economic experts. Why not use that coordination to ensure that countries themselves determine what works for their very specific economic growth models and varieties of capitalism? And to have the new ‘competitiveness councils’ or the existing fiscal councils act more as industrial policy councils rather than structural adjustment hawks? The countries’ decisions on the yearly budgetary cycle could be debated with the other member-states in the Euro-group as well as the Commission, the EP, and the Council to enhance democratic legitimacy. They might additionally be coordinated with the ECB to allow for greater differentiation in euro-members’ macroeconomic targets, to match their particular circumstances while fitting within the overall targets.[14]

Such a bottom-up approach is likely not only to promote better economic performance but also much more democratic legitimacy at the national level. This is because it would put responsibility for the country’s economics back in national governments’ hands at the same time that it would encourage more legitimising deliberation at the EU level. All this in turn could help counter the populist drift in many countries, as political parties of the mainstream right and left could begin again to differentiate their policies from one another, with debates on and proposals for different pathways to economic health and the public good, that they then debate and legitimate at the EU level as well. This could help combat the populism that claims to be the only alternative to EU-led technocratic rule.

None of this will work, however, if member-states continue to have to contend with excessive debt loads that weigh on their economies (e.g., Greece and Italy), if they are left without significant investment funds provided by banks or the state (e.g., Portugal, Spain, Italy, and even France), as well as if some countries continue to have massive surpluses while failing to invest sufficiently (i.e., Germany and other smaller Northern European countries).   Some extra form of solidarity is necessary, beyond the European Stability Mechanism. Innovative ideas for renewal, such as Eurobonds, Europe-wide unemployment insurance, EU investment resources that dwarf the Juncker Plan, a EU self-generated budget, and other mechanisms for other areas of concern—including solidarity funds on refugee or EU migration—would be necessary. Failing this, at the very least, member-states should be allowed to invest their own resources in things like infrastructure, education and training, research and development, incurring long-term debt at low interest rates—without adding this to deficit and debt calculations, as under current deficit and debt rules.

Progressive Ideas for Envisioning the Future of the EU

Finally, we need to re-envision the EU itself but not as either single speed or two-speed with a hard core around the Eurozone. Rather it should be seen as multi-speed with a soft core of members resulting from the overlap of different clusters of member-states in the EU’s many different policy communities, with different duos or trios of member-states playing leadership roles. With this in mind, the EU could retain its appeal even for an exiting member-state like the UK, which could decide that it should reclaim a leadership role in Common Security and Defense Policy, as one of two European nuclear powers, while standing aside in other areas such as the Eurozone. Seeing the future of EU integration as a differentiated process of member-state participation in different policy communities beyond the Single Market would thus also allow for each such community to further deepen by constituting its own special system of governance.

For such differentiated integration to work, however, with all member-states feeling part of this soft core EU, whatever their level of involvement, they need to be full members of the EU institutions. This means that all members should be able to exercise voice in all areas, but vote (in the Council and the EP) only in those areas in which they participate. Since all are members in the most significant policy community, the Single Market, this ensures that they will be voting a lot. For the Eurozone, this would mean envisioning that where some members in the future, say, pledge their own resources to a EU budget, their representatives would be the only ones to vote on the budget and its use, although everyone could discuss it (no separate Eurozone Parliament, then, but separate voting for members of a deeper budgetary union).

The knotty problem remains the question of politics and democracy. Representative institutions need to be reinforced. At the moment, the EU serves the purpose of the populists, by hollowing out national representative institutions, allowing the populists to claim that they are the true representatives of the people. To change this, the EU needs to do more to reinforce citizen representation and participation. For the Eurozone in particular, this at the very least demands more involvement of the European Parliament in decision-making, through a return to the Community Method. Turning Eurozone treaties into ordinary legislation, for example, would help break the stalemate that makes it impossible to change such legislation (given the unanimity rule), and make them subject to political debate. But the EP would also need to find more ways to bring national parliaments into EU level decision-making. And the EU as a whole must devise new means of encouraging citizen participation, from the ground up.


The response to the populist attraction is not to run after the extreme right in terms of policies—as we have seen with the center right on immigration policy, for example—but rather to rethink the EU and its policies while reconnecting with the basic principles of social democracy and progressivism. Questions like ‘what does social democracy mean in the 21st century?’ need to be thoroughly considered, to renew long-standing philosophies of social justice, democratic representation, and more in a still Europeanising and globalising world, with a new progressive narrative about what should be done. And what this must mean is not just considering the re-decentralisation of certain policies, such as economic policy in the Eurozone, but also the globalisation of others, such as corporate tax policy.

Download the full list of references here

[1] Stiglitz 2016; Rodrik 2011; Mirowski 2013

[2] Blyth 2013; Schmidt/Thatcher 2013

[3] Scharpf 2014

[4] Hemerijck 2013

[5] Gilpin 2000; Hay/Wincott 2012

[6]   Hochschild and Mollenkopt 2009

[7] Hochschild 2016

[8] Inglehart and Norris 2016

[9] See Pew and Eurobarometer polls, 2008-2016

[10] Schmidt 2006

[11] Lackoff 2016

[12] Mudde and Kaltwasser 2012; Müller 2016; Judis 2016

[13] Schmidt 2015a, 2016

[14] Schmidt 2015b

Find all related publications

A positive narrative for a Just Transition

An approach to a more people-centred communication

Redefining European engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

From financial aid to institution building

Growing remittance industry

Progressive Migration Group series

External influences in the Western Balkans: Where are we at?

Balkan Focus Series
Find all related news

FEPS at UN Civil Society Conference in Kenya


Notice of vacancy – Policy analyst on international relations


FEPS celebrates 20 years of the biggest EU enlargement


FEPS welcomes the signing of the La Hulpe Declaration

Find all related in the media
In the media

Ex-EU-Kommissar Andor: Orbán gerät an die Peripherie

by Puls 24 27/05/2024
"Former EU Commissioner Andor: Orbán is relegated to the periphery" Puls 24 interview with FEPS Secretary General László Andor on Europe's political situation ahead of crucial European election.

Edição especial sobre as eleições europeias já nas bancas

by SÁBADO 21/05/2024
"Special Edition on the European Elections Now Available on Newsstands" Read the special edition by SÁBADO focusing on the European election in Portugal, with an interview by Maria João Rodrigues, FEPS President

Youth unemployment hurts communities, its time for a new deal, says Andor

by Euractiv 15/05/2024
Read FEPS Secretary General László Andor's interview on the consequences of youth unemployment for communities

A reform az európai parlamenti választás tétje

by Új Szó 14/05/2024
In this interview, FEPS Secretary-General László Andor discusses the 2024 European Parliament elections and current issues facing the EU