We have seen several right-wing – and a few left-wing – populist movements growing in EU member states. The rapid growth is alarming the EU’s mandarins who see rising popular resentment about trade, migration and budgets as threats to their project. What they don’t understand is why these “stupid populists” (Jean-Claude Juncker) are pressing them so hard.
We see two things. First, their blindness results from their fixation with the ideology underpinning their project; a fixation that we have referred to often in this blog. Second, because they don’t understand what they fear, their reaction is one of panic as they begin to adapt to the populists simply by adopting some of their policies.
For example, the debate over how to manage refugees has degenerated into one about how to keep them out. And this has become compounded with what they interpret as popular resentment about internal migration; Polish plumbers and Romanian welfare migrants come quickly to mind. The EU’s reaction will be to make employers of internally migrant workers match the pay and conditions of local employees. This measure, they say, is needed to counter what they call ‘social dumping’. However, the free movement of people is, according to their treaties, inviolable. Eastern European members object to the rules being bent, presumably because they want to continue ‘dumping’ their spare citizens. And Lithuania wants to stop its citizens ‘dumping’ themselves in richer economies in large numbers.
Another EU treaty commitment is to help refugees. When populist movements, including the governments of the Visegrad Four Group, resisted the allocation the EU at first threatened sanctions and then backed off. So to stave off anxiety the EU will break its own rules. If the EU were not founded in ideology this might be regarded as a pragmatic response to changing conditions; in fact it is a panic response to a natural reaction by its citizens to the previous enforcement of rigid and unjustified rules.
Instead of asking themselves why the populists are popular, the EU mandarins take panic measures to offset the damage caused by their own blinkered incompetence. They will not abandon their ideology but they will trim it in the hope that the problems will then go away. No, the problems are rooted where they dare not look – in the foundations of their project.