The European Union’s 60th anniversary this month comes at a time when some political leaders are attracting significant popular support for policies that directly call into question the value of the union. It’s not just the EU under attack, but NATO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and its human rights court, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all the institutions and ideals that emerged in the post-war, post-Holocaust spirit of “never again” that bolster respect for human rights and rule of law are facing fresh attacks in western democracies and beyond.
There is, of course, much to criticize about the functioning of the EU and other post-war institutions – bureaucracy, lack of transparency, economic policies, or simply when their actions do not live up to their values. But today’s criticism goes beyond the inefficiencies and inadequacies; the very existence of these bodies and even of the post-war order itself are being questioned.
It seems puzzling on the face of it. Nothing so earth-shattering has happened to justify a sweeping rethink of the reasons and need for core institutions that have helped ensure peace and stability in Europe for decades – no great depression, no dramatically rising crime, no sharp rise in unemployment. Some would cite the 2008 economic crisis as a cause or maybe the stresses of enlargement or the introduction of the euro, but if these are key factors, there’s been a curious delay between those events and today’s populist responses.
There has been a spate of terrorist attacks, but there have been far more protracted campaigns in the past that arguably led to far less questioning of political fundamentals. The everyone-for-himself response to chaotic arrivals of asylum seekers in 2015 probably didn’t help. Even so, there’s no clear cause one can point to to explain the seeming drift toward radical solutions that undermine human rights protection.
Even the globalization and identity arguments often put forward to explain the rise of rejectionist populism don’t really make sense. Why, in 2017, when globalization has been steadily marching on for decades, and populations mixing for decades, is it suddenly at a tipping point? There’s no obvious cause for the radical shift in general political direction, although the willingness of mainstream politicians to embrace the dangerous mantle of populism certainly hasn’t helped.
Some argue that people have forgotten history, but that doesn’t ring true. Europeans know about World War II and understand the horrors of the Holocaust. Denial is still very fringe.
But perhaps the problem is historical knowledge ends there for too many people. We are less familiar with how key institutions emerged after the war to ensure peace and security through political and economic integration, based on respect for fundamental human rights. Maybe people understand the philosophy of “never again” but too often don’t realize that, 60 years on, that is exactly what the European project based on strong human rights values has been about and has helped deliver.
These post-war hopes and institutions backing democracy and human rights were the radical ideas of their time in response to dire circumstances. We don’t need a new radicalism; we need to bolster the one we have. And we need political leaders to stop denigrating European institutions. Nothing less than the peace and security of Europe depends on it.