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May’s election result was encouraging for liberal-minded Europeans, and a heavy-weight team has been nominated to lead the EU. But populists like Le Pen, Salvini and Orban are not giving up and are well-funded. Few of us doubt that their gaining power in Brussels would be a Bad Thing, but what would Europe actually look like if they got the upper hand in the EU? We conduct a thought experiment.

Herman van Rompuy

Under the direction of Herman van Rompuy and then Donald Tusk, the EU began to find its feet as a powerful geopolitical force, to defend its values and interests at home and abroad. It has shown itself willing to use the heft of its large domestic market to enforce competition, environmental and social protections, and to win favourable terms with its trading partners. It has been a major champion of tax transparency, forcing reform in tax havens all around the world, and continues to defend liberal democratic values against might-is-right politics.

No longer a mere bureaucratic construct or ginned-up free-trade zone, Europe is a global power backed by 510 million relatively rich, well-educated people. A juicy prize for a would-be autocrat and a real commercial and geopolitical rival to other global powers, including the USA, Russia and China.

So its hardly surprising that some would like to weaken it politically and reduce it to a docile market for their exports, impotent to challenge their hegemony. Putin and Trump have both demonstrated their willingness to see the European project undermined by, for example, providing financial and political support for European populists, including the Brexit initiative.

While Russian and other powers’ aims might be to destabilise the EU, the stated ambition of European populists such as Salvini and Le Pen, entails impeding or even reversing European integration, ostensibly to return ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’ to individual member states. This would see Europe revert to a trade zone, similar to that of Canada, the USA and Mexico. With little or no political power, it would behave like a simple collection of individual states. We explore what this could mean for fourteen dimensions of Europeans’ lives.

  1. Free press, no longer protected through the European Convention on Human Rights, would be subject to the designs of national governments, including would-be autocrats, who might seek to secure their grip on power by depriving their citizens of balanced news coverage, hindering their ability to make informed electoral choices.
  2. Without the EU to oversee it and a free press to expose it, governments can politicise their judiciaries, denying their citizens access to impartial justice and recourse to the European Court of Justice.
  3. This opens the way for systematic corruption and abuses of power, among other ills.
  4. Protection of human rights would be at the whim of national governments, with no form of higher redress when they are violated.
  5. The Euro is much more than a convenience. A return to lire, drachma, schillings and francs would, in the short term, cause economic mayhem as each country tries to gain commercial advantage by out-devaluing its neighbours. This is manna for well-connected currency traders like Nigel Farage, while rampant inflation would decimate the savings of ordinary Europeans who, unlike elites like Le Pen, Farage et al, lack the means to shelter their wealth offshore. In the long term, the collapse of the euro would mean a return to economic instability and intra-European commercial and political rivalry – and, perhaps most damaging of all – a collapse of trust between European neighbours.
  6. Economic instability would be manifest in inflation, higher prices and more extreme booms and busts, leading to unemployment, stagnant wages, declines in purchasing power and crumbling public services such as health care and education. Pensions vapourised and nest-eggs smashed.
  7. Border controls within Europe, queues at every border crossing or disembarkation from a (no longer cheap) flight. Panic if you forgot your passport.
  8. Tighter visa requirements for destinations outside Europe. You will rely on your home country’s ability to negotiate visa terms for you, which, without the heft of Europe’s big market, may turn out to be more restrictive and visas harder to obtain for some places.
  9. Privacy and data protection will be weaker, as your government is probably less able and/or willing to stand up to tech behemoths that thrive on harvesting personal data, occasionally leaving it vulnerable to theft and misuse. You’ll find it much harder to unsubscribe to those annoying mail bots and intrusive ads on your phone.
  10. Safety standards for consumer goods and services would be less reliable. Whereas the EU can easily stand its ground in trade negotiations to protect your interests, individual EU countries would be obliged to accept whatever terms suit the Americans or Chinese. You would have to accept lax standards for food and medical supplies, aircraft safety (yes, it has to be said: America’s system of self-assessment has failed tragically), labour laws, environmental protection, data protection and so on.

    Margrethe Verstager

  11. Europe’s competition laws would be knee-capped, which would more domination by giant corporations, higher prices and less choice for many consumer goods and services, less innovation and fewer opportunities for European entrepreneurs and innovators. A return of, for example, roaming charges and out-of-control mobile phone subscription fees.
  12. Uncertain supplies of natural gas and other imported resources. Countries like Russia could dominate sources of gas to Germany, Poland and elsewhere, and withhold supplies as a means of political coercion.
  13. For giants in American health care and pharmaceuticals – by far the most lucrative sector in the US – Europe represents rich pickings. The EU is what stops them from picking off individual countries and foisting their catastrophic insurance based system on us, which would soon render health care unaffordable and just plain inaccessible for millions of Europeans – while sending budget deficits soaring – as happens now in the US.
  14. We are often told how Europe needs to spend more on defence, and certainly, we would be better off if all European NATO members pooled and coordinated their efforts or, even better, formed an EU branch of NATO. This would have the side-benefit of fostering a European defence industry, which would compete with America’s, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Yet, while the U.S. demands more spending by Europeans, it seems less keen on European integration initiatives, which leads one to suspect that the motive for demanding more defence spending is not better or more self-reliant European NATO defence capabilities, but a more lucrative market for American defence providers. Without the EU to coordinate resources, European countries would be obliged to buy American defence equipment, thus raising public spending and reducing Europe to a captive market for American supplies and services.

Meanwhile, Russia would have greater bullying potential, so could pick individual NATO members off and set them against each other – even opening the way for Russian infiltration of NATO systems, as it is now doing with Turkey.

As the EU exerts itself as a global power, both willing and able to defend its values and freedoms, it inevitably bumps elbows with other world powers, even rivalling them commercially and, in the case of Russia, impeding their ability to throw their weight around. European populists are their Trojan horses to weaken the EU.

Europeans have much to lose if they allow them to succeed.

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Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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