Europe is under the threat of a toxic mix of nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism, suggests Adam Fagan, Professor of European Politics at Queen Mary University of London. But there is no reason for panic, he adds, because nationalists and populists have always been a part of the European political landscape. In an interview for CorD magazine Fagan explains that Brexit brings him close to tears but does not discourage him from advocating for “Europeanization” – much needed in both candidate states and EU members.
Referring to the title of the Belgrade conference – Europe between nationalism, populism and enlargement – where is Europe at this particular moment?
– The enlargement process is fundamentally a rational process. There are countries like Serbia that have been granted candidacy and their progress is being measured against clear and published criteria. That is still happening. Then there is nationalism and populism, but that is nothing new. Yes, there is Brexit, there are politicians in the new member states and in the old ones that are populist and nationalist but I am not sure that we should conflate these three things. There is a lot of hysteria here, nationalism is worrying but it is also being used to say that this is the end of enlargement. I think we need to stand back from that, to look at it quite calmly. I am somewhat cautious of the notion that disagree with the idea that nationalism and populism are pitched against enlargement. Successful enlargements have occurred in the past against precisely such a background.
But isn’t it just that message that nationalists and populists throughout Europe are sending – no enlargement? Or no enlargement for the moment?
– Don’t get me wrong, nationalist are, and will, get a lot of mileage out of Brexit. Brexit is seen and will be portrayed as a big swing away from the EU. It will be used by those who wish to destroy any notion of further enlargement. But even amongst more moderate voices the idea that Brexit will lead to, similar movements elsewhere may act as a brake on enlargement. My fear is that the effect of Brexit will stoke the flames of nationalism, Euroscepticism and populism. But my argument is that this is not inevitable and the impact can be tempered by pro-EU and liberal voices within existing member states, but also in the candidate countries.
I also think we need to be careful not to pre-judge the impact of Brexit. The June referendum was a dark day, which is becoming clear now that we are at the beginning of the negotiation process. I think Britain will not get a good deal and that this might have a positive effect. Brexit may actually stop a lot of Euroscepticism, when it turns out that Brexit is disastrous for Britain. Many of the people pushing for Brexit were doing so on the false assumption that Britain could leave the EU and stay in the single market. It is now clear that that’s not an option. Even if we get some limited access to the single market it is going to be at a heavy price and it is going to be a very difficult set of bilateral negotiations that could take 10 to 15 years to achieve. So, I think it highlights what European union membership really means, namely, tariff-free access to the world’s largest single market. That has been lost in many discussions – why do so many countries want to accede in the first place? Because they want to be part of a bigger market!
How does it feel nowadays to be a Brit who talks about the importance of keeping faith in the EU?
– I can answer quite personally – I am absolutely devastated by Brexit. It almost brings me to tears. I was travelling to Paris by train with a colleague a week after the referendum, and as we went through the passport control, where it says “EU members” we both felt really choked. We realised there and then how we were being stripped of our citizenship… and I was thinking that, when the time comes for us to leave, it will be a dreadful day. On the other hand, as much as it has been negative, at least arguing for the EU makes you feel like a dissident. For the first time ever in my lifetime, supporting Europe is now a political statement. I think we Europhiles have been far too passive in our defense of the EU; no mainstream politician has openly made the case for Europe without adding some qualification or arguing for reform. The “Remain” campaign lacked any real leadership and was very defensive in its focus. On the other hand, the Brexit campaign was deceitful – it was based on lies, each one of which has been exposed: like there will be more spending on health, retaining access to the single market, stopping migration… none has proven to be correct. But it was an effective campaign because it convinced people and mobilized them around a lot of false ideas. More evidence that l, we live in a post-truth age.
The Brexit campaign was deceitful – it was based on lies, each one of which has been exposed: like there will be more spending on health, retaining access to the single market, stopping migration… none has proven to be correct
In your keynote lecture you said “Europe is under the threat of a toxic mix of nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism”?
– Yes, but these three discourses have always been present within European politics. At the moment we see a particular surge in these narratives. But this is not the time to panic or over-react Is there really evidence that nationalists are doing better in the polls or in elections? Or is the discourse and narrative particularly toxic in the media? Is it much more Eurosceptic? I am not sure, not sure at all. As for the alleged resurgence of Russia. Where is the evidence? Are we talking about when Vladimir Putin travels to Belgrade and the type of reception he receives? The parade and all that… But we need to look beyond those moments. As for the fears that we are slipping into Fascism, I think this is really contentious and I certainly don’t see a return to the 1930s!
How do you see Europe in 2017 – there will be elections in France and Germany, two crucial member states?
– Europe will be where it has been several times in last 20-30 years – run by right-wing conservative leaders. That is what we are talking about. Angela Merkel will probably be OK, even with a reduced support base. France will more than likely elect the conservative right-winger François Fillon, rather than the far-right Marine Le Pen. But it is not as if Europe has always been run by liberal, centre-left, social democrats! In some respect it reminds me of the early 1970s when, after a period of progressive liberal politics there was a conservative backlash. Remember that in the 1970 elections in America, France and Britain, conservative governments were voted in. There’s always a backlash.
Will there be room for enlargement?
– Nothing can convince me that the prospect for enlargement for countries that already have European perspectives or membership agreements is less likely than it was a year ago, and certainly not particularly worse than it was before the referendum in the UK. The only reason it can be considered worse is if politicians here in Serbia are gaining political mileage from Brexit, and are being allowed to do so. In other words, if Eurosceptics or nationalists here in Serbia use a particular narrative to discredit the EU using the British vote, then yes, that is a problem.
But weren’t there messages from the EU saying: no enlargement promise to be given to the Western Balkan countries because it wouldn’t be realistic?
– It’s the same as the statement: no county will enter the EU in the next five years. That’s not new. There is consistency in this message. No county is promised much. It is always a political decision, even if you meet all the criteria, it still comes down to the EU, to member states to admit another country. That has always been the case. There has always been a gap between the narrative and enthusiasm for enlargement and the reality of the enlargement process. Let’s look at 2013, was there a massive enthusiasm to take in Croatia? It seems to me that Croatia almost slipped in without people really noticing.
For the first time ever in my lifetime, supporting Europe is now a political statement. I think we Europhiles have been far too passive in our defense of the EU; no mainstream politician has openly made the case for Europe without adding some qualification or arguing for reform
But those were, as they say, good, old times… Such a scenario is not likely to be repeated?
– It is very unlikely that there will be another large-scale ‘bloc’enlargement. But has anybody ever thought there would be? If Serbia, as a front runner, is to get in, it will most likely be in a similar way to Croatia. It won’t have to wait for other countries in the region. So, I am not sure it is conceivable that in five years time Serbia won’t be in just because of Brexit, nationalists or populists.
In the meantime, would you please explain your idea of Europeanization. What is it really about?
– It is a transparent way of politics and decision making. How the state is administered, how it functions. It is about the rule of law, regulations… The whole monitoring process is based on a measurement of how institutions work. The value of Europeanization lies in the involvement of civil society in decision making, having good laws in place to protect against corruption, or training new judges properly, or monitoring the level of air pollution… I don’t think the merits of such reforms have ever been disputed , and that is what we are talking about. For the countries of the Western Balkans, Europeanization has always been a much bigger step than it was for the Czechs, Poles or Hungarians. Partly because of the war and the ways these countries exited from Yugoslavia. But Europeanization is not something that only takes place before you are a member. It is a dynamic relationship that has its ups and downs, tensions… In some respect we have to look at this as a long-term relationship between Brussels and Belgrade. Even if Serbia had joined last year, there would still today be a complex relationship to be negotiated, one that changes and evolves over time. There are high and low points, challenges… I think we have to move from this idea that there is almost a crescendo – you sign an accession agreement, you get better and better, make more and more progress, then you are in and it’s paradise. It is not like that at all, it is a continuing negotiating relationship.
You are stressing the importance of judicial reform and negotiating chapter 23?
– The reason is simple: you have to lay a foundation of the rule of law that has to underpin any other reform. If the law is not properly enforced, if the institutions are not strong and independent, how can you then talk, for example, about the implementation of environmental protection laws or any other directive? It makes sense to open Chapter 23 at the beginning of the accession process, so the country can build a good track record. This is the lesson learned from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Another one is that you have to add CVM – the co-operation and verification mechanism, in the post accession process. This was introduced after 2007 when the Commission realized there was a real problem with the rule of law in some new member states and had to introduce a set of measures to improve the situation.
How do you see Serbia in that framework?
– The risk for Serbia is that the pro-Europeans, like in the UK, will not do enough to take control of the narrative. Because there will be those in the government, some politicians or people running businesses who would like to use these developments in Europe to kill the idea of making progress towards the EU. Will they be allowed to win? This is an opportunity for pro-Europeans to say – Serbia is making progress. In some respects things have never been more positive for Serbia, Serbia is opening negotiating chapters which wasn’t the case five or even three years ago.