EU Panel Warns Against Rise of Nationalism in Populist Surge

Riot police monitor a protest at the Zénith Paris arena on April 17, 2017. (Rex Features via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – A European Parliament member on Tuesday warned against the surge of nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment in populist movements across the globe, citing troubling trends in the U.S. and the UK.

Pedro Silva Pereira – a Portuguese member of the European Parliament who appeared at Georgetown University – described Britain’s exit from the EU as a “marvelous illusion.” Brexiteers leading the campaign, Pereira said, convinced the majority of voters that in order to block unwanted migration of refugees, terrorists and the democratic failings of the EU, Britain should turn inward, restoring power to Parliament. He said similar pleas were made by President Trump during his 2016 campaign, when he pushed for border control and immigration reform.

“We have to fight (in the United States), where the battle is based on the issue of values and political ideas,” Pereira said. “Let’s bear in mind that history tells us that we should take nationalism seriously.”

Recent developments show how volatile the situation remains with the refugee crisis in Europe, where politicians continue pushing populist agendas. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Tuesday that the country will hold a general election on June 8, three years ahead of schedule. British general elections determine who will serve in Parliament, and June 8 will offer a good reading of the political temperature in the UK following Brexit.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, fresh off his victory in a controversial referendum that boosted his powers, plans to restore the death penalty in Turkey and has demanded that Europe allow visa-free travel for Turks across the region.

According to Eurobarometer, EU’s official public opinion poll, immigration and terrorism top the list of concerns for citizens across the continent. Tuesday’s panel agreed that populists have also seized on fears over continued downward mobility brought on by wage freezes, economic stagnation and high unemployment.

“The incapacity to implement bold and necessary reforms has led, in my point of view, to a lack of confidence in the political class as a whole and to the belief that there are no efficient solutions to the problems facing our societies, and therefore there is a perception that this negative cycle might have no end,” said Pedro Reis, former president of the Portuguese Agency for the External Commerce.

Reis said that sustained cycles of unemployment and a lack of competitiveness have left the majority of European citizens with little hope that the economic situation will improve. Recent surveys, he said, show that 36 percent of European citizens trust EU institutions, compared to 57 percent in 2007.

While immigration and terrorism are chief among the EU’s concerns, France is most worried about unemployment, according to Eurobarometer. Unemployment stands at 10.5 percent in France. Maria Carrilho, former member of the Portuguese and European parliaments, said the French outlook is particularly interesting considering that the country has been repeatedly hit by terrorist attacks. Both Carrilho and Pereira predicted the defeat of France’s right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in this Sunday’s presidential election. Pereira cited the losses of far-right candidates Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands as evidence, while Carrilho said Le Pen’s program for job creation is not consistent enough.

Reis offered that if the EU plans to combat the volatility of the current economic situation, it must urgently find a new generation of leaders with a fresh agenda, who can “respond in a consistent and resolute way.”

“The best way to combat populist movements is to give them no reason to exist and no reason to succeed,” Reis said. “Democracy is facing an enormous challenge – the challenge of reinventing itself, of recycling, renewing and reinforcing itself so that it can produce better leaders, better results.”