By Max Hänska and Vassilios Paipais
Euroscepticism is on the rise across Europe, as populists from both the left and right hold up their retrograde visions of gloriously assertive and blissfully self-reliant nation states. The installation of a populist and eurosceptic government in Italy in recent weeks, after months of political wrangling, is just the latest episode of this saga.
But the patriotic visions of the future imagined by populists rest on the implausible assumption that other states will continue to honour their international responsibilities, even as they renege on theirs. The dilemmas and necessities of international cooperation cannot simply and conveniently be set aside.
In this sense, populism is parasitic upon the very liberal, rule-based international order which it so energetically contests. It is rising at a moment when neoliberal centrism, the orthodoxy of the prevailing order, has run out of steam. To secure a more legitimate and cooperative global order that is sustainable, liberals need to be bold – and imagine a real alternative.
Enter the EU
The founding idea of the European Union, of closer international cooperation, emerged after a long history of clashing national projects, culminating in two world wars, with all their catastrophic consequences. This was a history of European international relations governed by political competition in which states cajoled each other by the threat, or actual use of force.
Yet, as the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, observed, no European nation was large enough to dominate all others, and so none could establish a lasting order.
The EU, under the security umbrella of what the publisher of the German newspaper Die Zeit, Josef Joffe, called the “American pacifier”, was to transform Europe’s power rivalries into mutually beneficial cooperation. It did so with such success for much of the past half century that the reality of what international relations were like before the EU existed has almost faded from living memory.
But after half a century of cooperation and partial integration, the drivers of international competition are returning with a vengeance. The US, under the presidency of Donald Trump, seems to be retrenching from Europe and the Middle East to focus on the containment of China. German political and economic hegemony in Europe is intensely felt and has already become the cause of grievances in Europe’s periphery. Russia is pursuing an assertive foreign policy that has become a source of annoyance, if not outright hostility, for both liberals and populists in the West. Meanwhile, Brexiteers presume Britain will gain a more assertive and dominant international role after departing the EU.