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Can anti-EU populism survive Putin's war?

Apr 20,2022 - Last updated at Apr 20,2022

LONDON  —  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is a momentous tragedy, above all for Ukrainians, but also for people across Europe and around the world. But, as opinion polls for the final round of France’s presidential election on April 24 indicate, if the Russian barbarity in Ukraine can be said to have a silver lining, it is that Putin’s unprovoked attack appears to be discrediting his supporters and allies in the West, and may well provide a new impetus for European integration.

To be sure, populists could yet capitalise on this crisis to win support from economically squeezed Europeans. That seems to be the far-right Marine Le Pen’s game plan as she campaigns to win the French presidency. As the prices of energy, commodities, and basic foodstuffs surge, inflation in Europe may hit double digits for the first time since the 1970s. Living standards in the European Union could end up taking a bigger hit than they did in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, when a deeply flawed European response alienated many voters.

Already, these challenges seem to have bolstered Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister. Orbán, a longtime Putin ally who has systematically rigged the electoral system in Hungary in his favour, has sought to insulate Hungarians from rising food and fuel prices. His Fidesz Party won this month’s general election in a landslide, ensuring him a fourth consecutive term in office.

To prevent that outcome from presaging a broader trend, EU governments must provide support for vulnerable people, avoid premature austerity, diversify energy supplies, and accelerate investments in low-cost clean technologies. The good news is that, so far, policymakers largely seem intent on doing just that. Their success would go a long way toward restoring trust in Europe’s political and technocratic elites.

It helps that the Ukraine war has also eroded the political credibility of populists who have long associated themselves with Russia and praised Putin. Since the invasion, populists such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the United Kingdom’s Nigel Farage have been scrambling to distance themselves from Russia. Even Orbán said after his electoral victory that he was “reassessing” his close ties to the country, which he now considers an “adversary”.

In the run-up to the first round of France’s presidential election, both leading far-right candidates attempted to do the same. After years of maintaining close ties to Putin and receiving significant financing from Russia, National Rally’s Le Pen called the invasion of Ukraine unjustifiable. Reconquest’s Éric Zemmour, who once said he dreamed of a French equivalent to Putin, was similarly forced to condemn the war.

But their statements seem not to have been enough. In the first round, both candidates lost to centrist President Emmanuel Macron. He won nearly 27.6 per cent of the vote and seems likely to win reelection in the run-off against Le Pen later this month. While Le Pen managed to secure 23 per cent of the vote, her poll numbers are now falling as her proposals to distance France from NATO and the EU, and to seek closer ties with Russia, attract closer scrutiny. Zemmour, for his part, drew just 7 per cent, and immigration might be a key reason why.

While many Europeans remain aggrieved by their loss (or perceived loss) of income or status, or fearful of suffering such a loss, a major factor fueling support for populists, they have found a new sense of compassion for refugees, the favorite scapegoats of populists. Support for Zemmour, who was closing in on Le Pen in opinion polls prior to the invasion, plunged after he publicly opposed welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

Of course, European sympathy does not extend to all those fleeing violence. Moreover, the willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees could prove limited, especially if the costs of integrating newcomers rise.

But even if Europe’s newfound compassion for refugees does not last, the threat from Putin’s Russia will persist. This discredits yet another belief that has long bolstered the populists: The notion that things can’t get any worse.

For voters across Western Europe, the Ukraine war has highlighted just how fortunate they are to live in countries that are peaceful, secure, and free. While European liberal democracies and capitalism are far from perfect, they need reforming, not dismantling. Even a deeply flawed European democracy is greatly preferable to autocracy.

In Central and Eastern Europe, it is governments that needed the reminder. In particular, Poland’s prickly populist administration appears to have gained a renewed appreciation for the security that EU membership provides. Poland’s informal anti-Brussels alliance with Orbán now looks ruptured.

After years of internal division, Europeans are being forced to unite against an alarming external enemy, as they did during the Cold War. The EU now has a golden opportunity to prove its worth by marshaling collective efforts to enhance security, in terms of defense, energy, and the economy.

While the United States will remain essential to European defense, the EU will also need to take greater responsibility for its own security, not least because there is no guarantee that future American leaders will remain committed to NATO. Progress on energy security will require a massive collective effort to source alternatives to Russian supplies, increase gas-storage capacity, build pan-EU gas networks, and accelerate EU-led de-carbonisation efforts. And EU governments will need to pursue a common initiative to bolster economic security, modeled on the Next Generation EU pandemic recovery fund.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, recently argued that Putin’s war has given birth to geopolitical Europe. He is right. This longstanding French ambition had repeatedly been thwarted by Britain’s Euroskeptic Atlanticism and Germany’s mercantilist pacifism. But the UK is no longer an EU member, and Germany is embracing a more muscular strategic approach. More broadly, Europeans now see with alarming clarity the EU’s primary purpose: Protecting them from threats like Putin’s Russia.


Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission, is visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the author of “Them and Us: How Immigrants and Locals Can Thrive Together” (Oneworld, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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