Europe woke up on Monday after another crucial election testing the rise of populism across the bloc. The preliminary results in Sweden produced no clear winner and mixed results for left-wing parties, the welfare state and Europe.
But among the readings, a useful lesson for pro-European parties emerges: diverting from an extremist narrative pays off.
Europeans are concerned about their future. Global instability, economic uncertainty and distrusted leaders make them believe that their children will have more difficulties than they had. A majority believe that their country, and to a greater degree the EU, is moving in the wrong direction.
Over the past months, anti-immigrant, populist and anti-European forces have blamed newcomers for a range of problems. The numbers of refugees and economic migrants has gone down, but their poll numbers have gone up thanks to their incendiary rhetoric and mainstream parties’ inability to reframe the political debate.
Accordingly, migration surpassed unemployment as the top challenge for Europeans. The right-wing Sweden Democrats did their best to focus on this issue during the campaign.
Swedish Socialists and Moderates fell in the trap. Following the arrival of more than 160.000 asylum seekers only in 2015, both parties have promised to toughen their response.
But prime minister and Socialist leader Stefan Löfven only succeeded in improving their polls when he diverted from the migrant issue and reverted to the classical narrative of the left-wing parties.
Over the past days, he focused again on bolstering the welfare state in areas such as education, pensions or healthcare. The prime minister of Spain, socialist Pedro Sanchez, was with him last week to say that Sweden was an example not only for left-wing parties but European welfare states.
“Your economy has grown and your government has been on the front lines against all forms of inequality,” Sanchez said in a rally in the Nordic nation.
Swedish Socialists did not lose as much ground as the polls predicted a few weeks ago, helping to maintain a narrow majority for the left bloc. Swedish Democrats improved their results but did not become the second party, or even the first one as some polls predicted.
But still, the Socialists recorded their biggest fall since World War I.
For populists, problems come from abroad, either in terms of migrants, or multinationals taking local jobs. The response must be to close the borders not only to those seeking protection, but also to the talent and trade we need to prosper.
Given the global dimension of problems, from migrant flows, to climate change, and including terrorism or fairer free trade, national solutions are doomed to fail.
The nature of today’s global challenges asks for better supranational structures in order to ensure the governance we need.
Europe could articulate the right policies for the challenges we are facing, from the migration pressure to the loss of jobs due to the digital revolution.
But it would be naive to believe that Europe could have a bigger say on these issues in the near future.
Member states are reluctant to transfer new powers as citizens are wary of Brussels’ interference, although they still see the EU project with positive eyes.
But broad-based solutions could start at a national level if mainstream parties reach pacts on crucial issues such as reforming the welfare state to ensure that it continues to give every citizen a fair shot.
Such agreements would have the magnitude and legitimacy these challenges require, regain citizens’ trust and offer a stepping stone toward a European response required to make the economy more innovative or to better protect European workers in case of a sudden crisis.
Today, the risk is not only the lack of a European response, but that we may still be asking the wrong questions.
As the Swedish case shows, having the right debate won’t solve our problems, but it is a necessary step to come up with better solutions.
It is time to check how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. Follow The State Of the Union debate where the members of the European Parliament examine the European Commission’s achievements and debate its objectives. It’s one of the ways in which the Parliament holds the executive power to democratic account. This year it will be held on Wednesday, September 12th at 09:00 CET. Click here to watch it live! #thistimeimvoting #EUelections2019
By Alexandra Brzozowski
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Look out for…
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Views are the author’s