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Anti-EU Movements: Implications for European Integration and Transatlantic Relations

By Joyce Iwashita, Transatlantic Security and Economy Analyst


Extremist. Nationalist. Anti-immigrant. Rising “populist” parties across Europe have been described in many unflattering ways. The one-word descriptors paper over many differences among populist parties in Europe and the regions they draw support from that should not be ignored. Populist movements throughout Europe fundamentally differ in their messages and political affiliations to the right and left, in whether they take a moderate or hardline approach, and in their degrees of electoral and agenda-setting success. At the same time, there are strong similarities in the way that many of these parties blame foreigners, draw on wells of nationalism, and push for anti-EU policies. While the parties themselves are important manifestations of democracy, growing support for their anti-EU stances poses risks to European integration and transatlantic relations.

The Rise of Anti-EU Parties

Two major factors have contributed to the rise of nationalist, anti-establishment parties in the EU. The EU’s relatively free market for labor has hindered the efforts of national governments to control migration flows at a time when Europe is struggling to deal with an influx of migrants and refugees and many Europeans continue to fear a link between immigrants and violent extremism. At the same time, the EU has economically struggled in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and people of different countries blame each other for the stagnation. The growth that anti-establishment parties have enjoyed as a result captures growing public discontentment with the status quo and a desire for institutional reform. In the last European Parliament elections in 2014, parties that supported leaving the EU or Eurozone took almost 19 percent of available seats, more than doubling their representation compared with the 2009 elections. More broadly, anti-establishment parties took almost a third of seats and have made gains in every national election since then.

While populist parties have been around for decades, the more recent series of electoral gains by anti-EU parties and secessionist movements in the EU have made political leaders and analysts worry that a more profound shift away from integrated European policies is occurring. Thus far, these anti-EU parties have not been able to shape policy at the European level but they could influence the EU more dramatically in the future by obstructing progress in particular political areas that require broad agreement such as the further development of Eurozone institutions. Their influence is also evident at the national level, where the growing popularity of anti-EU parties have pressured establishment parties to pursue policies more aligned with national rather than European interests. As a result, populist proposals have strengthened at the expense of a unified Europe.

European Integration and Transatlantic Relations

Specific policies that anti-EU parties support would chip away at European integration and ultimately hurt the people of Europe. For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which has made significant local gains, wants Britain to leave the EU. Although the prospect of a Brexit gives Prime Minister David Cameron leverage to renegotiate Britain’s position with the EU, an actual vote in favor of leaving, as some polls suggest could occur, would have negative long-term effects on the country and the Union. The German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung has warned that a Brexit could lead the UK to lose as much as 14 percent of GDP and negatively impact all remaining member states. Likewise, anti-immigrant parties across the continent have pushed for the reinstatement of border controls at the expense of the Schengen Agreement, which guarantees passport-free movement within much of continental Europe and has been a cornerstone of European economic and political unity. Most recently in October, the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) won just under 30 percent of the Swiss vote in national elections to become Switzerland’s biggest party. Last year, SVP proposals, which would breach the principle of free movement of people, complicated efforts to renegotiate Switzerland’s relationship with the EU.

The popularity of anti-establishment parties also poses risks to transatlantic relations. Russia is strongly suspected of financially supporting far-right and left political parties across Europe. Party leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the Fidesz party, have voiced opposition to European sanctions on Russia. Though far from representing a turn away from transatlantic relations, a less unified European stance toward Russia would limit the U.S.’s ability to rely on Europe. Neil Barnett, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies has even argued that pro-Russian parties in Europe aim to “get elected on a reasonable-sounding mandate and then break trans-Atlantic ties.” Anti-EU parties, on the left and right, could further damage transatlantic relations through their opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a U.S.-EU free trade agreement that would encompass about a third of global trade. Many anti-EU parties support free trade but oppose the EU’s role in the negotiations. Although the ability of the diverse parties to form a united front is questionable, U.S. officials are concerned enough to pay close attention to fringe parties throughout the EU and the likelihood that they will embrace a protectionist agenda.

EU: The Problem and Solution

Support for continued integration and the implementation of common policy solutions are necessary to strengthen the EU and its individual member states, and to support transatlantic relations. A panel of experts from the U.S. and Europe convened by the Brookings’ Center for the United States and Europe in April acknowledged that “frustration with European integration is a significant cause of populist sentiment” but broadly agreed that solutions based on unity are likely to be more effective. The panel advocated “better EU institutions for economic policy, stronger European cooperation on immigration and counterterrorism, and rock-solid European unity in confronting Russia.” The EU has moved forward on some of these issues by, for example, instituting a quota system to resettle refugees. But strong opposition among and within member states has made it difficult for European leaders to negotiate policy measures that depend on EU cohesion.

European leaders must garner political support for common policy solutions. While support will grow as joint proposals already in place work to ease crises, they must draw on their leadership and political courage to stand by these policies and explain to their electorates why integrated solutions are in their nations’ best interests. Hugo Dixon, founder of Breakingviews, argues that Prime Minister Cameron should stop discouraging British businesses from campaigning in favor of membership before a deal with the EU is reached because the British people need to understand that they cannot have the benefits of being in the EU without the costs. Leaders can learn from political strategies that backfired in Norway and Denmark, where mainstream parties conceded to anti-immigrant parties on policies and began using similar language in an approach that only increased public support for anti-integrationist outcomes. A 2014 study by the German Marshall Fund found that people are far more inclined to say that there are too many immigrants in their country when not given the percentage of immigrants actually in their country. By rewriting the nationalist narrative, political leaders in favor of united European approaches can campaign for policies that will strengthen their regions, states and transatlantic relations.

In the interest of strengthening transatlantic relations, the U.S. can help improve EU cohesion by supporting common EU policies and aiding the EU during crises when it can. Under pressure to help European nations resettle Syrian refugees, President Obama announced in September that the U.S. would take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year, up from fewer than 2,000 this past fiscal year. The move demonstrates support for the U.S.’s closest allies and may help calm European resentment toward outsiders, but with more than 700,000 migrants and refugees arriving in Europe so far this year, the increase remains too low. Fear of a link between immigrants and terrorism, despite the complex refugee resettlement process and the economic benefits of integrating migrants into the workforce, can be managed and should not deter the U.S. from supporting its European allies when it is in its best interest to do so.


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