By Jared Angle
Despite the European Union’s progress toward closer integration between its 28 member states, a notable number of national governments and political parties have increasingly begun to demonstrate illiberal behavior that contrasts with the values espoused by the supranational political framework in Brussels. In the past five years, populism has become an increasingly disruptive force, much to the ire of the European Union political institutions and of the political mainstream of its member states. As further developments of populist rhetoric begin to take hold in government, either as officially-sanctioned policy (in the event that populist parties have a role in government, either as the majority or in coalition) or as a polarizing influence that forces the hand of governing politicians (when the populist party’s rhetoric leads parties in government to adopt, to an extent, certain elements of the populist party’s platform to appease voters and maintain control), they threaten to undermine the values of liberal democracy and precipitate a reversal of decades of social and political integration in Europe.
Populist movements are by no means confined to any particular member state or group of states in the European Union, but regional differences in the methods and rhetoric of populist politics have made a profound impact on relations between the political establishment in Western Europe and the emerging countries of Eastern Europe. As this gap widens, the post-2004 accession states of Eastern Europe will be more likely to violate European Union laws and norms, stunting the political bloc’s development and reducing intra-regional confidence in the benefits in regional integration or, even worse, opening an opportunity for these states to disassociate themselves from the EU to secure political gain in the domestic sphere at the cost of civil liberties, regional cohesion, and economic progress. In addition to driving a wedge between Eastern Europe, whose countries continue to build upon the reforms that have enabled their European Union integration, and the well- established countries of Western Europe who form the political and economic core of the bloc, populist tendencies threaten to upend the European political establishment from within. As the pressures of economic uncertainty, geopolitical tensions, security threats, and immigration begin to converge, the propagation of political belligerence risks derailing the European project.