The future of the EU: the return of remain and reform?

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Cinema 2Political futures

The rise of populism in Europe in recent years and the UK’s vote in 2016 to leave the EU have prompted many to question if the European Union can survive. Recently, however, there’s been a change of tone and renewed optimism about the prospects for reforming the EU. Increased voter turnout and a ‘green wave’ of support for pro-EU environmentalist parties in the 2019 European Parliament elections are cited as evidence of renewal. Eurosceptic, nationalist and populist parties performed below expectations, while pro-EU liberal and social-democratic parties did better than expected. Afterwards, some argued that the EU had renewed legitimacy.

Perhaps more surprising is a reluctance among Eurosceptic parties to push for a break with the EU. As one commentary put it, ‘instead of promising to protect people from the European Union, populists have started promising to make the EU protect the people’. In 2016, at least 15 parties across Europe campaigned for a referendum on their country’s EU membership. Yet today, populists in countries such as France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany now seem focused on securing change from within the EU. Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, captured the new mood by promoting the idea of a ‘Common-Sense Europe’: not an end to the EU, but a changed EU, one that focuses more on security, manages immigration more closely and takes a ‘nation first’ approach to the economy.

What accounts for these shifts and how significant are they? The UK’s protracted struggle to leave the EU certainly seems to demonstrate the difficulties confronting a state seeking to exit the bloc. Has the Brexit saga, and Greece’s failed attempt in 2015 to resist EU/eurozone tutelage, dealt a fatal blow to the idea of restoring national sovereignty?

Many question the viability of ‘remain and reform’ and whether it is possible to democratise the EU. For example, the idea of democratising the EU through the Spitzenkandidat system of nominating and electing the new Commission president dissolved when party groupings were ignored, and appointments emerged via cynical horse-trading within the Council of Ministers.

Nevertheless, Yanis Varoufakis of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 believes that, through creating a citizen-oriented New Deal for Europe, the EU can become a democratic force for good. Would, for example, allowing the European Parliament to propose laws mean that MEPs become more important to people who vote for them? The Democracy in Europe Movement won little electoral support in the countries in which it stood, which might suggest that few believe in the possibility of reforming the EU.

Is the EU an empire in decay? Can a case be made for the idea of ‘remain and reform’ and for an evolved, more democratic EU in which nation states function democratically?