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Can the EU Survive Populism?

BRUSSELS – Another year, another threat to the European Union’s survival. The good news is that the greatest disruption of 2016, Britain’s vote to exit the EU, appears manageable. The bad news is that both France and Italy face the prospect of a populist political takeover this year. Either outcome could well spell the end of the EU.

The EU has lately become a prime target for populists. The phenomenon first took hold in Greece, when the left-wing Syriza party came to power in January 2015. But Syriza was not trying to pull Greece out of the EU; rather, it wanted a better deal with the country’s creditors, who had imposed devastating austerity measures on Greek citizens.

Syriza’s approach largely reflected the will of the people. In a June 2015 referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected a deal proposed by Greece’s creditors that would have meant even more austerity. Yet the government’s acceptance of a largely unchanged deal just a few days later received broad support. Greek voters understood that better terms were not worth losing eurozone membership.

To be sure, not everyone considered EU membership to be worth the sacrifice. But there was an air of practicality in popular criticism of the EU, which largely focused on what the EU did, especially in the economic sphere. That is why such criticism has been loudest in the countries that were hit the hardest by the euro crisis, or that faced austerity, or, more recently, that felt left behind by trade agreements.