Europe’s Dangerous Nostalgia

MADRID – The European Union has a dangerous case of nostalgia. Not only is a yearning for the “good old days” – before the EU supposedly impinged on national sovereignty – fueling the rise of nationalist political parties; European leaders continue to try to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

Everyone was supposed to benefit from European integration. Whenever a new country joined, it received financial aid, while existing members gained access to a new market. The advantages, it was expected, would be apparent not just from aggregate data, but also from individual citizens’ own experience.

But reality has been less clear-cut. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the EU’s weaker economies faced skyrocketing unemployment, especially among young people, while its stronger economies felt pressure to “show solidarity” by bailing out countries in distress. When the stronger economies provided those bailouts, they included demands for austerity that impeded the recipients’ economic recovery. Few were satisfied, and many blamed European integration.

In this context, political parties and movements criticizing or opposing the EU have gained considerable traction, particularly in Western Europe. While these movements are nothing new, support for them has grown at alarming rates during the crisis-induced turmoil. Indeed, with every failed policy to aid economic recovery, Europeans have felt increasingly disenchanted, fueling populist sentiment and demands for a return to national sovereignty.