BRUSSELS – There’s a silver lining to the dark clouds of populist Euroskepticism crowding in on the European Union. In Brussels and a number of Europe’s capitals, leaders know that the EU must respond to mounting discontent, and that – at long last – there is political capital to be gained in doing so.
The catalyst has been the United Kingdom’s often-nonsensical “Brexit” debate. The arguments of “Leave” campaigners are frequently inaccurate, when they are not outright lies; but the furious debate in Britain over whether to remain in Europe has laid bare the EU’s deep-seated weaknesses – and has forced European leaders to stop ignoring them.
The rise of Europe’s populist parties is exerting similar pressure across the continent. And yet, though feared, they have scant political credibility; the UK’s Brexiteers, by contrast, include government ministers who count the EU’s supposedly undemocratic decision-making among its main shortcomings.
In fact, the EU’s chief failures have little to do with democracy. The chaos of the refugee and migrant crisis, Europe’s inadequate response to the Arab Spring of 2011, the Ukraine crisis three years later, and Russia’s assertiveness cannot be blamed on how the EU reaches decisions. But they do underscore its inability to react quickly and decisively. Worse still, they highlight its failure to head off trouble by agreeing on clear economic and security strategies.