When announcing the award for the European Union last week, the Nobel Peace Prize committee acclaimed the EU above all for its past record. It referred to its role in forging a lasting peace between France and Germany, in coaxing Portugal, Spain, and Greece out of dictatorships, in democratizing and modernizing Central Europe and Turkey, and for bringing stability to the Balkans. However, peace is never an irreversible fact, and the prize should serve to inspire elites to continue moving the European project forward. Given the continent's economic woes and the potential for social unrest, peace and stability cannot be taken for granted. In fact, there are many factions in Europe that would like little more than to reverse the integration that the founders of the European Union envisioned.
Nationalists, regionalists, radicals, separatists, and extremists, of sometimes indeterminate left- and right-wing alliances, rely on populism to appeal to wider audiences. Having exerted considerable efforts in countering an openly racist or hard-edged image, such groups now promote a defiant agenda based on historical symbolism, cultural pride, and national interests while blaming their countries' social declines and eroding identities on globalization, immigration, and mainstream politics. They easily tap into existing fears and frustrations, and so within the last decade, Europe has seen its radical factions evolve from extremist outcasts to fixtures of town hall politics and national assemblies.
In Hungary, conservative nationalists and right-wing extremists now control nearly 70 percent of seats in the national assembly. In Greece, Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist group, is represented by 6 percent of parliamentary representatives. In France, Marine Le Pen of the ultra-nationalist Front National, won nearly one-fifth of all votes in the first round of the presidential election, and recent local polls in Belgium saw a radical separatist faction seize a landslide victory with more than one-third of all votes. In Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden, radicalism and populism are also on the rise, putting the future of European cooperation at risk. Speaking recently in Brussels, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said that "the backlash against integration" is today Europe's biggest problem. He might just be right.
So far, the traditional mainstream parties have found no answer to the criticism from the fringes. To win back the hearts of their electorates, many leaders have incautiously adopted the rhetoric of radicalism, which further fuels the rise of populist sentiment. Despite Europe's citizens being affected by the worst financial crisis in decades and seeing their social welfare benefits fall victim to austerity measures, mainstream politicians have by and large avoided serious and open debate on these issues. Few politicians are standing up to inspire confidence by articulating a clear vision of Europe's destiny.
The resistance of radical nationalists to integration and European solidarity will further erode the ability of Europe to persevere as a prosperous and peaceful power. Without closer social, fiscal, and financial cooperation, individual European countries will not be able to prosper in a global marketplace. Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders denounces more financial integration while the disconnect between European markets has pushed his country into economic downturn. Individual member states also need closer economic and foreign policy cooperation, or they will not be able to compete with established and rising titans such as the United States, Russia, China, Brazil, or India. The Front National rejects EU cooperation to advance French foreign policy objectives, but in reality, it has become very difficult - even for a large country such as France - to influence international developments by itself. Radical nationalist efforts to reverse integration - at the state or European level - imply that, in the long run, Europe could be reduced to a smattering of mid-sized or small powers on the international stage. The radicalization of national interest has the real potential to put regional stability at risk.
Europe can still avoid a doomsday scenario. Although radical politicians have significantly increased their bases of support, in most cases they are yet to attain decision-making authority on matters of national policy. And although radical parties will continue to contest elections, the outcomes of their campaigns will still be influenced by both domestic and global developments.
There is only a little time left for this current generation of European leaders to prove that more integration will generate more stability and prosperity. European citizens - and the world - are primarily waiting for them to put their house back in order. But no tangible results can be achieved if each EU member state is marching to its own drummer. People turn to radical and populist rhetoric because mainstream political leaders appear paralyzed. To stop the further rise of radicalism, European elites will have to step up and give Europe the confident leadership that it needs.