Event Report: Solidarity, Identity and Populism in the EU

Matteo Bottero (DCU Brexit Institute)

On 7-8 June 2021, the Brexit Institute organised the fifth conference of the Jean Monnet Network BRIDGE event series, entitled “Solidarity, Identity and Populism in the EU”. The event, which was hosted by the BRIDGE Network partner University of Copenhagen, took place via zoom and offered an opportunity to discuss the challenges of solidarity, identity and populism in the EU, including in view of developments like the migration crisis, Brexit, and the ongoing debate on the future of Europe.

The conference was opened with an introduction by the chair of the first panel on “The EU, Democracy and Populism”, Helle Krunke (University of Copenhagen), who explained the aim of the conference to provide a response to the current EU crises, especially the growing populism, especially emphasising the role of transnational solidarity. In doing so, she pointed out the link between the BRIDGE Network and the project DEMOS – Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe, which the University of Copenhagen is also part of. The first speaker, Boda Zsolt (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) offered a presentation entitled “The EU democracy, identity and populism: fragility of the culture of democracy”. At first, he noticed the current democratic backsliding, involving a general decline in percentage change of democratic score all over the World since 2006. Different forms of norm erosion have been registered in a number of EU countries, namely Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, France, Portugal, and Italy (in the last three cases, this is probably due also to national responses to the pandemic). Against this backdrop, Dr. Zsolt focused on populist strategy, which entails the promotion of social division and the polarization between the people (the good) and their enemies. Even if, at times, it fosters democratic stances in terms of people mobilisation, populism generally presents illiberal tendencies liable to hamper the democratic standard. Dr. Zsolt concluded with an investigation of the challenges to Europe, and affirmed that populism should be recognized as a warning signal. After questioning if the EU has the appropriate legal means to tackle this challenge, he put forward some suggestions, practicing and teaching democracy, underpinning solidarity and Social Europe, as well as pursuing European identity and values. Afterwards, Helle Krunke (University of Copenhagen) presented her current research on “The effect of populism on the EU legal system”, investigating the EU responses to populism through the principle of the ‘rule of law’ and a number of EU tools, such as the Rule of law framework. Looking at the effect of populism on the EU legal system, she underlined the resulting general awareness of the EU fundamental rights and the crystallization of the EU constitutional identity. These effects derived from a series of moments testifying the development of the EU, namely the establishment of the Coal and Steel Community, the Declaration of European Identity based on the 1973 Copenhagen Conference, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the introduction of Article 7 TEU in the context of the 2000 Nice Treaty, and the relevant case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (in primis, its judgement in Kadi). According to Professor Krunke, the ‘rule of law’ crisis has triggered the development of new tools and sanction mechanisms to address the emerging issues, while forcing the EU to reflect on and refine the interpretation and scope of its values and principles. To this extent, it can be considered as a driver of EU constitutional identity. The third speaker, Hanna Eklund (University of Copenhagen), offered some insights on the relations between taxation and democracy. In looking at the internal threats to democracy, she quoted Altiero Spinelli, who considered “every individual” at the heart of the concept of democracy. According to Dr. Eklund, the current outdated system of taxation is among the factors leading to the growth of economic inequality in the EU in terms of, inter alia, access to quality houses and healthcare. In her view, EU law has the potential to address income inequality through modern forms of taxation, such as corporation and environmental taxes. The last speaker of the panel, Christian Christfort Gormsen (European University Institute), described the main features of his current PhD research on “EU Citizenship Acquisition and the Role of Wealth”, focusing on the practice of acquisition of citizenship (ius pecuniae) in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta and its compatibility with international and EU law. He also looked at the role of wealth vis-à-vis the concept of Union citizenship and, more generally, at the relevance of the principle of sincere cooperation at the European Union level. In the following discussion, Lina Papadopoulou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) expressed her view on the risk of EU constitutional identity, in light of its contrast to populism, to exclude some countries and people which do not fit into this definition and on the related issues in terms of democracy. Federico Fabbrini (Dublin City University) also emphasized that the need of reaffirming the respect of the EU principles and values of ‘rule of law’ and ‘democracy’ testifies the possible lack of these values and principles in the EU. He also warned against the potential risk of breach of EU values in the Nordic countries, with respect to the newly adopted rules on immigration and asylum.

The second panel on “Solidarity, Human Values and Identity Politics” was chaired by Stefania Baroncelli (University of Bozen-Bolzano). The first speaker, Miriam Cullen (University of Copenhagen) offered an interesting insight on climate-related displacement and mobility. She firstly noticed that climate-related displacement is a driver of migration (mobility is a form of adaptation to climate change), even though we do not know how many people will move in the future as a consequence of environmental change. While most of the studies mainly focus on the external dimension of the problem, the majority of the people affected by climate-related displacement do not move across borders. Against this background, the European Commission has currently no responses to the internal dimension of climate-related displacement and mobility. The EU is therefore called to find a new balance between responsibility and solidarity and to coordinate national responses according to the principle of solidarity. The second speaker of the panel, Matteo Bottero (Dublin City University), offered an interesting perspective on the role of solidarity in the sphere of intra-EU labour mobility. In his presentation, entitled “EU Solidarity for the Posted Workers”, he firstly provided a definition of posting of workers as a peculiar form of intra-EU labour mobility, as well as of the relevant EU legal framework, including an analysis of the most recent Directive (EU) 2018/957. Afterwards, he confronted the controversial expected impact of Directive (EU) 2018/957 on the EU labour market with the EU value of solidarity, underlining the emerging frictions with respect to the transnational dimension of solidarity. In light of the inability of the current EU legal framework to fully realise solidarity for the posted workers, Dr. Bottero proposed, as possible recommendations, the promotion of the posted workers’ access to transnational and multilevel networks of trade unions and the definition of a European coordination scheme of national approaches to minimum wage policy. He concluded with a reflection on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of posting, and on the need to find effective solutions at the EU level, in accordance with the EU value of solidarity. When Ian Manners (Lund University) took the floor delivered a presentation on “Solidarity, Human Values and Identity Politics”. He started by emphasizing that we are all equal in terms of human rights and defined solidarity as sharing in a communion. In his opinion, we are at the beginning of a global crisis where the pandemic, income inequality and environment are all interrelated issues Professor Manners then investigated the concept and relevance of human values in planetary economy (especially in terms of income inequality; which remains an unanswered issue), society, ecology, conflict, and polity. After observing that equality, justice, security, resilience and sustainability are the current challenges for the EU, he welcomed the pursuit of solidarity within Europe, across Europe and outside of Europe. The last speaker of the second panel, Renata Uitz (Central European University), centered her presentation on the effects of the ongoing ‘rule of law crisis’ and on the successful action of illiberal governments to questioning the EU values. In fact, Poland and Hungary are exploiting in many ways their ability to create interinstitutional conflict at the EU level, by fostering anti-pluralism and anti-universalism. More specifically, the governments of those two member states are pushing for a series of identity claims involving political, professional and religious organisations and supported by a huge amount of funding. In 2018, Orban proposed a Christian democratic renaissance to provoke German Christian democrats, instrumentalising traditional Christian values and depicting Christian communities as a persecuted minority to fight against gender LGBTQ+ ideology. It did so by stimulating extremism and violence and stealing the language of decency. The strategic opposition against the Istanbul Convention with the adoption on 22 October 2020 of the anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family (cosponsored by the governments of Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Uganda and the United States) was a clear step in this direction. Professor Uitz also warned that populism is often seen as a local phenomenon, while instead it has transnational dimension. In the following discussion, she emphasized that the people that saw this dramatic developments coming (like LGBTQ+ organisations and her) were not so popular. Ian Manners also noticed the analogy with the Brexit campaign that, for 7 years, was underpinned by a false narrative and economics. And the same goes today for the Scotland’s independent movement.

The Conference continued on Tuesday 8 June with a third panel on “Nordic Perspectives on Differentiation and Secession”, chaired by Helle Krunke (University of Copenhagen). At the beginning, Ulf Bernitz (University of Stockholm) offered a Swedish perspective over its 25 years as a member of the EU. At first, he effectively summarized the Swedish attitude towards the EU, where a clear majority (56%) is in favor of the EU and only 17% is willing to leave the Union. However, Sweden is not a member of the Euro, as only 14% is in favor of adopting the EU currency. Professor Bernitz also underlined that the attitude of the country towards immigration has gradually changed over the years, becoming more and more reluctant to welcome migrants and asylum seekers. When looking at the impact of Brexit in Sweden, he affirmed that the event was not considered as a positive outcome. The second speaker, Graham Butler (Aarhus University), delivered an interesting presentation on “Legal Creativity and the Ways of Derogating from EU Law: Opt-outs, International Agreements, and Deals”, where he highlighted how matters related to EU law are normally considered using the legal tools provided by EU law and reflected on the possibility of making recourse to international law for matters that are within EU law. To this end, he shared three examples. First, on the occasion of the Danish ratification of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, the result of the referendum was against the accession to the EU. However, the 1993 Edinburgh Decision (international law) amended the understanding and application of the Treaty of Maastricht and, as a consequence, the Treaty was ratified, unchanged. Second, in response to the EU sovereign debt crisis (2010-2014), besides the adoption of the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM) and the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), two mechanisms of international law, namely the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the EU fiscal compact, were established. Third, in the context of the phenomenon of migration of third-country nationals into the EU between 2014 and 2016, migration arrangements in the field of international law were approved. Notably, those arrangements took the shape of the Dutch Foreign Minister ‘joint communiqué’ and the engagement of EU member states towards the adoption of the EU-Turkey Agreement in 2016. In conclusion, Associate Professor Butler noticed that the use of ad hoc international law solutions, especially invoked in times of crisis, constitutes an actual pattern reaching outside the EU legal order. Afterwards, Christoph Hillion (University of Oslo) put forward some reflections on how Norwegians perceive their relation with the EU. At first, he observed that 70 different agreements are currently into force between Norway and the EU. Norway is a member of Schengen and of asylum and police cooperation, and is part of the European Economic Area (EEA) between the EU and the EFTA countries. In particular, the EEA framework is a case of ‘indirect-direct effect’, as the CJEU is competent to decide many of the issues emerging in this context. The non-accession of Norway to the EU remains a controversial issue, also considering that the 1994 Norwegian European Union membership referendum did not succeed due to a small number of votes (52% vs 48%). When considering the impact of Brexit in Norway, Professor Hillon noticed an increase of public support for EU membership and, especially, for the EEA agreement. The presentation of the last speaker of the panel, Tuomas Ojanen (Helsinki University), focused on “Finnish Perspective on Differentiation and Secession”, highlighted two trends of Finland’s EU approach: on the one hand, the increasing gap between constitutional framework and de facto Finnish policy/politics and, on the other hand, the tendency towards politicization of ex ante constitutional review of EU measures by the Constitutional Law Committee of Parliament. After recognizing that the new Constitution of Finland of 2000 emphasised the specificity of EU membership among international relations, he considered the European debt crisis and the refugee crisis as game changers in relation to the rise of populist, neo-Nazist and anti-immigration parties. Professor Ojanen concluded with an interesting reflection on the eventual approval by the Constitutional Law Committee of the Own Resource Decision, the EU’s 750billion Euro recovery fund, which was the result of an unusual close 9-8 decision and a symptom of the politicization of the CLC.

The fourth panel on “Post-Crisis Governance and the Future of Europe”, chaired by Renata Uitz (Central European University), started with a presentation by Janine Silga (University of Luxembourg) on “The New Pact on Migration and Asylum: Post-Crisis Governance?”. She first dealt with the refugee crisis and the new partnership framework with third countries and, then, she offered an insight on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which introduces substantial changes to the relevant EU legal framework. In particular, this new pact envisages the creation of an extensive solidarity mechanism between the EU member states, and of a ‘solidarity form’. Nonetheless, Dr. Silga observed a number of drawbacks as well, namely weaker protection of the right to an effective remedy, more elusive access to the EU territory for asylum seekers, and conditionality-based partnership with third countries. Afterwards, Roberto Farneti (University of Bozen and Bolzano) talked about post-crisis governance and the future of Europe in a presentation entitled “No Country for Old Men”. Unlike many European leaders, he noticed, the new/young European political leaders have a common culture and common transnational experiences (e.g. participation in Erasmus exchanges) from which they acquire a new political strength. In this sense, they can benefit from a competitive advantage vis-à-vis their eldest counterparts. The organizer of the event, Federico Fabbrini (Dublin City University), also participated as a speaker and delivered a presentation on “The Conference on the Future of Europe: Process and Prospects”. After analyzing the historical rationale of the Conference on the Future of Europe, he recognized how the latter’s constitutional mission remains still unsettled. Along the same lines, the Conference’s institutional organization is still uncertain, as it stands between bottom-up and top-down initiatives. In light of the extremely complicated mechanism envisaged to change the Treaties, political leadership and legal inventiveness are endowed with the responsibility to find innovative solutions to reform the current EU political and institutional setting. Professor Fabbrini concluded by questioning the concrete potential and outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In his view, it is a long-coming process, with open-ended prospects that have the potential of revitalizing the Union. The last speaker of the panel, Matej Avbelij (New University, Ljubljana), focused on “EU Crises, Remedies and Revitalization of EU Constitutionalism”. According to him, the several crises faced by the EU integration process (such as Brexit, the ‘rule of law’ crisis, and the economic crisis) raise constitutional questions, and the remedies undertaken tend to perpetuate the unsustainable status quo. Against this background, the EU needs to be transformed into a fully-fledged political Union through constitutionalization, in such a way as to address the current lack of federal democratic awareness on the part of the EU citizens. To this end, the Conference on the Future of Europe may represent an important constitutional moment that could revitalize the Union.

The conference concluded with a Keynote Speech by the former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox, who focused on the Conference on the Future of Europe. In his view, this is a widely inclusive initiative that involves the European society at large towards a more pluralist form of democracy. This Conference also fosters a positive use of social media, which are vital in the spread of identity but are, worryingly, mainly exploited by populists. A further positive feature is that the Conference will have a joint presidency and executive board expressing the three main institutions, that would help address the increasingly fragile and fragmented EU political framework. Mr. Cox then considered the EU response to the pandemic and the detrimental impact of the close of borders on mobility across the Union. COVID-19 has told us that we live in the same World. In parallel, Brexit dominates the EU attention, but the EU has clearly moved on and is now focused on the Green Deal and on the use of its own resources to address the current challenges. With a view to the 2024 elections of the European Parliament, Mr. Cox expressed his idea that this will represent a crucial turning point for the EU. Even more importantly, the recovery and resilience facility represent an important progress for the EU, although only of a temporary nature. The introduction of a permanent budgetary capacity of the EU will certainly endeavor the Union with greater relevance and power. The former President of the European Parliament concluded with some thoughts on the intrinsic nature of the European Union. The EU is sui generis; it is neither a State nor a federation. It is much more: the biggest single market, one of the strongest currencies, a supranational legislator, and the representative of 27 powerful states. In light of its uniqueness, the EU needs to fit the realities of the 21th Century.

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