EZA Brussels Conference 2024

European elections 2024 and beyond: European democracy and the EU’s social dimension at stake

With less than three months until the European elections, recent surveys predict a significant shift, indicating a decline in the so-called “constitutional arc” parties and a rise in populist far-right factions. It was against this backdrop that EZA held its annual conference in Brussels on 19 and 20 March 2024, dedicated to exploring the intricate link between populism and social policy. 

The problem has been known for a long time, and to still be surprised is naïve, notes Cornelius Hirsch, Head of Research Products & Strategy at EU Reset. In fact, today's results are the culmination of a phenomenon that has been unfolding for decades. According to Francesco Seghezzi, President of ADAPT, populism is nothing but society’s response to a broader crisis – a diminishing trust in democracy, paralleled by the ebbing strength of trade unions, referred to as the crisis of “industrial democracy”. 

However, while grasping the historical conditions that fuelled the rise of today's populist movements is crucial, concentrating on the concerns driving voters of right-wing populist parties reveals actionable strategies. Daphne Halikiopoulou, Professor and Chair in Comparative Politics at the University of York, highlights a crucial point: “Core, ideological right-wing voters are only a minority. All the other peripheral right-wing voters have more materialistic concerns.” This is where policymakers and trade unions need to take action. One of the levers available is clear: the propensity to vote for far-right parties is inversely proportional to the generosity and coverage of welfare systems. 

And yet, if a country’s economic and social strategies can drive voters toward populist factions, these movements can similarly shape a country’s welfare state upon gaining parliamentary or governmental power. Thomas Miessen, responsible for European Trade Union Action at Belgian trade union ACV-CSC, illustrates this cycle, noting that “on social issues, economic issues, migration, and finance, far-right parties represented in the European Parliament have been systematically voting against the interest of their own voters.” 

When in government, populist right-wing parties rediscover the welfare state, utilizing it as a tool to exclude certain societal groups. “Welfare chauvinism” consists of adopting welfare state policies which reward “the deserving” while excluding “the undeserving”, fostering competition among societal groups and ultimately undermining solidarity, as explained by Juliana Chueri from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. 

Among the many actions to address this phenomenon, Patrick Develtere, Professor of International Cooperation at KU Leuven, calls for transparency and change, stating, “For years, we have been saying that globalization would be good for people (…) We told them that the market would solve all their social problems (…) We promised them that there would be a trickle-down effect.” But in the end, we have failed in our promises, again and again. Tom Shannon, Advisor at ETUC, emphasizes the necessity for robust social legislation to counteract the far-right’s rise, resonating with the European Trade Union Confederation's pre-election manifesto. Finally, the importance of consistent policy-making was underlined by Claude Rolin, former MEP and Secretary-General of ACV-CSC: “You can't keep talking about social policy on one hand, and at the same time adopt economic and budgetary policies like the EU’s new fiscal rules that preclude it on the other.” 

The conference enabled us to shed light on a few aspects of this complex and topical debate. The role of trade unions and workers' associations, and the responsibility of the parties in power, are clear. If the worst happens in June, we won't be able to say it's a surprise. 

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