The Progressive Dilemma: Social Europe at a Crossroads

How populism and the twin shocks of 2016 have, at the same time, bolstered and smothered EU incentives for more social integration

European politics in the autumn of 2022 is overshadowed by the long predicted arrival of the hard right coalition government in Italy, the more abrupt rise of the Sweden Democrats and the European Commission’s constant struggle with the autocratic and increasingly arrogant governments of Hungary and Poland over the rule of law. The most alarming feature of these events is not that the party-political pendulum has swung to the right in Europe, but more and more that, in a number of cases, it is swinging towards the extreme right. The arrival of the extreme right in office threatens to undermine the stability and legitimacy of national democracies, as well as the cohesion of the European Union. 

Orbán and his Gang

His renewed rise was underestimated at first, but Viktor Orbán’s return to government in 2010 was indeed a major turning point for the delicate balance of power in Europe. For much of the international media, he became the black sheep of the EU. But he also inspired some on the centre-right. From 2015 he had an ally in power in Poland, lending him greater weight in international affairs. Together they were able to decisively influence the entire Visegrad group, especially on issues like migration and asylum. At the same time, through extending financial networks, Orbán developed alliances to the South of Visegrad, with the likes of right-wing Slovenian politician Janez Jansa, the Bulgarian Boyko Borisov, and the former (and nowadays fugitive) prime minister of North-Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski.

Right-wing populists in the East consolidated a model that facilitates economic convergence without a social dimension.

Economic nationalism has served as the glue for the authoritarian program in the region, even if it went hand in hand with allowing multinational companies to enter the manufacturing sectors. Even so, the Eastern European region reported more than half of all Covid-19 deaths registered in Europe before Omicron – despite accounting for just 39 % of the population. This dismal statistic reflects the weakness of health infrastructure and the consequences of a continuous hemorrhage of medical staff.

Importantly, in recent years, the European Peoples’ Party has provided a cover for Orbán and his followers. Yet events in the region can be viewed as a minor irritation compared to the twin shocks of 2016: the UK vote for Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump in the USA.

The Lasting Effects of the Double Shock

The double shock of 2016 led many to conclude the advent of a  populist megatrend, the threat of which  simultaneously exercised both a depressing and a positive effect on the EU. The pre-Brexit debates in the UK were far removed from reality, as pro-leave campaigners deliberately exaggerated the costs of membership, particularly in relation to matters such as internal EU migration. On other issues however, such as the transparency and democratic control of EU institutions, leavers pointed to genuine contradictionsthat had been critised by others before them. The Brexit process thereby  increased the chances of the EU placing greater emphasis on previously neglected (or frustrated) concerns, such as the deepening of the EU’s social dimension. As to the depressing effect, the nationalist and populist tendencies that flared up in the wake of the profound and prolonged global financial crisis  were taken by many to signify that further progress in EU integration was impossible since its support among society was lacking (or at least dwindling). This growing uncertainty – and the paralysing effect of the Brexit referendum – was also reflected in the White Paper published by the European Commission in March 2017, which opened a debate over a number of directions including those that might enable the partial dismantling of the EU.

A Social Agenda Against Disintegration Dangers

The financial and economic crises of the period 2008-2013 eroded, and in certain countries even severely shook, confidence in the European integration process. This was principally because the EU appeared not to be a force protecting society from financial upheaval, but rather as one endangering livelihoods, local self-determination and social cohesion. As the recovery began, however, sympathy for the EU also returned, and once again the conviction spread that the union needed to be strengthened in order for European countries to prosper. This being said, there can be no strengthening of the EU without expansion of its social dimension. 

To build on the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights, the Commission has launched legislation for decent minimum wages, the transparency of pay (particuarly for very high earners) as well as a stable work life balance. The social dimension of broader EU policies like the Green Deal, was well developed, jobs were protected by the SURE scheme at the time of the Covid-19 crisis, the concept of a Health Union gained traction, and a commitment was also made to establish an EU wide unemployment reinsurance mechanism. The cost of living crisis in the wake of the Russia—Ukraine war is an additional reason to push for more European solidarity and strengthen safety nets. This can be a new chapter in the history, but it will require Social Democrats to raise their voices more insistently and put forward a distinctive programme that can define the political and policy agenda of Europe for decades to come.

This article is published in cooperation with the Foundation for Eurpean Progressive Studies.


László Andor

Foundation for European Progressive Studies
László Andor is the General Secretary of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and a former EU-Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

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