In 2015, the Prime Minister of Hungary said “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building a new illiberal state based on national foundations.”
Hungary’s refusal to accept refugees and claim that national interests trump supranational ones is not a unique event.
Populism has swept across Europe and the United States in the wake of sluggish economic growth and an increasing stream of refugees. This movement threatens to undermine a host of supranational organizations whose valuable work is often left underappreciated.
To understand this threat, we can consider Trump’s implementation of tariffs and the recent Italian Election.
On March 8, Trump signed an executive order putting a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum as part of a move to fulfill his campaign promises and strengthen American industries. This move, popular with his base and a reflection of his “America first” sentiment, poses a grave threat to the very system that the United States has painstakingly created and expanded over the past seventy years: the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This is because Donald Trump relied on a rarely used article that allows countries to opt out of WTO rules in the name of “national security.”
This provision has been used mainly for implementing sanctions or in times of war. It was used on Argentina during the Falklands war, on Cuba and Nicaragua by the United States and against Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s tariffs are justified under this article not only because steel and aluminum are vital resources for the U.S. Department of Defense, but according to Trump, also because economic vitality is synonymous with national security.
Consider the gravity of that precedent. Any tariff arguably could fit, in Trump’s interpretation, under article 21. If this interpretation of this rule remains unchallenged and is actively used by member states, the WTO could very quickly become obsolete.
The WTO arbitration system has never once ruled on the extent of this provision. This places the WTO arbitration system is in a catch twenty-two.
Challenge Trump, have the process go through arbitration and weaken an article many countries see as a vital fallback (while risking an angry Trump exiting the WTO by tweet), or leave a precedent in place that undermines the very principles of the organization.
The threat to supranational organizations by populism is not limited to the United States but rages across the Atlantic.
The unprecedented move by Britain to withdraw from the EU after a popular referendum sent shockwaves through the West. One large concern spurring this movement has been immigration.
The countries absorbing the majority of refugees in Europe have been Spain, Italy and Greece. Their ability to cope with this wave of refugees has not only been limited by high GDP to debt ratios and sluggish economies, but also by a lackluster response from the rest of Europe to reduce the burden by taking on refugees. The strain of this burden is beginning to show.
In the recent Italian elections, populists skyrocketed into an electoral victory, with the anti-establishment five-star party winning the most votes of any single party, while the right-wing coalition, led by the anti-immigration Independent League, received the largest vote of any coalition. No ruling coalition has been formed as of yet, but whoever forms the final coalition will almost certainly come into conflict with Brussels over immigration and refugee policy.
Why do populists come into conflict with the international system? They often run on anti-establishment platforms, representing the “regular guy” who is being fleeced by the bureaucratic, bloated, liberal governing system. This can be the EU (UKIP in Britain), the UN (UNESCO-Trump), the ICC (Duterte), TPP (Trump) or the ruling elite.
Any system that takes away a country’s sovereignty limits their ability to act, or is controlled by the ‘elite’ is under threat by anti-establishment parties. These supranational organizations often have limited connection, at least in appearance, to the everyday lives of people, making them easy targets when voters are discontented with the status quo.
To say it is a conflict between liberals and populists is, of course, a simplification of a highly complex political system. Nonetheless, they represent two systems of ideas that inevitably will come into conflict. Although the Prime Minister of Hungary might claim they are not mutually exclusive, Brussels disagrees, launching a legal case against Hungary for not taking refugees just last December. The deadly results of this collision may only be realized once it is too late.
Alexander Screaton ’19 is from Lake Elmo, Minn. He majors in chemistry and political science.