The outcome of the ‘Brexit’ vote is a disaster for Britain as well as for the European Union (EU). Unless something unexpected happens, Britain will leave the EU after two years. Its economy will suffer and its politics will polarize still further. The EU, already flailing in its attempts to deal with multiple challenges, will have to cope with complicated British exit negotiations and the fillip the Brexit vote will give to far-right nationalist parties across Europe. Nationalism has been the scourge of European history (see Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century) and one should not underestimate its potency in European politics today.
The political and economic costs for the UK are likely to be severe. The legal and economic complications of extracting the UK legal system from decades of EU Single Market law (the basis for EU commerce) and striking new trade agreements, and the potential loss of EU professionals and businesses located in the UK, will undermine an already weak economy, sending it into renewed recession. The political system will splinter as stark divisions in both the Conservative and Labour parties – which mirror those in the electorate – provoke internecine fighting and disruptive realignments.
The consequences for Europe may be no less consequential. Nationalist anti-European parties have made a great deal of headway in many European countries – notably in France, Scandinavia, Italy, and more recently Germany – and Brexit is likely to enhance their own demands for EU exit referendums. It may also strengthen the hand of illiberal parties in power in Hungary and Poland. That will make the domestic politics of EU member states increasingly fractious and susceptible to democratic breakdown and violence. The decline in the quality of political discourse and open anti-immigrant xenophobia in the Brexit campaign, followed by an uptick in racist abuse against foreigners, is likely to be repeated elsewhere. Referendums – and their gross simplification of complex issues – are godsends for nationalists fueling the fires of popular discontent.
Those voting for Brexit are motivated by many reasons, among them concerns that echo across the European continent and beyond (including to the US): fantasies about the national past; discomfort with multiculturalism and changing social norms regarding, notably, gender equality and LGBT rights; and inchoate (and mistaken) beliefs that a return to ‘nation’ will produce better outcomes than economic integration. The post-referendum discourse of one of its major victors, UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, reveals much about the ideological yearnings of the Brexit vote. This was a victory, he crowed, for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people,” and for “belief in nation.” The sub-text is clear: real, ordinary, and decent people don’t have to put up with other kinds of people – foreigners, multiculturalists, internationalists – who believe in free and open societies more than they believe in “blood and soil.”
At its core, and in a way that cuts across socio-economic cleavages, the Brexit vote reveals the resurgence of a particular kind of English, rather than British, nationalism – though one with equivalents elsewhere – that dreams of the ‘Downton Abbey’ age of traditional values and hierarchies, small towns, cricket on the village green, and a homogeneous (white) population. One should not underestimate the role of racism in the appeal of UKIP and right-wing Conservatives and their nationalist message – one long trumpeted by Britain’s isolationist and xenophobic tabloid press. That nativist appeal has of course been linked with other more genuine and immediate concerns in the vote, including the consequences for prosperity of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession. And such nativist sentiments have always existed: many of the majority of older Britons who voted for Brexit have still to come to terms with the successive waves of UK immigration that have occurred since the 1950s. And the quaint mythology of ‘plucky little island Britain’ in World War II still resonates strongly with that group. But it takes politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK (much like Donald Trump in the US), to give them respectability and political traction.
The EU faces many challenges, as does the US, from adjustment to a changing world economy, large-scale immigration, and the security threats from a disintegrating Middle East and a newly belligerent Russia. There is a common view that in dealing with those issues the EU project is badly flawed, only makes things worse, and is ultimately responsible for nationalist resurgence. EU institutions, it is claimed, have ignored the needs and wishes of ‘ordinary’ people and are now reaping the whirlwind. That of course is a gross simplification of the kind that nationalists love to indulge in. But the fact that it is also paralleled in much ‘essentialist’ discourse from academics is shameful. For some time now, reasoned, cautious, and objective analysis of the EU has been subverted by simplistic political sloganeering; many academic articles now resemble blogposts with footnotes. The academic promotion of economic nationalism, attacks on the purported rise of ‘German hegemony,’ the use of labels such as ‘ordo-liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ to characterize (or rather caricature) complex realities, and widespread claims that the EU’s problems are endemic and incurable, are all fodder for nationalists across the continent.
In the end, the Brexit vote against the EU is really one against multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism, which although often distinct motives for voting by individuals, have been bundled together in a noxious anti-liberal package by Brexit campaigners and British tabloid newspapers like The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Express. That is why extensive arguments regarding the political and economic costs of leaving the EU by the Remain movement, the business sector, a large majority of economists, and the authoritative voice of the Bank of England, as well as EU leaders and international organizations, made little headway. As Conservative politician and Leave campaigner Michael Gove stated – echoing a strain of anti-intellectualism and mob mentality that runs through the history of nationalist movements – “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
The Brexit campaign was not really about the economic losses or gains from EU membership. Nor was it about the nature of European democracy. In most respects it was not about the EU at all. The Leave vote was primarily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, whipped up by unashamed nativists, nationalists, and bare-faced careerists, appealing to some of the least enlightened elements of the English character. As history tells us, once those forces are unleashed by unscrupulous politicians, they are very hard to contain.
Martin Rhodes is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Co-Director of the Colorado European Union Center of Excellence.
Note: For more on this topic, please see this short video from the BBC.