Governance Protest

Brexit, the Rise of Populist Nationalism, and the Future of Europe

By Martin Rhodes for Denver Dialogues.

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Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party Conference, 2011. Photo via BackBoris2012 Campaign Team.

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.

6 Comments

  • I think it is a mistake to ignore the declining economic and political position of the English working class and attribute their desire to leave the EU to racism, xenophobia, and bigotry alone. The rise of these forms of tribalism probably owes a great deal to the increase of inequality, the decline of the situations of the less well-off, and the political decline of the organized Left. All that is left for many is the tribalism.

    • As I said in the article, the nationalism behind the vote cut across socio-economic cleavages, and was not simply an expression of working class anxiety. The outer suburbs of the large cities, including London, the exurbs and shires voted in very large majorities to leave the UK. And those are people who have done very well indeed from the liberal economic reforms of the Thatcher governments, and those that followed.

      That said, the working class Leave vote in the north of England is interesting and bears closer analysis. Scottish working class voters – coming from old industrial areas that have been even more blighted than those in England – voted quite differently from their counterparts across the border. The British Labour Party has seen its vote hemorrhage in those old industrial areas to the pro-European SNP in Scotland, but into UKIP in England, whose working class support is now around 60 per cent of its total. Many of those voters live in areas neglected by recent UK governments but invested in by the EU via its structural funds. Which didn’t help garner their support for Remain, however. UKIP has framed the problems those people face in terms of immigration and has exploited their plight for its own purposes. I don’t disagree that this has helped drive their recourse to what you call tribalism.

      But one should also note that racism in the working class, and in the union movement, is not a new phenomenon. The Labour Party has had to try and bridge the cultural and economic interest gap between its cosmopolitan middle-class vote and its more traditional working class base. But as with many other European Social Democratic parties, that strategy has been undercut by nationalists using very simple but very effective messages to appeal to what I call ‘the least enlightened elements of the English character’.

  • Surely, nationalist politics of the sort you are critiquing only get opportunities from the failures of ordinary politics. The European project cannot be seen as a purveyor of only good things, it’s dysfunctions also have to be considered. The shift from being the EEC to being the EU has seen rising popular discontent across Europe manifested in “angry votes” which are not only nationalist in form: if that discontent is not seen as pressure to pay better attention, of course “outsider” political entrepreneurs get increased opportunities.

  • Dear Lorenzo

    Your question raises a very interesting issue that needs to be addressed if we are to understand what is happening in Europe. You raise the issue of the EU’s dysfunctions and its correlation with the rise of the ‘angry voter’. That correlation is frequently asserted by many academics, and it is certainly the case that ‘anti-Europeanism’ is a more potent force today than in the past. But in my view the correlation is difficult to validate, and mistakes the nature of the forces at work in contemporary Europe. There are several points I’d make in this respect:

    – To equate the ‘angry voter’ with the EU’s purported dysfunctions is to ignore that fact that the biggest ‘dysfunction’ (though the term is yours not mine) is that the functioning of the Eurozone has compounded the economic crisis. Although the mechanism is never made clear, it is also argued (including by academics who should know better) that the EU has somehow prevented welfare states from doing their job of dealing with social injustice. But the angriest voters and their support for far-right nationalism (I’m excluding here the rise of left-wing or anti-system opposition to the status quo in southern Europe) have emerged in countries that not only are not members of the Eurozone but which have extremely generous welfare states. Look at Sweden and Denmark for evidence. Something else must be going on.

    – To equate the ‘angry voter’ with the EU is to accept the arguments of the nationalist far-right and to ignore the rather obvious ways in which the nationalist parties appeal to disaffected voters. The simple equations made between immigration, multi-culturalism and the ‘loss of control to Brussels’ by UKIP and right-wing Conservatives in the Brexit debate tell us a couple of things. First, that scapegoats are always useful for whipping up and channeling discontent about almost anything in a certain direction. Yes, the EU has created a zone for freedom of movement, and it is one that Britain signed up to in 2004 – ahead of many other EU member states. That became a cause celebre for the British right. The message that the resultant migration to the UK of certain groups (notably Poles) had damaged the British welfare state because of their purported welfare dependency (regardless of massive evidence to the contrary) was trumpeted again and again by Britain’s xenophobic tabloid media – the major source of opinion for a very large number of Brits. As some wag said, misquoting Abraham Lincoln, “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time – and those are pretty good odds”.

    – Accepting the narrative that “this is all the EU’s fault” is to accept not just the nationalist’s narrative but also to succumb to its strategy – which is ultimately to remove the EU and its human rights and social laws and norms from the EU’s member states. Of course the nationalist right is anti-EU. With the EU in its present form, attacking non-EU migration and the influx of refugees and actually introducing laws to marginalize and victimize that population cannot easily be achieved. Islamist attacks in Europe, focused on France, will be a great enable of that strategy. But in my view so too will the failure of public intellectuals – with the exception of a notable few, such as Jurgen Habermas – to defend the core purpose of the EU, which if it is anything it is to protect Europe from the destructive and racist nationalisms that made the first part of the 20th century so ugly.

    Martin

  • Dear Lorenzo

    Your question raises a very interesting issue that needs to be addressed if we are to understand what is happening in Europe. You raise the issue of the EU’s dysfunctions and its correlation with the rise of the ‘angry voter’. That correlation is frequently asserted by many academics, and it is certainly the case that ‘anti-Europeanism’ is a more potent force today than in the past. But in my view the correlation is difficult to validate, and mistakes the nature of the forces at work in contemporary Europe. There are several points I’d make in this respect:

    – To equate the ‘angry voter’ with the EU’s purported dysfunctions is to ignore that fact that the biggest ‘dysfunction’ (though the term is yours not mine) is that the functioning of the Eurozone has compounded the economic crisis. Although the mechanism is never made clear, it is also argued (including by academics who should know better) that the EU has somehow prevented welfare states from doing their job of dealing with social injustice. But the angriest voters and their support for far-right nationalism (I’m excluding here the rise of left-wing or anti-system opposition to the status quo in southern Europe) have emerged in countries that not only are not members of the Eurozone but which have extremely generous welfare states. Look at Sweden and Denmark for evidence. Something else must be going on.

    – To equate the ‘angry voter’ with the EU is to accept the arguments of the nationalist far-right and to ignore the rather obvious ways in which the nationalist parties appeal to disaffected voters. The simple equations made between immigration, multi-culturalism and the ‘loss of control to Brussels’ by UKIP and right-wing Conservatives in the Brexit debate tell us a couple of things. First, that scapegoats are always useful for whipping up and channeling discontent about almost anything in a certain direction. Yes, the EU has created a zone for freedom of movement, and it is one that Britain signed up to in 2004 – ahead of many other EU member states. That became a cause celebre for the British right. The message that the resultant migration to the UK of certain groups (notably Poles) had damaged the British welfare state because of their purported welfare dependency (regardless of massive evidence to the contrary) was trumpeted again and again by Britain’s xenophobic tabloid media – the major source of opinion for a very large number of Brits. As some wag said, misquoting Abraham Lincoln, “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time – and those are pretty good odds”.

    – Accepting the narrative that “this is all the EU’s fault” is to accept not just the nationalist’s narrative but also to succumb to its strategy – which is ultimately to remove the EU and its human rights and social laws and norms from the EU’s member states. Of course the nationalist right is anti-EU. With the EU in its present form, attacking non-EU migration and the influx of refugees and actually introducing laws to marginalize and victimize that population cannot easily be achieved. Islamist attacks in Europe, focused on France, will be a great enable of that strategy. But in my view so too will the failure of public intellectuals – with the exception of a notable few, such as Jurgen Habermas – to defend the core purpose of the EU, which if it is anything it is to protect Europe from the destructive and racist nationalisms that made the first part of the 20th century so ugly.

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