In their attempts to make sense of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, European analysts treat Britain as being fundamentally different from continental Europe. They present the tribes inhabiting the British Isles as the quintessential ‘other’. The boorish behavior of the two faces of the ‘Leave Campaign’, the buffoonish ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the seemingly permanently grinning leader of the nationalist UKIP party Nigel Farage, certainly makes it tempting to agree with both European commentators and with the Asterix quote.
However, the problem with this kind of analysis is that it views the referendum through a lens that only allows us to see the mud-slinging contest that has been dominating the Conservative Party and the UKIP Party in recent weeks. In doing so, European analysts have missed the target by a wide margin for two reasons.
Both the traditional and populist rightwing camps on their own would have been incapable of tearing Britain out of the EU. It was, in fact, the very significant Eurosceptic minority amongst the British Left that pushed the U.K. over the edge and thus out of the EU. Too many leftwing Eurosceptics either voted in favour of Brexit, or they simply stayed at home. What unites rightwing populism and the populism that, against all expectation, made Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party is a deep-seated skepticism towards the EU.
It needs to be said that Corbyn and his supporters define themselves as being Europhile. Yet their vision of Europe is directed against a supposedly evil ‘neo-liberal‘ EU. It was thus no surprise that Corbyn’s speeches for the ‘Remain’ camp came over as just about as enthusiastic, authentic, and truthful as someone delivering a speech with a pistol held against his back would be.
The ‘Remain’ side also lost the referendum because a significant number of Scots failed to take the referendum sufficiently seriously, as evident in the comparatively smaller voter turnout in Scotland. As the overwhelming majority of Scots hold positive attitudes towards the EU, it was difficult for many Scots to imagine quite how different popular sentiment in England and Wales was. There was far too little effort in Scotland to get people out to vote. When I recently visited my German hometown of Breckerfeld, I saw exactly the same number of election billboards as I did in Aberdeen, where I now live and work: none. In vain did I try to find cars in the north-east of Scotland bearing ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ bumper stickers.
Yet there is an even more important reason, than the failure adequately to take into account leftwing and Scottish behaviour, why analyses of the Brexit referendum that treat Britain as the ‘other’ are flawed.
In fact, Britain will leave the European Union, not because Britons are different from continental Europeans, but because they are almost exactly the same. This is why it would be a big mistake for European leaders to try to prevent a contagion of the Brexit crisis by treating the British government in secession negotiations as harshly as possible.
According to a recent survey of the Pew Research Center carried out in ten EU member states, almost exactly the same share of the British, German, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish population harbor Eurosceptic views. People in France and Greece hold even more hostile views about the EU than the British do. Only nations to the East of the former ‘iron curtain’ still hold overwhelmingly positive views of the EU.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum is a symptom of two interlocking crises that hold all of Europe in a tight grip: a EU crisis created inadvertently by pro-EU elites and a crisis of globalization. Both crises have driven voters across Europe into the arms of populists.
For far too long, European elites have ignored the will of the people in a paternalistic fashion, believing that they know better what is best for the people than the people themselves do. When, for instance, electorates in France and the Netherlands voted down the European Constitution that had been drawn up in the early 2000s, EU elites faced a choice.
They could either accept the outcome of the French and Dutch referenda, or make their case more persuasively in the hope that that would convince the people of the need for more integration. In the event, they did neither. Instead European governments simply met up in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and drew up a treaty that repackaged the contents of the European Constitution that had just been voted down. In doing so, they sneaked the Constitution in through the backdoor. Behavior of this kind, driven by arrogance towards the people, has fuelled populism across the continent. And it has thus inadvertently fanned a process of European disintegration.
Euroscepticism and disintegration have been fuelled further by a feeling held by many in Europe that they are the losers of globalization. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are worse off than they were in the past. And they have lost hope that their children’s future will be brighter than their own. They are not just afraid of a loss of national sovereignty. They are just as worried about a loss of their own personal sovereignty. Their perception is that, in a globalised world, the EU does no longer allow them to determine their own lives and hence to be masters in their own house.
Perceptions like these are the perfect soil for populists on both sides of the political spectrum to flourish. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Beatrix von Storch on the political right, but also figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn or at least initially Alexis Tsipras are seen as their advocates and the defenders of their rights by those who feel betrayed by the political establishment and by globalization.
If the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the growth of political populism will be accepted as a wake-up call to stop doing ‘business as usual’, something positive may come out of the British referendum. Populism would lose the oxygen that sustains it, if the right political lessons are drawn from the referendum. This would particularly be the case if ‘the people’, particularly those on the losing side of society, will in the future be treated with more respect.
However, with every day that populists are provided with stages from which they can preach, the political foundations of our societies become more porous and political discourse becomes more polarized.
As the Brexit referendum and all the other recent European crises reveal, any consensus about the future of our continent has long evaporated.
For one, three fundamentally different approaches as to how Europe can best survive in a globalised world compete with each other. Some believe that small innovative units (in the form of nation states) can best respond to the challenges of the 21st century . This view competes with the belief that only networks of states will allow Europeans still to be masters in their own house in the future . Others argue that only the formation of the United States of Europe will allow Europeans to lead a self-determined life a globalised world
In addition, three starkly different visions about what makes a good society and political economy compete against each other all over the Western world: a leftwing vision that blames ‘neo-liberalism’ for all the ills of society, a liberal worldview, and a national-conservative set of values. Recent years have indeed witnessed a return of ‘history’, in other words a reemergence of ideological strife in the West.
Nevertheless, despite a lack of consensus about the future, there is unlikely to be immediate doom. In the days and weeks to come, European governments and EU institutions and domestic political actors are likely to make deals and find compromises in order to prevent an immediate collapse of the EU.
The main challenge of Britain and European is, however, not the prevention of a spectacular collapse. There has been far too much of a tendency among journalists and historians to look at ‘big bang’ events in order to make sense of the collapse of states and societies. Yet, in fact, states, institutions, and federations often do not disappear with a ‘big bang’ in revolutions and wars. Far more often, they slowly degenerate over time. This is where the real danger of the rise in political populism lies, for it is the rise of populism that destroys the ability of the societies in which we live to reform and to find lasting and genuine compromises.
If Europe will not take immediate steps to address this problem, the foundation of our common European house will soon be so porous that first its roofs and subsequently its walls will fall in. The EU will then look just like a ruined Scottish castle: picturesque but defenceless. A self-determined life will then no longer be possible for its inhabitants in the globalised world of the 21st century. Neither Britons, nor Europeans elsewhere will then still be masters in their own house. This is why we urgently need to build a new, a better, a stronger, and a different Europe.