Two and a half years ago the British voted to leave the European Union. Populist parties came to power in Greece and Italy, and people feared (or in some cases hoped) that Brexit was the start of the breakup of the EU. Others noted that populist movements were bringing back European nationalism, which could point to a return to the politics of old, when European countries went to war, and economic cooperation was limited due to fear of dependency.
Fast forward to March 2019. In Greece the Syriza party remains in power, even as its leader Tsipas, elected as a leftist Euroskeptic, has embraced neo-liberal reforms. In Italy the power of the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord meant a right wing populist government that was seen as anti-EU and very suspicious of German influence. Now Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte is embracing reforms promoted by the EU, and the parties have distanced themselves from their pre-election rhetoric.
One reason for this decline in populist fervor could be the British tragedy unfolding in the United Kingdom. I mean tragedy in a theatrical sense – the British political system seems tied up in knots as they can’t figure out how to do Brexit – and they still not even sure they’ll do it.
This week Theresa May put a deal her government made with the EU to a vote. It was a good deal, probably the best that May could have hoped for. It would limit the disruption of the departure by phasing it in, and reaching agreements to keep economic links in place. It was clear that a complete break would mean a flight of capital from the UK, a loss of jobs, higher costs, and maybe even short term shortages.
Her deal failed dramatically in a January vote, and failed by a smaller, but still significant margin on March 12th. Today – March 13th – the House of Commons voted to not accept a “no-deal Brexit.” But even that was controversial. Prime Minister May opposed an amendment to her bill which took out language saying that without the EU agreeing to an extension of negotiations, a no deal Brexit is the default. She ordered her party to oppose the amendment, but to her chagrin it passed anyway. On Thursday the parliament will vote to ask the EU for an extension.
Now, without a deal or an extension, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty legally mandates a hard Brexit – the UK out with no deal. But MPs (members of parliament) claim that March 13’s amendment legally obligates the government not to accept a no-deal Brexit. That seems to be an obligation that by definition the government can’t guarantee.
So they want Brexit. They want a deal. But they are rejecting the only deal the EU is likely to offer. The major reason is Ireland. The Irish strongly oppose a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. One reason the “troubles” of northern Ireland have died down is that the EU has made it somewhat irrelevant that the North remains in the UK. One can trade across the border and travel between the two without having to go through customs. The Irish will not support any deal that changes this situation, so the agreement had a “backstop” – a provision that the border will remain open. That is the part of the deal that many Brexitiers oppose – they fear that keeps the UK in a defacto customs union.
There seems to be no compromise solution to this situation, even though the EU made it clear that they don’t consider the backstop permanent.
So what now? Many argue that the only way out of this mess is a new referendum, and perhaps new parliamentary elections. No Prime Minister has suffered the kind of loses that Theresa May has and remained in office. She’s still there because most people realize this is not her fault – David Cameron left her with an almost impossible situation, and a very slim parliamentary majority. Brexit is an issue that divides the Tories and has no clear or easy answer.
A new referendum could be to either accept the deal, or back out of Brexit. That would incense true Brexitiers because it would take a hard Brexit off the table. Perhaps they could revisit the original referendum, with the knowledge of what kind of deal is likely. But if Brexit again wins by a narrow margin, what would change?
May has rejected a new referendum, saying that it would diminish faith in British democracy. You can’t “keep voting until you get it right.” Yet critics say the 2016 vote was flawed – people didn’t understand the stakes, and the emotion of the Syrian refugee crisis, which was at its peak, lead to a nationalist backlash as many thought being in the EU would force them to take more refugees. Now after two years, the British voters could be asked “is this what you really want?”
It’s clear that the woes in Great Britain have taken the steam out of Euroskepticism and populism across the continent, but the reasons they arose still exist.
Both populism and the woes of Brexit underscore a political reality that Guiseppe Conte of Italy describes as such: “the ideological schemes of the 20th Century are no longer adequate to represent the current political system.” The EU is correctly criticized for being too centralized and bureaucratic – that’s as much a cause of the populist backlash as nationalism.
Perhaps Brexit is a necessary moment to dramatize that the European Union, and perhaps all of us need to rethink our political values. The era of independent sovereign states has given way to globalization and interdependence. The process started after WWII, but has intensified with the technological and information revolutions of the past three decades. The world has outgrown the political structures, values and norms of old, but we don’t have anything else to grab on to. Out of this mess a new thinking has to emerge, one that recognizes that the information revolution empowers individuals and localities, meaning that centralization can exist alongside localization in a manner that seems contrary to the “one or the other” choice we usually face.
In that, perhaps we should thank the British for going through a very difficult situation in a way that dramatizes the dilemmas we all face. And if any state can pull through this effectively, it’s the United Kingdom.