Make no mistake about it. Britain’s vote to leave the EU is the most damaging blow ever inflicted on the liberal democratic international order created under US auspices after 1945. Pandora’s box is well and truly open, writes Financial Times analyst Tony Barber:
Demagoguery and hypocrisy in continental Europe have received a boost because Britain, a land with a long tradition of practising and defending freedom, has turned its back on the EU. The demagogues claim to admire British democracy for being brave and solid enough to stage Thursday’s referendum on EU membership. In reality, they despise not just EU values but every principle of moderation and pluralism that has served Britain so well since the 1688-89 Glorious Revolution.
From Brussels to Berlin to Washington, leaders of the Western democratic world awoke Friday morning to a blunt, once-unthinkable rebuke delivered by the flinty citizens of a small island nation in the North Atlantic. Populist anger against the established political order had finally boiled over. The British had rebelled, The New York Times reports:
Their stunning vote to leave the European Union presents a political, economic and existential crisis for a bloc already reeling from entrenched problems. But the thumb-in-your-eye message is hardly limited to Britain. The same yawning gap between the elite and mass opinion is fueling a populist backlash in Austria, France, Germany and elsewhere on the Continent — as well as in the United States.
Identity politics trumped economics; arguments about “independence” and “sovereignty” defeated arguments about British influence and importance, says Anne Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. The advice of once-trusted institutions was ignored. Elected leaders were swept aside, she writes for The Washington Post.
Europe’s far-right parties hailed the UK’s vote to leave the European Union as a victory for their own anti-immigrant and anti-EU stance and vowed to push for similar referendums in their own countries, notes The Guardian.
Many Russian politicians cheered Britain’s exit from the European Union on Friday, declaring the results a triumph of democracy and a failure of Western leadership that may help Russia rebuild ties with Europe after two years of economic sanctions, The Washington Post adds:
With Britain seen here as a primary source of perceived anti-Russian sentiment in Europe, Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, said that “without Great Britain in the E.U., no one will so zealously defend the sanctions against us.”
Boris Titov, an advisor to Putin and Russia’s business ombudsman, said that Brexit means the separation of the Anglo-Saxon world from that of Europe:
“The most long-term consequence of all this is that leaving will tear Europe from the Anglo-Saxons, in other words the USA. It’s not the independence of Great Britain from Europe but the independence of Europe from the USA,” Titov wrote Friday on Facebook.
The populist challenge has forced mainstream politicians into a defensive crouch, says Mudde, The Economist notes:
Former antagonists now share a common purpose: to keep the newcomers out. Worse, this can lead to a self-righteous form of politics in which neither side feels able to compromise. Identity politics presents a similar conundrum. Many campaigners for Scottish independence defeated in the 2014 referendum took the loss to heart; today over half the supporters of the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party say that they consider political attacks on the party to be personal insults.
Europe’s existential crisis
The UK departure opens a disturbing crack in the foundations of global governance, writes one analyst:
Britain’s decision to quit the EU is a seismic moment for Europe because it points to the inescapable reality that a new national politics – whose angry force was for too long simply denied by the technocrats and governing classes – really is trumping Europe’s supranational ambitions.
The truly existential crisis for Europe will involve combating an intoxicating populist narrative and drive through the kind of structural economic reforms that will prevent Europe (as distinct from the EU) from sliding into irrelevance and geo-political old age.
Most broadly, the vote is likely to resonate as a sign that major democracies are increasingly vulnerable to the influence of populist political movements that curry favor by demonizing immigrants and external forces such as officials in Brussels and Washington, low-wage workers in China and Mexico, The Times adds.
“The main impact will be massive disorder in the E.U. system for the next two years,” said Thierry de Montbrial, founder and executive chairman of the French Institute of International Relations. “There will be huge political transition costs, on how to solve the British exit, and the risk of a domino effect or bank run from other countries that think of leaving.”
The democratic identities of Britain and the United States are under threat — not from immigrants or even changing values, but from nationalists and xenophobes exploiting citizens’ darkest worries with populist projects, according to Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, and Marcel Dirsus, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kiel.
“To many voters, the world is a scary place. Terrorists seem to lurk everywhere. Uncertainty surrounds us. Change is rapid and some aren’t keeping up,” they write for the Los Angeles Times. “Unsurprisingly, politicians of many stripes are capitalizing on our fears to rally voters against trade, immigration and international cooperation.”
The vote threatens to undermine post-imperial Britain’s role as a staunch proponent of liberal democratic values in the world, says Will Marshall (left), president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The Brexit vote illustrates that “[e]ven if democratic institutions themselves are not in question, democracy currently offers the mechanism through which [Europe’s] nationalist parties’ can contaminate the platforms of other mainstream parties,” the University of Nottingham’s Simon Toubeau writes. “They can exert competitive pressures during local, national and European elections, forcing the bigger parties to shift their political offerings as they attempt to avoid losing voters.”
The common currency is perhaps the most manifest product of this ideology. And it wasn’t wrong: Europe wanted to be big so it could keep up with the other centers of power in the world — with China and the US. It wasn’t wrong because strength comes out of unity and out of an impression of closeness. That impression, though, has long since faded and the British have now clearly shown that this unity doesn’t exist.
The ideology of unity has failed. What now?
An anti-migrant poster (above) unveiled during the Leave campaign by the UK Independence Party’s leader Nigel Farage was reported to the police with a complaint that it incites racial hatred and breaches UK race laws. The poster shows a long curving line of refugees walking to a refugee camp on the border of Croatia and Slovenia and is branded with the words “Breaking Point” written in large, red text, and underneath in white letters: “The EU has failed us all. A number of observers noted the similarity with Nazi propaganda footage included in the first episode of Auschwitz: The Nazis and The ‘Final Solution’ (2005), a six-part BBC documentary (currently available on Netflix).