Brexit and ‘peak populism’ in Europe

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by Dr Michael Leigh

The British Parliament’s apparent success in blocking a no-deal Brexit on October 31 as well as setbacks for sovereigntist parties elsewhere in Europe have prompted some observers to claim that “populism” in Europe has passed its peak. Euroskeptics elected to the European Parliament in June ended up dispersing among three political groups and failed to influence appointments to top jobs in the European Union. This reinforces the view that such political movements may be on the decline.

Yet the reassertion of authority by mainstream conservative, social democratic and liberal parties in several European countries and by moderates in the British Parliament may prove short-lived. Mainstream leaders often cling to power by adopting the policies of more radical parties, especially on immigration. Euroskeptic nationalists gained a narrow plurality of votes in the European Parliament election in France and outright victory in the rather odd European election in the United Kingdom, following the extension of the Brexit deadline to October 31. Though euroskeptic nationalists have been held in check in recent elections across Europe, they improved their score considerably.

The UK case

The situation in the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum poses the greatest challenge to the “peak populism” thesis. The Brexit movement reached its climax with the appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister in July and his decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks because it would not countenance Britain leaving the European Union on October 31 without an agreement. Suspending the legislature in a country that since the mid-19th century has called itself “the mother of parliaments” took demagoguery to heights not reached in other democracies ruled by truculent political newcomers claiming to act in the name of the people. This was made possible by Britain’s unwritten constitution, which turns out to be inherently malleable.

The suspension of Parliament smacked of authoritarianism for many observers

Parliament’s determination to resist a “no-deal” Brexit can be considered evidence of the resilience of British democracy. Its subsequent suspension, however, in which Queen Elizabeth II felt she had no choice but to acquiesce, even without hearing the views of the leader of the opposition, smacked of authoritarianism for many observers. The legitimacy of this action is now before the courts. Still, extreme Brexiters are once again presenting the country’s legislature and judiciary as “enemies of the people.”

The use of this phrase by British media and politicians shows ignorance or indifference to its origins and connotations. A passing familiarity with the play An Enemy of the People by the 19th-century Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, awareness of the use of the term by totalitarian leaders in the 20th century, or even familiarity with Stephen Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws, which reprised the theme, should have cautioned against accusing those with differing views of being “enemies of the people.”

In August and September, the new prime minister defended his no-deal Brexit option by claiming that its exclusion, as required by Parliament, would undermine his ongoing negotiations with the EU. Yet his chief political advisor was reported by The Telegraph, Boris Johnson’s previous employer, as admitting that such negotiations were a “sham,” intended only to gain time until Brexit became a fait accompli. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator confirmed that representatives of the British government had put no new ideas on the table during their desultory contacts in Brussels. This, and the prime minister’s track record, heightened perceptions that mendacity has become an inherent characteristic of the British leadership.

Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to expel 21 members of Parliament and former ministers from the Conservative Party, after they voted with the opposition to exclude a no-deal Brexit, led to further resignations, depriving the government of its paper-thin majority. Critics pointed out that Prime Minister Johnson and his closest supporters had themselves ignored party instructions and voted against the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the previous prime minister, Theresa May. Many of those dismissed were trusted, long-serving parliamentarians held in high esteem and affection by moderates. The party seemed to be abandoning its “One Nation” appeal and becoming a one-issue movement with no tolerance for dissent instead.

Polarized society

Opinion in Europe’s oldest democracy is now polarized around the Brexit issue. Some have compared this to the Dreyfus Affair that divided opinion in France between 1894 and 1906. Then, as now, the ostensible reason for the division belied deeper divisions in society. The cleavages in Britain today are young versus old, urban versus rural, prosperous versus deprived, and multicultural versus nationalist (English nationalist, in particular).

British author David Goodhart summed up this phenomenon by stating that the primary division is between “somewhere” and “anywhere” people, a distinction that largely coincides with votes in the 2016 referendum to leave or to remain in the European Union. The identity of “somewhere” people is linked to a particular locality, whereas “anywhere” people are comfortable with mobility, change and diversity. The previous prime minister, Theresa May, waded into this fraught issue by claiming at the 2016 Conservative Party conference, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

Her successor’s efforts to secure an early election to capitalize on this polarization and push through a no-deal Brexit have thus far been thwarted by Parliament. Before its suspension, Parliament required by law that the government seek an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline (unless Parliament approved an agreement with the EU or withdrawal without an agreement). The prime minister and his advisors indicated that they would look for a loophole to circumvent this law. The departing Speaker (Chair) of the House of Commons has taken the lead in criticizing the apparent willingness of the prime minister to defy the law.

The way Brexit is being handled even threatens the future of the UK itself

The way the issue is being handled even threatens the future of the UK itself. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in the EU, while England and Wales voted to leave. There are now signs of opinion in Wales recanting, as the costs of Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit, become apparent. Many English Conservatives are on record as not caring if Brexit eventually leads to a breakup of the United Kingdom. The resignation of the charismatic Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, suggests that the party has little future north of the border.

The heaviest impact of Brexit, outside the UK itself, will be on Ireland. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would cause economic difficulties and might reawaken tensions put to rest by the 1998 Belfast (“Good Friday”) agreement. This, in turn, could accelerate trends favorable to Irish reunification.

Sensing that he may have gone too far, Prime Minister Johnson seems to be preparing for an 11th-hour climb-down in negotiations with the EU. This means accepting the “Northern Ireland only” backstop, designed to prevent the erection of a hard border across Ireland – a solution agreed by his predecessor in December 2017. That morphed into a proposed customs union with the whole UK, to meet objections from a small Northern Ireland party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on which the government then depended for its majority.

This majority has now disappeared, depriving the DUP of its leverage. Prime Minister Johnson would present the compromise as a concession by Brussels and then try to persuade the British Parliament to approve the resulting agreement, thus avoiding the personal opprobrium that would likely come with a no-deal Brexit. Mr. Johnson would probably accept any compromise that would keep him in office.

Reinforcing democracy

Britain today is the embodiment of euroskeptic nationalism in power, a situation which challenges the notion that Europe may have reached “peak populism.” To be sure, British exceptionalism has so far not proved contagious. The costs and confusion associated with Brexit have persuaded politicians elsewhere that there are no votes in advocating exit from the EU, or even the euro currency system. Sovereigntists, however, especially in Central Europe, feel affinities with British euroskepticism. The Polish ruling party’s decision in September to suspend parliament for a month pending elections, for tactical reasons, mirrored the step taken by the British government the week before.

Recent setbacks by nationalists or far-right parties may prove temporary

Recent setbacks experienced by nationalists or far-right parties on the continent may prove temporary. Their prospects depend partly on the reelection next year of President Donald Trump, who, indirectly, lends plausibility to demagogues elsewhere. The durability of the Italian coalition government bringing together the antiestablishment Five Star Movement and the pro-EU Democratic Party remains to be demonstrated. European history provides reminders of the consequences of the failure to halt authoritarian tendencies in time.

Some leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, support moves at the EU level that they say could strengthen European democracy. The president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, wants to reinforce democracy across the EU and has assigned responsibility for this to an incoming commissioner.

Civil society groups are developing incentive schemes for pro-democracy initiatives at the municipal level. School curricula should give greater emphasis to history (which British pupils can give up at age 14), civics and democracy training. Awareness needs to be raised throughout Europe of the risks inherent in present trends and the need to reinforce democracy at all levels.


Sir Michael Leigh is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States and adjunct professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. In 2017 he was an Erskine fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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