Brexit offers a glimpse of the frustration that many Europeans feel with politicians and the EU. Nationalism and populism are on the rise — again — around the continent.
By Giulia Morpurgo
Europe’s debt and refugee crises have exposed fault lines in the world’s biggest trading bloc.
Was it utopian to think that Slovenia, Estonia or Latvia could sustain the same currency as Germany, the world’s fourth biggest economy? Why has it been so hard for the European Union to cope with thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa?
Europeans feel frustrated by the reactions of mainstream parties and political institutions to these emergencies. They are demanding shifts in the distribution of power and new reforms.
The wind of change sweeping across Europe is no mild breeze but a potential cyclone leading EU member states in the direction of nationalism and populism.
Brexit has given hope to separatists in Catalonia.
In Spain, the newest entry is Podemos, a populist left-wing party founded two years ago and led by Pablo Iglesias. It is against austerity and favors an expansion of welfare services and a national basic income.
Podemos is challenging the economic establishment, represented by multinationals accused of evading taxes. Although not inherently Eurosceptic, it disagrees with most measures adopted by Brussels and thinks the EU’s notion of sovereignty should be amended.
In 2015 elections, just one year after its founding, Podemos emerged as the third largest party in Spain, behind the center-right People’s Party (PP) and the Socialists. After British voters chose to leave the EU in June, Podemos had high expectations in Spanish elections held two days after the British referendum.
But the party obtained only 21 percent of the vote, finishing third behind the PP and the Socialists, and failing to topple Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Another source of tension in Spanish politics is rooted in the Catalan separatist movement. In 2015, parliamentary elections in Catalonia were considered an unofficial independence referendum.
The separatists won, and in November the parliament in Barcelona adopted a resolution declaring the start of the process of independence.
Will Brexit encourage both Scots and Catalans to seek independence and to join the EU? Wary of providing Catalan separatists any grist for their movement, Rajoy made his view crystal clear to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon before the Brexit vote: “If the UK leaves Europe so does Scotland.”
Italy’s Five Star movement has captured city halls in major cities.
Podemos has some elements in common with Italy’s Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio.
Five Star’s manifesto says it is a “free association of citizens” rather than a party. It rejects traditional right and left wing ideologies, offering new “ideas” and promising to grant sovereignty directly to the people.
In general elections in 2013, Five Star became the second largest party in parliament, and its lawmaker Luigi di Maio, 26, was elected the youngest vice president of the lower house of parliament in Italian history.
In June 2016, Virginia Raggi of the Five Star movement was elected mayor of Rome in the wake of a series of corruption scandals, known as Mafia Capitale, that tarnished all mainstream political parties.
In Turin, Five Star candidate Chiara Appendino defeated incumbent mayor Piero Fassino, a political kingpin and one of the founders of the Democratic Party to which Prime Minister Matteo Renzi belongs.
Di Maio is considered to be one of the strongest contenders for prime minister in the next general election. If the Renzi government completes a full term, elections would not be held before 2018. However, it all depends on the next test of Renzi’s leadership — a referendum in October 2016 when Italians will vote on constitutional reforms put forward by the establishment.
Terrorist attacks in Paris have boosted the right-wing National Front.
In France, the last five years have seen a resurgence of the far-right Front National, founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
His daughter Marine has softened the Front’s tone, making its program more palatable to mainstream voters. Still, the party opposes immigration, gay marriage and parenting and the European Union. Following the vote for Brexit, its website homepage called for a “Frexit”.
The first big electoral victory for the Front National came in 2014 when it won 24 of France’s 72 seats in the European Parliament, more than any other French party.
In next year’s 2017 presidential elections, the Front National seems poised to perform well. It will be facing a weakened Left, whose leader, President François Hollande, has been hobbled by very low popularity ratings. The centre-right is split between former President Nicholas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux.
After the two terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November of last year, Marine Le Pen’s party scored well in the first round of regional elections in late 2015, only to lose to a united left-right front in the run-off round. According to recent surveys of French youth aged 18 to 25, between 27 and 31 percent said they would vote for her in the first round.
Immigration was key to the Brexit vote.
The UK Independence Party was founded in the early 1990s with the sole aim of taking Britain out of the European Union.
According to the party’s 2010 manifesto, the EU has deprived the country of “freedom of action, freedom of resources and freedom of the people” by transferring decision-making to Brussels. Before the referendum, it urged people to vote against “a political establishment that wants to keep us enslaved in the Euro project.”
A strong opponent of immigration, the UKIP sought the support of the British working class, fed up with traditional politics and desperate economic conditions, by telling them that the Labour Party had betrayed working people by allowing the free movement of people in and out of the country.
In the 2014 European elections, UKIP won 28 percent of the vote. After Brexit, its founder and leader, Nigel Farage, seemed set to help shape British politics until his surprise resignation on July 4.
Farage’s attitude had already alienated many voters. Especially galling to some was the fact that after Brexit, he quickly admitted that one of the Leave camp’s main referendum campaign promises — that the National Health Service would receive some 350 million pounds per week after Brexit from savings in payments to Brussels — was a mirage.
Uncertainty and alienation
Brexit also comes as a boost to the Dutch extremist right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party), founded in 2006. Currently Geert Wilders, the PVV believes the Netherlands should leave the EU. When the Brexit results came out, Geert Wilders tweeted “Hurrah for the British! Now it is our turn.”
Strongly nationalist, the PVV has suggested a “record of ethnicity” for all people with Dutch nationality. It is radically anti-Muslim.
In 2010, the PVV won 24 of the 150 seats in the lower house, making it the third largest party in parliament. Its representation shrank to 15 seats in elections held in September 2012, but one opinion poll in January this year projected that it could win up to 41 seats in a general election due to be held by March 2017.
Here’s the bottom line: Europe’s political landscape is full of uncertainty. But we can be sure of one thing: many voters feel alienated from both the EU and their nation’s politics.
The unanswered question is whether other EU states will follow Britain’s lead and choose national sovereignty over the chance to make a difference inside a reformed, stronger Union.
Giulia Morpurgo is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying Political Economy. She is passionate about ancient history, European literature and travel. She would like to become a journalist focusing on either economics or current affairs, communicating stories that would otherwise remain unknown.