Across a continent, there is a void between governments and their citizens. Ignoring this vacuum leaves it free for the chauvinists to exploitby Chris Bickerton / December 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
From the timeless cafés of Vienna, or from the trendy bars of Berlin and Amsterdam, it is easy to dismiss Brexit as a curiously British affair. Did Winston Churchill not describe Europe as “where the weather comes from”? Have Brits not always thought of themselves as an “island nation,” close but quite different from the rest of Europe?
The United Kingdom’s role in the European Union has added to this impression. British governments have made much of their opposition to closer integration in areas such as defence or on issues that threaten the financial supremacy of the City of London. The perception of the UK as an awkward European partner has been so strong that some Europeans welcomed Brexit. Without those truculent Brits, they argued, the European project can finally take off and embrace its federalist destiny.
However tempting this sort of thinking may be for the EU’s supporters, it is a fatal misunderstanding of the meaning of Brexit. Far from being an isolated event, Brexit is a symptom of a much deeper and more extensive crisis of politics. This crisis is not only playing itself out in the UK and in the United States under President-Elect Donald Trump. Across Europe, mainstream politicians struggle to command the trust and faith of voters. Traditional parties are dismissed as belonging to a corrupt and self-serving political elite. In Germany, the “word of the year” in 2010 was wütburger, meaning “angry citizen.” In Spain, protest movements have been organised under the name of los indignados, “the outraged ones.” In France, a pamphlet written by a nonagenarian war hero entitled “Indignez-Vous” (“Time for Outrage!”) became a global hit, selling over four million copies.
Far from being a short-lived response to the hardships of the European financial crisis, this sentiment has hardened. Some malcontents, such as those who are sitting in the Italian parliament as representatives of the Five Star Movement, are taking up the challenge of politics themselves. Others are turning to radical parties on the right and left, from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany to Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The Chinese call this, with a good measure of schadenfreude, “the great revolt.”