Written by Toby Blewett
Sat on the corner of a quiet road, one afternoon in July 2019, during a period of summer work in Southern France, I happened to notice something that made me smile. Slapped across a lamppost, metres from where I was sitting, was the phrase ‘FREXIT: RECOUPERONS NOTRE DEMOCRATIE!’ (Let’s recover our democracy).
The sticker had obviously been there for some time; its colours were fading, and the edges were beginning to peel, but somehow this only added to the effect. Part of me, exhausted from the squabbling back at home, felt half-obliged to rip the sorry thing off. Another half wanted to leave a message warning the poor soul that no amount of political ‘freedom’ could ever be worth the sack of worms they were hoping to unleash. Either way, it served in lonely contrast to the rest of my experience in the region.
Had I been writing this five years ago; I may have been tempted to take a different angle. Britain’s shock decision to part ways with the EU had taken the entire country by surprise. It was an outcome that nobody had anticipated, and that turned the entire European political order on its head. Nobody knew, nor wanted to predict where such a decision would go. Talk of a possible FREXIT, GREXIT, ITEXIT etc. went from delusional pipe dreams to newsroom debates in a matter of days. Amongst some, there was hushed speculation as to whether the EU would ever recover at all.
Britain’s charge into the unknown, carrying the torch of the unstoppable tide of anti-globalist populism that was to come, once heralded as a watershed moment in European Politics, now looks increasingly like a martyr to its own cause.
The initial signs were affirming – only months after the Brexit vote, the world was shocked for a second time as the God-chosen billionaire white supremacist many had cast off as a joke ended up taking the White House. Elsewhere, throughout Europe the drumbeat of the nationalist-right grew ever louder.
But as time went by, the voices that had once cheered Britain on, slowly began to fall quiet. Some, defeated electorally found the strength of their movements to be rooted in political hot-air , For others, years of illicit dealings and brazen disregard for the law finally caught up with them. Most however, witnessing the spiralling domestic turmoil that the Brexit vote had given way to, opted for a change in tune.
Euroscepticism is alive and well throughout Europe. Discontent towards what remains to be seen as a bureaucratic cabal of liberal elites can be felt across the continent. But reality has set in and the strategy has changed. For all its internal disarray, PR ineptitude and suicidal reverence to milquetoast neo-liberal strategy, the EU has proven itself a surprisingly difficult nut to crack. Advocates for the disintegration of the EU via withdrawal presently grapple with the inconvenient reality that support amongst European populations to follow in Britain’s path has declined since 2016, not grown. The lengthy internal crisis Britain faced following the vote has left support for further departures dead in the water.
Instead, the plan has since changed to an attempt to dismantle the EU from the inside – keeping the good bits, throwing away the bad. Tariff free trade will be allowed to stay, freedom of movement not so. But even this has run into unexpectedly resistant opposition; the 2019 European parliament elections saw considerable gains for nationalist Eurosceptic parties, but it was far from the tidal wave many had anticipated. Enough to cause a fuss, but not enough to control the agenda.
Most importantly of all however, is the impact that Covid will have in re-shaping European politics in the years to come. The pandemic has not been kind to Europe’s populists, who, unused to having to engage in serious political decision making, have not covered themselves in glory; rallying together a crowd against globalism is one thing, protecting millions of individuals from a lethal virus is another.
Britain has visibly suffered as a lone actor. Repeated refusal to engage in the EU’s PPE scheme left the country underequipped for weeks and scrambling to find enough ventilators to meet the rising demand. On the other hand, despite a slow start, the EU’s collective internal exchange of information and strategy, has proven itself vital to efforts across the continent to maintain the spread of the virus. The decision to allow the transfer of patients between member states to ease the strain on hospitals has potentially saved the lives of hundreds.
The coronavirus pandemic has made the limits of geo-political isolationism, and the need for international cooperation painfully apparent. But it is the years ahead that could prove even more damning for Europe’s populist nationalists. Once the virus has been dealt with, Europe will have to contend with what could quite possibly turn out to be the worst economic recession since the second world war. Such circumstances will not lend themselves well to isolationism, nor the sort of farcical management witnessed over the past twelve months. Europe’s populist leaders will have to learn hard and fast how to work effectively, and collaboratively, unless they desire to suffer the same political fate as their large orange friend.
The EU has the opportunity to emerge in the coming years renewed and rejuvenated – it’s purpose and importance clearer than ever. It will still face tough questions regarding accountability and agency, that will need to be addressed through serious and committed reform, but the weakness of nationalist isolationism has never been more apparent.
Brexit has, as of the time of writing, not just failed as a means of fostering support amongst EU countries to follow Britain in its departure, but actively worked against such interests. The march of Eurosceptic nationalism throughout Europe has lost its footing. This is not to say that it is defeated, far from it. But with Trump gone from the White House, the inability of populist leaders to provide adequate responses to Covid 19, the long, exhausting and bitterly divisive Brexit ordeal, and the prospect of years of difficulty ahead, nationalist populism in Europe is in a difficult corner. Only time will tell if it can find a way out.
Toby Blewett is a final year student of International Relations with a particular interest in environmental politics, human rights, migration, and the politics of the developing world. He is also the secretary of University of Leicester Plan-it Change Society. You can follow him on twitter at: @tobyblewett.
Image by Maxim Hopman, from Unsplash.