The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: The Lesson of Brexit for European Populists

A blue-tinted photo of demonstrators waving flags before the Place de la Republique statue, ringed by 12 EU-flag-style yellow stars, one blinking.
Yellow Vest demonstrators at the Place de la Republique in Paris protest for a 23rd week on Saturday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images.

This week in the doldrums: Theresa May and British MPs are back from their Easter vacation, but things are still a little quiet on the Brexit front this week. Only by Brexit standards could a week be described as quiet after the prime minister survived an attempt by senior members of her own party to oust her. Here are a couple highlights:

• The 1922 Committee, which represents backbench Conservative MPs, voted against an attempt to change party rules to allow for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister May. Under current rules, the party can’t hold a vote to ditch May until next December, since she won a vote last December. May continues to be staggeringly unpopular yet seemingly invincible.

•  Ongoing talks between May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, aimed at reaching a cross-party compromise to finally pass the withdrawal agreement May negotiated with the EU, seem to be stalled.

• Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, is talking about holding another Scottish independence referendum. The last time Scotland voted about whether to leave the U.K., back in 2014, the remainers won 55 percent to 45 percent. But given the anger over Brexit—Scotland voted overwhelming to remain in the EU—Scottish nationalists like Sturgeon want to take another shot.

• Despite the fact that May still insists it might not happen, British political parties are starting to prepare to participate in the EU elections next month. Last week I wrote about the launch of Nigel Farage’s impressively popular Brexit Party. Another new party—the centrist, pro-remain Change UK—has also launched, though it’s faced a rockier road so far with criticism of its branding and four different candidates facing scandals over racist comments.

This week in Europe: The 2016 Brexit referendum was widely viewed as part of a wave of populist, nationalist sentiment sweeping across Western democracies. That wave reached its peak with the election of Donald Trump that same year, but it certainly hasn’t crested yet. This weekend, the ultranationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist Vox party is likely to enter parliament in Spain, marking the far-right’s biggest gain in the country since the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron, gave a chastened speech on Thursday,  promising to cut taxes and roll back austerity programs in response to months of sometimes-violent protests from the anti-establishment Yellow Vest movement against what they see as his out-of-touch, elitist governance. The Yellow Vests are also putting forward candidates for next month’s elections.

Neither Vox nor the Yellow Vests have much fondness for the bureaucrats in Brussels, but the groups aren’t exactly hardline euroskeptics, nor have they called for their countries to exit the EU.

A new alliance of populist, euroskeptic parties is poised to do well in next month’s election.
Ironically, EU elections, with low turnout and voters more apt to cast protest votes, have traditionally given a boost to anti-EU parties, but few are now actually calling for their countries to leave the EU. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right national rally, has dropped calls for a “Frexit” and now says she wants to reform the EU from within.
Italy’s Lega Nord has also downplayed the issue in recent campaigns.

The Brexit experience no doubt has a lot to do with this. As no less an authority on right-wing nationalism than Steven Bannon recently told the Washington Post, “There has been a shift, definitely a shift. The agony of Britain in the last two years has clearly been a subtext for ‘Let’s try to make this thing work.’ ”

A recent analysis from the European Council on Foreign Relations, based on YouGov polling from 14 European countries, gives some context for the shift. The authors argue that “The core divide is not one of wanting either an open Europe or a closed nation state, but between voters who think that the system is broken and those who think the status quo still basically works.” Using slightly confusing Game of Thrones metaphors, they find that only 14 percent of the EU electorate are what they call “Free Folk,” people who believe that their political systems work well but that the EU does not. Much more common—38 percent—are those who “have lost faith in both the European and national political systems.”

In other words, Sparrows like the Yellow Vests and Vox aren’t angry at the EU; they’re angry at the whole system, including their own leaders.

Whatever you think of this position or those who espouse it, it’s more logical than textbook euroskepticism given the experience of the last three years. The real lesson of Brexit isn’t that it’s really, really hard to leave the EU—although that’s certainly true. It’s that leaving the EU is no solution for a country’s homegrown political dysfunction.