The outcome of the UK vote on its membership of the European Union is sobering and worrying at the same time. It took many by surprise. It confirmed the potency of populist national politics on the one hand and, on the other hand, it highlighted the inability of the European political elites to deal with the populist arguments and to reform the democratic structures of the European political system. It showed that the main political cleavage has shifted from historical left-right to the not-so-new establishment–anti-establishment.
Politics in Europe is being restructured due to populist forces on both sides of the old political spectrum. Although ideas of left and right populism differ, they both feed on the same anti-establishment sentiment and depoliticisation discourse. UK citizens are distrustful about the ability of the established political elites, at home and in Brussels, to deal with what they see as the biggest threat to their livelihood – migrants taking away “their” jobs, “their” social security provisions, and “their” established way of living. Several post-Brexit analyses have shown that the people in the UK voting for Brexit were convinced not by the arguments, but rather by sentiments of national opposition to European integration and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sentiments of regained national sovereignty also featured prominently. In a nutshell, it was a potent mixture of nationalism and a longing for certainty and security that led so many people to vote for Brexit.
Social democratic parties that had traditionally been successful with answers to such questions, have been in the last decade unable to come up with coherent and convincing arguments to people’s concerns about their security.
Europeans are increasingly worried about their future. The future seems less and less certain, a far cry from the Europe of hope and prosperity of the last half century. After the economic crisis in the last decade and the neoliberal measures applied by the national governments and European institutions, people are simply worse off than they used to be and that worries them. They distrust political processes as such, as they have seen too many times that established political parties in power have taken measures in the interest of the capital and against their own people. This meant less solidarity among people and the states, and more questions on whom to rely on in times of hardship. Social democratic parties that had traditionally been successful with answers to such questions, have been in the last decade unable to come up with coherent and convincing arguments to people’s concerns about their security. Not just physical safety, but security in the broadest sense of the word: social, human security, including certainty of the future. While the Right has addressed the concerns of the citizenry by emphasising physical security by law and order, closing of the borders, restrictions on movements of people, etc., the Left has struggled to explain its position to this day. This is one of the main reasons why populism, with its oversimplified explanations and solutions, is gaining so much support across Europe.
As strange as it sounds in the age of globalisation, the national feeling of being on “its own” has surpassed the supranational “common” feeling in many polities of the EU.
Brexit has shown that the European Union is in serious need of rethinking its way of doing politics, the contents of the politics and its institutional design. For the peripheral and core states alike, the EU meant more than just an addition or superstructure to their national politics – it meant new quality, new never seen before political, economic, social and cultural solutions that added to the quality of people’s lives, in a way national solutions were unable to. Today the EU is increasingly second best choice to national politics. As strange as it sounds in the age of globalisation, the national feeling of being on “its own” has surpassed the supranational “common” feeling in many polities of the EU. Populists are arguing for the renationalisation of the EU powers to national politics to defend “its own” (which, of course, does not include the immigrants). That is why one of the greatest challenges in the “EU rethink” will be how to make the EU and its politics attractive and trustworthy again. In times when citizens are increasingly disaffected with how politics is done at home and in Brussels, this is a major task and an important step in the building of the new EU political structure.
For states like Slovenia, it is of strategic importance to remain at the core of the European project. One of the least desirable consequences of Brexit and EU restructuring would be the EU of “several speeds”, “several co-centric circles”, of “core and periphery”, etc. Such post-referendum solutions would add further differences to already established ones, and would not be cohesive for Europe, where some would feel second-class and disadvantaged. Slovenian political leaders have in their first reactions to Brexit emphasised the need for a stronger Europe, where a deepening of relations would not happen just in some areas and in some policies. Whether the future EU is a “closer Union” (i.e. deepening) or a “better Union” (more effective within the same institutional framework) remains to be seen. As it looks now, it needs a new vision, the trust of its citizenry and an institutional framework that would be more adept to answer the challenges of post-modern democratic life.
Photo: London, United Kingdom – Students carrying posters outlining anxieties over the future, in front of the House of Parliament.