Can Europe Make It?

Brexit, populism and the promise of agency

In a world experienced as one of out-of-control forces, all the more irresistible at the transnational level, how welcome for many would be the promise to reassert control?

Jonathan White
2 February 2017

Ukip Leader Nigel Farage leaves by his Brexit Bus from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex after campaigning ahead of the EU referendum vote. PAimages/Nick Ansell. All rights reserved.

In the early 2000s, researching my first book, I interviewed groups of taxi-drivers in various regional cities of Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic to get a sense of their views on political Europe. What might these people, away from the centres of political and economic power, have to say about the problems of public life, the workings of institutions, and by extension the European Union?

If there was one overriding theme to emerge, it was a sense of impotence before socio-economic forces. With an air of fatalism, though not with indifference, participants evoked a world of problems without solutions, of politicians unable or unwilling to make a difference, and of institutions that were symptoms rather than sources of address, detached from ordinary concerns. Such views were most pronounced on matters of economics, and the EU stood as their emblem.

As a driver called Luke in the Welsh town of Swansea recalled, combining such themes, ‘I picked a guy up at the station … he works for the government and he’s working on the euro at the moment, and he has said that we will definitely be in the euro. Definitely be in the euro within five years, without a shadow of a doubt. He said, if it goes to a referendum, if they say no, we will be going into the euro, everything will be fixed. “We will be in the euro”, he said, “I’m working on it now.”’[1]

Such sentiments of impotence in the face of the inevitable are a widespread trope of the age, I believe. They express an experience characteristic of contemporary European citizenship, and probably of citizenship more widely. At least since the early 1990s, the real-world constraints on political authority in the neoliberal era, coupled with narratives of globalisation that insist politics must bend to the imperatives of the market, combined with each other to evoke a world of weak political agency. Governments of the period would typically emphasise the limits to what politics could achieve on the traditionally salient questions, and would call on individuals to adapt to change rather than seek to author it.

Nowhere were such ideas stronger than in connection with the EU, but they were hardly exclusive to the transnational sphere. The disavowal of political agency, and its practical fragmentation across private and technocratic institutions, was central to the spirit of the times. The effect, one may assume, was to weaken popular allegiance to institutions at both European and national level, as well as to mediating entities such as parties. Where decision-makers are thought to have little power to improve things, there is little reason to give support or to oppose them, and every reason to disengage.

“Take back control” was the message of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Against a background sentiment of powerlessness, augmented from 2008 by austerity programmes administered as necessary responses to crisis, who in retrospect could be surprised by the appeal of this type of message. In a world experienced as one of out-of-control forces, all the more irresistible at the transnational level, how welcome for many would be the promise to reassert control. With its focus on a series of simple, ‘doable’ steps – diverting funds to the NHS, reinforcing borders – the Leave campaign cast itself as the only political group willing to take decisive action, while others stressed only what one could ill afford to do.

The Brexit referendum has been widely interpreted as an expression of right-wing populism – but what exactly is populism? If we leave aside polemical uses of the term, referring simply to a politics deemed irresponsible, then typically it refers to a number of features: an anti-elitist stance, a hostility to political procedures, an insistence on the category of ‘the people’, and an anti-pluralist assertion that the good of the people is incontestable.[2]

These are all important features, and all were evident in the Brexit campaign – but just as important, I suggest, is that populism entails the promise of agency. It presents itself as a politics of action – of recognising problems where they exist and of tackling them. Populists present themselves – and usually themselves personally, rather than as cogs in the machinery of state or party – as those who will act on the people’s will, as those who will ‘take control’. Though this promise of agency is neither historically nor conceptually unique to populism, it becomes one of its sources of appeal in the wider context of a disavowal of agency by other leading actors of the political sphere.

Those warming to such messages need not believe that those uttering them will do much to make their lives better. The substantive goals of populism may be vaguely defined, and even when clear they may be objectionable to parts of the very constituency of support they elicit. Those for whom the fatalism runs deep may doubt whether even the agents of populism can achieve all that much (and may feel comfortable supporting them precisely for that reason).

But credible to their audience or not, such invitations to ‘take back control’ stand as forthright statements of intent, of vitality and a certain ambition. The point they convey is that here, finally, someone is willing to show a finger towards a world where all is said to be inevitable.

There is a contrast to be made in this regard not just with the parties of centre-left and centre-right who have spent two decades emphasising their impotence before global forces, but also with the figures of technocracy. Technocrats, one may generalise, are no less inclined to disavow their agency. This may seem surprising: has not the pattern of EU politics in recent years been that of such individuals stepping forward to demonstrate their capacity to take decisive measures?  What of Draghi at the ECB, or Monti at the head of the Italian government – or for that matter the guy in the back of Luke’s cab, working on hooking up Britain to the euro: are they not figures of agency just as much as the populist?

Only in the weak sense of actors responding to putative necessity. Whether in the guise of experts responding to the dictates of scientific reason – as central bankers generally, and those of the ECB especially, have tended to cast themselves – or more recently as crisis managers, bringing emergency know-how to the handling of a grave situation, the non-majoritarian agencies of the EU space generally present themselves as doing what has to be done.

However powerful and discretionary they may be, such figures are most comfortable when presenting themselves as the handmaidens of necessity. They avoid at all cost the suggestion they are acting of volition, with the added burdens of accountability this would demand. For the same reason they do little to inspire popular allegiance. It is not just that such leaders are unelected and weakly tied to anything that might pass for public opinion: they make no promise of agency, indeed actively disavow it.

Again, populism, and the animating current of the Brexit referendum, is quite different. The emphasis is on an expression of will – on ‘our’ deciding what is important and should be done, and on repudiating establishment notions of necessity. A rejection of discourses of the inevitable was, I suggest, a significant underlying theme in the famous statement of Leave campaigner Michael Gove MP that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Indeed, in the populist outlook there is typically an impatience to get started (‘Invoke Article 50 now!’), and to simplify procedures so that agency can be exercised more directly.

I do not wish to suggest that the promise of agency attached to populism is necessarily a credible one. I do not want to suggest that Brexit necessarily holds real possibilities for the restoration of agency in a way that responds to popular concerns. (Nor, incidentally, do I want to suggest that all support for Brexit is well described by the term populism.) The promise of agency may be insincere, and may pose little real threat to the economic structures that feed these concerns.

Just as the technocrat may disguise the real discretion they exercise, the populist may talk the language of change while consolidating the worst aspects of the status quo. The key point is how these developments highlight the predicament the EU has found itself in. Long regarded by many of its citizens as symptomatic of a world of out-of-control forces, as one more source of powerlessness, its critique – and conceivably its undoing – comes in the form of an appeal to the desire for agency. There is no reason to assume this holds only of Britain.

The mutations of the EU in its recent years of crisis have done little to change this state of affairs – indeed, they may have compounded it. To be sure, the decision-making of the EU has become more visible, also more prone to critical evaluation. There is a degree of ‘politicisation’ – but also ever more strenuous efforts to depoliticise it once more. In addition to the prevalence of emergency discourse that frames everything the EU does as a response to necessity, its policy regimes seem increasingly geared to system stability and automaticity of decision.

Whether one looks at the economic rules designed to maintain the Eurozone or the formulas by which refugee flows are to be managed, the apparent aim is to create unchanging rules that more or less apply themselves. Quite aside from their substantive effects, such policy regimes reaffirm the image of the EU as self-referential, as a set of mechanisms that carry on regardless. Reasons to give allegiance to such a system, and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for participation it does afford, are all the thinner for it.

If the disavowal of political agency is one of the enduring failings of the European political space, its constructive resolution will depend on political figures other than just right-wing populists emerging to propose consequential interventions in the socio-economic sphere. A world of forces that resist positive human influence is one that leaves political institutions without a rationale.


[1] White, Jonathan (2011), Political Allegiance after European Integration (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), p.183.

[2] Müller, Jan-Werner (2016), What is populism? (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania).

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