Brexit is a local version of the post-liberal condition of contemporary Europe. Brexit has demonstrated the disillusionment with the ruling political class, the rise of alternative values, and the chaos caused by a break with the past with no clear alternatives provided. This rupture is dramatic and its implications are profound. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that we are living in revolutionary or counter-revolutionary times.
Brexit may look like a special case, but Poland, Holland, Austria, Denmark, France and Italy all have their own turbulent experiences, with Germany slowly catching the illiberal virus from its neighbours. A mishandled Brexit will make the situation worse, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of democracy and political culture.
Three universal lessons
First, and most obviously, Brexit is a typical case of voters’ rebellion against the centre-right and centre-left politicians who have been in charge of their governments for the last three or more decades. Voters are no longer putting up with oligarchical parties and decisions taken by unelected bodies. They have had enough of inefficient migratory and foreign policies creating enemies and incubating terrorists.
They are fed-up with broken roads, hospitals and schools. Each election shows the same trend; the old guard is being punished, and the “new kids on the block” are being rewarded. The latter group not only includes xenophobes, but also Green parties or various new, unidentified entities such as the Spring Party in Poland or the Forum for Democracy in Holland.
Each election shows the same trend; the old guard is being punished, and the “new kids on the block” are being rewarded.
Second, Brexit shows that the illiberal counter-revolution is not just about a change of guard; it is also about a change of mind. The struggle is about the notion of a good society. Under fire are the normative pillars of the liberal order: political pluralism and cultural tolerance, minority rights and the multicultural society, open borders and shared sovereignty. The European Union is under fire not only because of its rigidity and democratic deficit; critics see the EU as a vehicle spreading “alien” values that erode countries’ national and religious traditions. They argue that economic solidarity requires strong cultural bonds and those are being watered down by the integration project. They believe that any meaningful and just redistribution is inconceivable in a Europe with open borders.
Third, Brexit shows that breaking the liberal “consensus” leads to chaos, at least in the short-to-medium term. This is because pragmatic solutions are not suitable for solving identitarian and ideological conflicts. Liberalism has provided the comprehensive ‘bible’ on what is good or wrong in a society, not just a manual for winning elections and making money. Illiberals have challenged the liberal truths, suggesting a new interpretation of what is rational and normal. Brexit is not just about trade rules; it is about the definition of Britishness and Europeaness. Uber-remainers and uber-leavers genuinely believe that they are right, and neither side wants to be condemned to political history. Similar fundamental identitarian and ideological conflicts are taking place in other states, with no practical solutions in sight.
The historic European Council
This Wednesday, Europe’s politicians will have to make decisions with enormous implications. Those sitting in the European Council on April 10 should avoid the mistakes made by their British colleagues.
Those sitting in the European Council on April 10 should avoid the mistakes made by their British colleagues.
First, members of the Council should not take the public forgranted. In the UK, remainers called the Brexit referendum because they thought that the public was on their side. Leavers are now making the same mistake, assuming that the public will still follow them when Brexit starts to squeeze their pockets and complicate personal lives and professional careers. The public on both sides of the English Channel has little trust in its leaders and it is helplessly divided on major issues. When temperatures rise, few European politicians will be able to count on overwhelming public support. Radicalism will be in vogue.
Second, members of the Council should be aware of the fragility of our democracy. In the UK, the Brexit referendum has not settled political divisions, and the parliament’s effort to spell out the “people’s will” ended in disarray. Decisions taken in the European Council have dubious democratic legitimacy, and many members of the Council will struggle to sell the costs of Brexit to their firms and citizens.
Third, the notion of national and European interests are fuzzy at present. In the UK we have witnessed totally opposing interpretations of national interest, leading to a deadlock. On the other side of the Channel, politicians are trying to fuse national and European interests with mixed public responses. Liberals and illiberal contenders have not only different visions of these interests, but also different visions of self.
Fourth, if Brexit is indeed a manifestation of an ideological conflict, signing the withdrawal agreement in the coming days will settle little in the ongoing struggle about the notion of a good society. Those making the decision on April 10 should keep in mind that we are only at the beginning of the long and painful process of redesigning Europe in institutional, economic and cultural terms. The conservative idea or hope that Brexit will allow Europe to keep things as they are is a dangerous illusion.
Two dubious visions
The problem with the liberal vision of Europe is not so much related to its values. There is nothing wrong with a Europe of open borders, cultural tolerance and individual freedoms. However, these values have been pursued in an opaque way in recent years. Openness, tolerance and freedom benefited those with money and informal access, while leaving large strata of society ignored and disadvantaged. Illegal military interventions and the inhuman treatment of migrants made a mockery of the proclaimed liberal values. Politicians associated with such policies over the past decades can hardly claim to be the guardians of decency, civility and justice.
Voters have had enough of inefficient migratory and foreign policies creating enemies and incubating terrorists.
The problem with the illiberal vision of Europe is not so much related to its legitimacy. Critique of the liberal reign is fair, and the new kids on the block are not responsible for migratory pressures, broken families or dysfunctional European institutions. Yet the remedies offered to address the “mess” inherited from liberals do not seem adequate. Persecuting NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean will not help to cope with migration. Bashing gender and LGBTQ+ rights will not strengthen Europe’s families. Exiting the EU will not make us rich, secure and sovereign
European officials and national politicians will not sort things out for us.
The only way to survive the ongoing turmoil is to listen and talk to each other. This should be practiced on a daily basis by ordinary citizens. European officials and national politicians will not sort things out for us. Europe is knocking on our private doors. Time to get up from our armchairs. This is probably Brexit's most important lesson.
The original German version of this article was published in ZEIT ONLINE on April 9, 2019.