Can Europe Make It?

The rise of the far-right in Westminster as Brexit looms

A victorious ‘Leave’ vote, vindicating a campaign driven by xenophobia and clearing the path for far-right domination of British politics, could mark a shift towards hyper-nationalist policies across further member states.

Conor O'Sullivan
31 May 2016

France's National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen votes in a meeting of the Committee on International Trade in Brussels, April, 2015. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / Press Association. All rights reserved.David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum over Britain’s EU membership gave him enough support among Conservative MP’s to secure a second term as Prime Minister. The rise in support for populist politicians since the 2008 sovereign debt crisis reflects a growing disillusionment among British voters that has resulted in Eurosceptic Tories establishing themselves in the hierarchy of Westminster. The refugee overspill and the threat of terrorism has created a perfect storm of paranoia and exceptionalism in Britain that has consolidated far-right support. 

David Cameron took a monumental risk in aligning with the far-right faction of his own party to retain power and is now facing resignation if the ‘Leave’ vote carries on June 23rd.

Boris Johnson is primed to become leader of the Conservative Party should Cameron be forced to resign. The former Mayor of London’s rise through the Party since becoming an MP for Henley in 2001 has coincided with perpetuating Euroscepticism through his work as a journalist and politician. His most recent quotes in which he referred to Barack Obama as ‘…part-Kenyan’ and a series of other racially offensive statements infer a xenophobic tendency from the man leading the ‘Leave’ campaign.

The refugee crisis has resulted in calls from the Conservative Party and UKIP to seal off Britain’s borders, shunning responsibility from the largest human displacement facing Europe since the end of World War II. This comes at a time when the Schengen Agreement already faces restructuring following the ISIS attacks in Paris and Brussels.

The latest Financial Times poll indicates the ‘Stay’ side with a slender lead at 46% compared with 41% opting to leave the Union, with 13% undecided. These predictive polls are not wholly reliable as was exemplified by the Conservative Party winning an overall majority in last year’s general election with the most reputable pollsters predicting a hung parliament

The key factor will be the level of voter turnout, particularly among young voters who will more than likely vote to remain in the Union.

British and Irish fallout

The SNP could decide to push for another independence referendum given their overwhelming desire to stay in the EU. However, the economic uncertainty that defeated the pro-independence vote in 2014 would only be compounded following Brexit and it could remain a protracted process.

Northern Ireland, already a country with a struggling domestic economy, could also become an increased security risk for any future London government given its fragmented internal politics and lingering terrorist threat. The long-term strategy of how the shared border with the Republic and trade between the two states will be managed has not been given any clear direction by the ‘Leave’ campaign. The Irish government stands to lose as much as any stakeholder if the ‘Leave’ vote carries, potentially severely damaging its economy and special political relationship with Britain.   

The wider security, economic and political implications will only become clearer in time as prolonged negotiations would be carried out to manage the complex legal details of Britain actually leaving the EU. Political analysts still believe a compromise could be reached given the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty which provide for a two year limit on negotiations for a country leaving the EU. Britain could follow the Norwegian model by remaining in the EEA, allowing the free movement of people and services while removing itself as a political entity from the Union.

Yet, given the likelihood that Johnson or another Eurosceptic will assume leadership of the Conservative Party if Brexit occurs, xenophobia and nationalism would fuel the discourse of any future European policy from London.

There is also the risk of Brexit inducing a domino effect across the European Union with other far-right parties’ pressuring their governments to consider terminating their membership. Austria narrowly avoided a far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, becoming President for the first time. The Germanic nationalist ran his campaign on anti-EU sentiment and fears over asylum seekers. The Netherlands is in the midst of considering a referendum on its membership due to the migrant crisis - seeing a founding member leave would represent a devastating blow to the future of European integration.  

Not since the interwar years has a great power exhibited such paranoia and isolationism in relations with its European neighbours. Voting to leave the European Union and consolidating support for the far-right would be the most regressive political decision in international post-war politics and the effects will be damning on Britain and Europe if carried out. 

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