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10 July 2023

Britain is the last liberal nation in Europe

Europe is being swallowed up by the right. Only Brexit Britain stands alone against the tide.

By Philip Cunliffe

From the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, we see nationalist leaders and right-wing parties either assuming power or on the brink of power.

As the ashes smoulder in French towns and cities following the recent nationwide riots, the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen must know that the next presidential election in 2027 is hers to lose. In Spain, both the hard-right Vox and the conservative People’s Party are ahead in the polls in advance of this month’s general election. In Germany, the insurgent Alternative for Germany has not only won its first mayoral election, it has drawn level with the venerable ruling Social Democrats in one recent poll. In Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy has won not one but two elections in quick succession, the second called five weeks after the first, in May, failed to produce a government. Mitsotakis used the second election to complete his electoral rout of the leftist Syriza, mopping up the remnants of a party whose ascent to national power once thrilled the European left. Even the neo-Nazi Spartan group gained 12 seats in the Greek parliament, directed from prison by Ilias Kasidiaris, the former leader of Golden Dawn.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s government of the Brothers of Italy is delivering on its promise to crush the “LGBT lobby” by erecting barriers to public registration of children with same-sex parents, as well as banning surrogacy even for couples who pursue it abroad. In Scandinavia, the Swedish Democrats are the second-largest party. Their political gravity is getting stronger: they are putting pressure on the coalition government to curb migration even while they are in opposition. Party systems have fractured in Denmark and Portugal, with the insurgencies of the Danish Democrats and Chega populists making significant breakthroughs in those countries’ respective elections in 2022. Meanwhile, Austria’s Freedom Party, stalwarts of Europe’s populist hard right, are flying high in the polls, suggesting they are on course to win the general election scheduled for next year.

Across eastern Europe, the grip of national-populist strongmen remains as firm as ever. The Russian president Vladimir Putin faced down the mutinous mercenaries of the Wagner Group, while in Hungary and Poland the national-populist governments of Fidesz and the Law and Justice party, respectively, remain entrenched in power. The national-populist Robert Fico is expected to win elections in Slovakia due in September. Finland is perhaps representative of the new paradigm in European government: a coalition government, assuming power on 20 June, comprises a pact between the traditional centre-right National Coalition Party and the national-populist Finns party. We can expect more of this in future, as the centrist cordon sanitaire designed to exclude national-populists from power continues to crumble, with traditional centre-right and conservative parties drawing nationalists and far-right parties into government as a bulwark against ballot-box revolts.

[See also: Labour’s Remainers are getting organised]

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As right, hard-right and far-right parties advance across Europe to seize power or lay siege to beleaguered centrist governments, it is Britain that stands alone against the tide. Britain is the only major European state that is expecting a significant electoral swing to the left, with the polls showing that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party are on course to trounce the ruling Tories in the next general election, expected in autumn next year. British exceptionalism has, it seems, struck again.

Yet it wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Brexit, Britain was supposed to float adrift of our liberal and progressive neighbours, as we became a gloomy island buffeted by storms of imperial nostalgia, xenophobia and nativism. Not only would the British economy collapse, we were told that the venerable institutions of British parliamentary democracy would rapidly degenerate into irresponsible right-wing extremism, leading us to “Weimar Britain”. Yet barely three years after Britain formally withdrew from the EU, it is Europe that is lurching to the right.

As difficult as it might be to countenance, British liberals and leftists have to reckon with the fact that it is Brexit that has given Britain the opportunity to escape the populist vortex engulfing Europe. While liberals have tended to see Brexit as a populist insurrection led by charismatic and mendacious figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, Brexit was in truth always larger than any party or single leader – which is why it has survived both of them. Far from stimulating populism, Brexit destroyed it, torpedoing both Ukip and the Brexit Party, by removing their sole reason for existing. The fact that British parliamentary government could not survive except by enacting the outcome of the 2016 referendum, shows that Brexit offered a historic opportunity to restore national-level representative democracy as against multinational diktat.

As the national-populist tide sweeps across Europe, it becomes ever clearer that the supranationalism of the EU is eminently compatible with populist rule. This should come as no surprise, as both the EU and populists are hostile to representative democracy. Populists are intrinsically suspicious of using representative structures to mediate political disagreement and social conflict, preferring to channel popular grievance through charismatic individual leaders. The EU too is intrinsically suspicious of national-level representative democracy, which is why the European Parliament is neutered and the modus operandi of core EU institutions is of secrecy and elite detachment. Nowhere is the complementarity of populism and supranationalism more evident than in Italy, which pursues its culture-war policies against gay parents while obligingly following the budgetary discipline enforced by the European Central Bank. In Brexit Britain, we have a glorious opportunity to navigate between the Scylla of supranational technocracy and the Charybdis of national-populism. Can we avoid the dire fate of our European neighbours? The future of democracy may depend on it.

[See also: Austerity is about to return to Europe]

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