By Martin Lodge and Nick Sitter
‘Sir – my need is sore. Spirits that I’ve cited; my commands ignore’ – these words by Goethe in his famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice sum up much of the aftermath of the UK’s referendum result. Whatever the political and constitutional fallout in the UK from an election result, which saw a coalition of Londoners and secessionists being defeated by a group of aggrieved and post-50 year old voters, the crisis in European politics is only going to gather further speed. In doing so, the political pre-requisites for dealing with today’s transboundary crises will be undermined further. In all likelihood, this will end up hurting exactly those individuals who expressed their anger by voting for anti-EU politicians.
On referendum night, commentators from both the Remain and Leave camps made much of the anger of English voters (outside London) about their personal economic circumstances, hospital queues, immigrants from other EU countries, and indeed the leaders of the mainstream political parties. Given the collapse of the British Pound overnight, the consensus among practically all economists is that the Brexit vote will slow down economic recovery, in addition to the Chancellor’s promise of austerity measures to mitigate the effects of Brexit. It appears that rather than addressing any of the concerns of the Leave voters, the only factor that will change is the leadership of the Conservative party. All the other sources of populist angers will remain.
In many ways, the UK referendum result should not be seen as a surprise. The electoral mood across Europe has become increasingly volatile and hostile. This has raised questions about how ‘responsible government’ can continue to be exercised by the grand coalitions of the centre-right and the centre-left. The late political scientist Peter Mair highlighted the potential political crisis emerging from an emphasis of ‘responsible government’ (by technocratic, elitist parties) at the expense of ‘responsive government’ (one that responded to direct voter input). What we are left with is the rise of responsiveness by populist parties, which in turn is removing the basis for ‘responsible government’.
This problem of populism and ‘irresponsible government’ has become ever more pertinent because of the widespread decline of traditional centre-left, social democrat, parties across Europe. The rise of ‘responsiveness’ by means of referendum and directly elected party leaders has undoubtedly reduced the capacity for responsibility in party politics and government. The Brexit referendum was a particularly problematic exercise in direct democracy, since voters were not given the option between two clear alternatives, but rather that between the status quo and a course of action that remained completely ambiguous. Most efforts to discuss potential consequences of Swiss, Canadian or Norwegian ‘models’ were discounted by the Leave camp as irrelevant and biased interventions by untrustworthy ‘experts’.
The tragedy of this political turn is that the transboundary problems that have emerged from interdependency among European states and exacerbated by the financial crisis are not going to go away by increased paperwork and the manning of border posts. Welfare states need to be financed at a time when the tax base becomes increasingly under pressure. Policy problems – whether it is pollution, the regulation of highly risk financial products, invasive alien species, energy security, intelligence-sharing to fight crime and terrorism, or food security – require transnational information-gathering and -exchange, as well as reliable mitigation responses. Unsurprisingly, the UK referendum debates hardly touched on these transboundary policy challenges. Instead, they quickly boiled down to grievances about public services, untrustworthy part leaders, and immigration.
What we are left with is the unresolved question of how to tackle transboundary policy problems in a system of multi-level governance – whether as full EU members or neighbouring states in Europe. This is an old question, and the results of the UK referendum and other national elections have made the debate about how to effectively tackle these problems more problematic. The Brexit debate called into question the legitimacy of governing, both in London and Brussels. It is not just the legitimacy of the EU that has been rejected. Whatever the recipes of the ‘nativist’ politicians, it is unlikely that their policy options will generate much content either. Discontented voters will still feel disenfranchised, they will still argue that they are being left behind, and that decisions have been taken in non-transparent ways. We are therefore left with the question of how how to deal with transboundary crises in systems where political support for transboundary problem-solving is difficult to mobilise. We have seen this elsewhere in Europe: The right-populist Fidesz won the 2010 and 2014 elections in Hungary, but is now busy fighting off a challenge from the radical right populist Jobbik. In western Europe, Le Pen and Wilders have upped their Euroskeptic game.
But the problem goes much further than that – the widespread tendency by the UK Leave campaign to dismiss all ‘experts’, to continue presenting misleading claims and to trample on any attempt at a conversation, has advanced a polarisation of politics. This polarisation is not conducive to any deliberation about problem-solving, let alone the kind of cross-part consensus that will be required to develop a solid basis for a new institutional relationship between the UK (or England?) and the EU. Conflicts are no longer about the marginal settings of policy interventions, they are about the existence of policies in the first place.
Goethe’s apprentice was rescued by the returning master. It is difficult to identify a similar remedy in European politics at this moment – even though the UK vote suggested a generational split in voting patterns. In the medium term, the spirits that have been unleashed by the political crisis of the EU and of national politics that were aggravated by the financial crisis are likely to trigger further unraveling of existing political orders.
The authors on this blog write in a personal capacity and do not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.