Britain last June. America last month. Now Italy. Next, Germany? France? Holland? Revolt against the elites is sweeping the West.
Overnight, the Austrian election re-run and the Italian referendum solicited quite different responses from European leaders and the European commission. Yet again those European, pro-EU voices, so volubly relieved over the result in Austria then so conspicuously muted at the Italian result, made the mistake of seeing either result as opposites when in fact they were two sides of the same coin. In a sense, the issue is not simply the result of the votes, rather the driving pressure to call to account governing elites abusing their power.
In the UK we have tended to see the vote to leave the European Union as a singular occurrence, with those committed Remainers claiming that the UK was isolating itself from Europe and thus, the rest of the world. Yet events now seem to suggest that far from leaving the world as we know it, it is much more likely that we are in fact leading it. Across the continents it is becoming apparent that we are in the midst of a juddering of the democratic tectonic plates. Some, if not all, is a delayed response to the 2008 economic crash. A sense from many that it is they who have borne the brunt of the squeeze that took place after with those whose hands were on the financial tiller, finding comfortable life boats to escape on.
This juddering of the political plates is not unique and has happened periodically – as 1789, 1848 and in more modern times in 1968, all of which sprang from ‘popular movements’ and resulted in significant change. Now the issue is the widespread desire for greater control and, in their frustration, the public’s target is those who seem, to many, to rule without accountability.
The Centre for Social Justice with Legatum published a report recently which carried out detailed analysis of the reasons people voted to leave the EU. What was striking was the way that two issues predominated. The first was a desire to see migration controlled and the second equally powerful was the desire for a return of sovereignty. This was expressed as a desire to have those elected deliver on their promises without blaming others for their failure. This powerful desire to take back control was considered far more important than any of the concerns raised about the economy. Yet as we feel those plates move, it becomes clear that in different ways and for different localised reasons, this sense of grievance and frustration with elites is prevalent elsewhere.
Whilst it is wrong to try and assume that outcomes are the same in different countries, nonetheless, this theme of a need to regain control percolates through all the debates. In the USA it became clear that what we were witnessing, despite all the concerted efforts of the celebrities and the political elites, was anger with the way so many Americans thought they had been passed over. Their anger was aimed at Washington and the sense that those there no longer cared about the ordinary lives of Americans. Trump tapped into that sentiment. A political outsider, a maverick and an untested politician, someone who in normal times wouldn’t get off the starting blocks, broke all the rules and even after spending a fraction of the money his opponent did, won the race.
That same sense of change is very much alive and well and spreading across the EU. Look at Italy, once considered the most pro-EU country in the Union. Italy could be relied upon to vote for greater EU powers whenever asked and polls showed that Italians, perhaps because they had such weak government at home, always backed the idea of the EU. Yet all that has now changed. On Sunday evening they threw out a referendum ostensibly on the constitution but in fact, it had become a referendum on the Government and the EU. Small wonder so many felt the way they did as they have been ravaged by their membership of the Euro. Italy’s economy is 12 per cent smaller now than when the financial crisis began in 2008 and the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio, at 133 per cent, is second only to Greece’s. Worse, the banks remain very weak and many of them are teetering on the edge of insolvency.
They are not alone as, country by country, people are beginning to demand change. In Germany the AfD have now polled more votes than the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) in two of the latter’s strongest regions, as anger over the scale of immigration takes shape. With elections coming next year, Merkel no longer seems unassailable, with the CDU’s partners, the CSU, agitating to break the alliance. In France it seems that the same sentiment prevails as in all likelihood they head for a run-off between the centre right and the far right. In Holland the PVV and Geert Wilders have tapped into the same anger and frustration and lead the polls in the run to their March election.
Instead of looking at just the outcomes, perhaps the most interesting is the scale of the public dissatisfaction and anger with those in power and the desire to see wide scale change. Even in Austria where the far right were rejected, the interesting question is how did they get that close?
I have always believed that the post-war Spinelli view, that the problems of Europe were caused by competing nation states, was wrong. His plan to create more central control became the blueprint for the EU we have today, with an ever more powerful supra-national body and the erosion of national power. Yet I believe he was wrong; competing nation states were not the problem. After all, they created the great artistic and scientific advances that so characterised Europe in modern times. Such states structured around democratic and accountable institutions, cooperating and trading, not the rigid, centralised EU in existence today, should have been the objective.
As a result, in the face of this pressure from below, the European political elite – whether in the Commission or in national governments – simply refuse to recognise there is a fundamental problem with the whole project. Sadly, whilst the Commission was making disparaging and threatening noises about first the UK’s vote to leave the EU and then the USA, they failed to notice the ground was moving beneath their own feet.
On Sunday Italy wobbled as the signs of change sprang up all over Europe. Perhaps the UK can now lead and despite all the scare mongering show that despite the anger people feel, strong democracy means mainstream government can affect the change that people need, without recourse to extreme alternatives.