[Written by Francesca Di Fazio (she/her)]
[Image Credits: Chris Timmins (he/him)]
Content Warning: Contains discussion of nationalism, xenophobia.
More than three years have gone by since the UK was turned overnight into Brexitland. Before it even took place, Brexit Day was a historical date for all of Britain, although with different significance depending on one’s own political stance. To me, a European citizen living in a Remain stronghold like Scotland, 31 January marked first and foremost the end of an exhausting transition during which Brexit – its “whens”, “hows”, at some point even its “ifs” – swallowed the whole country’s public debate. In the suspended reality of Brexitland, I became familiar with the concept of British exceptionalism. This peculiar form of nationalist pride underlies the rhetoric of Brexiteers, from classical Conservatives to more flamboyant and populist figures. The common main preoccupation was to rescue Britain from the political, economic and social homologation with the rest of Europe driven by the European Union. As Nigel Farage has made very clear in his last speech in the European Parliament, reasserting the national sovereignty of Britain represents a strong ideological restatement of its unique political and social identity premised on exceptionality.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the Brexiteers’ crusade against Europeanisation reflects trends that started shaking the mainland well before the Brexit referendum. Today, virtually every EU member state is facing internal backlash against European integration. However, we should not conflate all Euroscepticism under the label of far-right nationalism. European populist parties stemmed from different contexts and with different priorities. In some countries, like France, Germany or Spain, they are still relegated to the opposition; in others, such as Hungary or Italy, they have made it into office. Their most recognised ideological trait is their opposition to immigration drawing on people’s attachment to traditions. By constructing ethnic and cultural minorities as inherently backward or violent, right-wing populist leaders have managed to convince national electorates that immigration poses an existential threat to European culture and ways of life. But there is another side of European populism which is often understated: its aversion to the neoliberal consensus that reigns among the traditional, moderate political forces, including the European supranational elites. In the richer member states of northern and central Europe, the anti-establishment sentiments are mostly articulated as a distrust of European legislation, which is depicted as a set of absurd and restrictive rules imposed on member states from bureaucrats located in Brussels, far from the ordinary people and their common sense. In member states that have endured economic austerity in the aftermath of the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, this argument resonates even more with voters. In Italy, the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, the two most voted parties in the last general elections, shared above all anti-austerity ideas, and this was the basis for their government coalition.
Yes, racism and xenophobia are part of the motivation for the success of nationalist populism in Europe. But another crucial aspect of the matter is the fact that populist leaders address issues of effective concern for European electorates. It’s easy to mobilise hatred against minorities when the ruling elites seem deaf to the economic and social discomfort of the masses. During the economic crisis, the austerity measures required to maintain order in the Eurozone hit hard on the European working classes. Some member states were faced with no other choice than relinquishing part of their sovereignty in economic policymaking in exchange for financial bailouts, while others were forced to introduce austerity in order to avoid a similar fate. “Italy is not a colony” may sound like a slogan that Salvini or the Five Star Movement would use, but it actually came from Mario Monti, the moderate technocrat who implemented austerity in the country, when he grew tired of the rigid stance adopted by European and international institutions. The material difficulty – but also the scarce willingness, given the neoliberal consensus – to reform the EU by increasing the democratic accountability of its institutions feeds into the sense of inefficiency and removal from citizens that fuelled the Leave campaign in Britain.
If we care about the European project, we should start interrogating the populist rising tide and the reason behind it more attentively. Failure to do so in the aftermath of Brexit might soon lead to history repeating itself. The project of European integration is one of the greatest political undertakings of all times in terms of its opportunities for peace and prosperity. Ensuring its survival requires critical engagement with the disaffection that it is increasingly generating.