Brexit is a Wake-Up Call for Europe

Andrea Gambaro
July 5, 2016

Plenty of arguments can be made against the European Union; most of them didn't feature into the rhetoric of those who pushed for the United Kingdom to exit the EU. Regressive and divisive, the Leave campaign waved the devious, facile flags of protectionism and xenophobia, oversimplifying the matter and pandering to people’s emotions. After all, against a backdrop of general disappointment and politicians failing to address critical challenges to their agendas, tapping into fear and anger was an easy way to garner support. Residents of other European nations harbour the same concerns, raising the prospect of similar scenarios springing up in other countries.

Predictably, nationalist and xenophobic parties across Europe are riding the wave of the Brexit vote. They’ve adopted the slogan, “This is just the beginning”. In France, Marine Le Pen - the leader of the National Front  - called for the referendum for which she has been agitating over the past three years. She argues that it's time for the rise of what she calls “patriotic” movements. Her words were echoed in the Netherlands by Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom and a fierce critic of Islam. The Alternative for Deutschland in Germany and the Northern League in Italy also welcomed the Leave victory.

The electoral support these parties can round up remains in question, but they look set to benefit from the rising tide of Euroskepticism. A Pew Research Center study found that only 51% of Europeans favour the EU, while 42% want more power returned to their countries. In France, a staggering 61% expressed disfavour towards Brussels. The majority of Spanish people also oppose the European institution, and scepticism is mounting in Italy and the Netherlands, two of the founding members of EU.

These figures speak to a broader disillusionment with the political establishment, on which Donald Trump has built his presidential race in the US. The Brexit vote was the latest expression of the populism and nativism that unites the lower classes of Europe and America. Less than two weeks after the vote, the outcome of such a reckless campaign is clear to see: a chilling surge of public racial abuse, immediate withdrawal or watering down of the promises made to Brexit voters, and confusion among top politicians over who should oversee the transition.

The immediate fallout of the Brexit vote won’t deter similar movements in other countries, unless their citizens are given an alternative. In the short term, European governments must face up to the failure of austerity policies and rethink their handling of the refugee crisis. In the long term, the lack of accountability, the supremacy of financial power, the weak legislature and the terms of political integration should be the core of a serious debate on how to reform the European project.

European governments should focus on identifying and implementing these reforms, rather than searching for ways to secure future relations with the UK. The Brexit vote could even represent an opportunity to revitalise the EU, which has come up short in recent months. Failure to engage with the issues raised by Brexit risks leaving the future of Europe in the hands of xenophobic and far-right movements.