By Jonathan Stubbs
After the U.S. election, Britain’s Nigel Farage stood next to a grinning Donald Trump in front of the golden doors at Trump Tower. Meanwhile, Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary from the Labour party, called the president of the European Commission a narcissist, deriding his proposals calling for increased European security in light of concerns over Trump’s long-term commitment to NATO. Straw considered Jean-Claude Junker’s proposal to be an act of folly, akin to the misguided policies that led Britain to voting to leave the EU and created an existential crisis in Europe.
Straw’s statement is a prime example of how mainstream politicians are beginning to sing the same tune as the Trump and Brexit campaigns. The picture of Farage and Trump together may be the beginning of the trends in store for Europe. With important European elections on the horizon, beginning with Italy and Austria in December and culminating with Germany in late 2017, the future of the EU and European security is in the balance.
Farage’s right-wing, populist U.K. Independence Party and the supporters of Brexit will be cheering the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election next spring. They will cheer Norbert Hofer in Austria in December, Geert Wilders and Alternative for Deutschland in the Netherlands and Germany in 2017, and other nationalist groups and parties throughout Europe.
Their aim is to see the European project and the unity, strength, and security it has created go up in flames. Then Europe can return to “freedom”: the freedom of the Napoleonic wars, the Franco-Prussian war, World War I, the Spanish civil war, and World War II. When Europe was a continent of powerful, competing nation states with strong national identities and cultural barriers between them, the system of warring monarchies and nationalist realpolitik never managed more than a few decades of peace in over 400 years. The European Union, by contrast, has been peaceful throughout its 70-year history. If the EU were to end, the return of nationalist states would lead to prolonged political instability and surges in xenophobia and intolerance.
Whereas Farage and UKIP's behind-the-scenes liaisons with far-right groups across Europe were a source of electoral embarrassment when they were first exposed, this support and admiration has now been legitimized. The British government is seeking to align itself with right-wing and nationalistic parties in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, challenging the EU's founding principle of free movement of goods, services, people, and capital. President-elect Trump’s new chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has endorsed a British alliance with the Visegrad group with the aim of undermining the EU. Where such views once remained on the fringe, they will now have direct influence on and prominence in American policy.
The rising nationalist trend has had serious repercussions for the British economy. The value of the pound has fallen by 20 percent since the vote to leave the EU in June. As the country imports far more than it exports and has one of the largest trade deficits in the developed world, inflation has already increased significantly. The start of the two-year process of leaving the EU is still months away, and the government continues to define its negotiating strategy while leaving both Parliament and the nation in the dark. Uncertainty over the process has led to sharp declines in business confidence, with £65 billion ($80 billion) in investments scrapped since the referendum. Standard and Poor's assessed Britain’s future economic outlook as bleak, and warned of future downgrades as Britain’s role as a global economic power diminishes outside the single market. Several companies are trying to make deals with the government to ensure that Brexit will not impose extra costs on their operations, leaving it in an impossible position of having to subsidize the economy. The British government, rather than devising a strong negotiating hand, seems more likely to be stuck putting out fires of its own making.
Prime Minister Theresa May has neglected to ease the social tensions and threats of violence that have followed the vote. Her administration has refused to condemn attacks on three British High Court judges for ruling that the government violated constitutional law by attempting to bypass the sovereignty of Parliament in its decision to leave the EU. The claimant, Gina Miller, received online death threats and racist abuse, and she is now afraid to leave her home. The recent murders of Member of Parliament Jo Cox and Polish migrant workers lend credence to her fears.
What comes next for Europe and United States, now that they have unleashed the forces of nationalism? These forces are threatening to tear down the building blocks of human understanding that were constructed after the catastrophe of World War II in order to protect human life through international law and cooperation. That project has been closely tied to pooled European sovereignty and integration, which attempted to lock away the cause of the conflagration, nationalism, but not national identity. It is this perceived loss of national identity, due to migration and globalization, along with increased social and economic inequality and stagnant wages, that has led to the surge in populist movements in Britain, Europe, and America.
In Britain, despite the platitudes of Remembrance Day, a commemoration of the end of World War I, it seems we have lost the power to apply the lessons of our history. Despite our disastrous foreign policy decisions, we still convey to the world a succession of grave-faced dignitaries placing wreaths at an empty tomb. Britain is a very poor storyteller, for, far from embedding the values of tolerance, increased cooperation, and understanding into our national psyche, the country aims to subvert and dismantle these building blocks in order to keep all the benefits of EU membership without incurring the costs. The centuries of conflict and instability in Europe that have given rise to a strong sense of national pride in Remembrance commemorations—particularly, and paradoxically, by the right-wing press—have been sacrificed in favor of stoking the perceived problems related to immigration.
Far from ignoring the legitimate concerns of those left behind in an increasingly globalized world, mainstream politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to remember that pandering to the movements represented by Brexit and Trump is dangerous, irresponsible, and morally reprehensible. It may be tempting to buy into a popular trend, but we have to stand up for what is right. We have to fix our political systems. We have to make our economies work for everyone, fairly. We have to remove the conditions that allow corrosive nationalism to thrive. We have to make our democracies less susceptible to external subversive influence and powerful internal manipulation and distortion. We have to be better storytellers.
Jonathan Stubbs is an independent journalist and the founder and writer of the political blog, Britain2100.com.
[Photo Courtesy of Euro Realist Newsletter]