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A British View of Populism’s Gathering Storm     Print Email
By Michael White, London

MichaelWhite2016As the nations and people of the North Atlantic hurtle towards 2017, the populist forces which are unraveling the certainties that have bound them together since World War II become more powerful with every passing week. Britain’s vote on June 23 to “Brexit” the European Union (EU) was not the first centrifugal explosion. But it was certainly the most dramatic signal of changing times until November 8 brought the election of Donald Trump, an economic nationalist and diplomatic isolationist, to the U.S. presidency.

Installed in the White House next month, President Trump may not actually do all or any of what he said on the campaign trail and still Tweets in the early hours. But his rhetoric, style and choice of cabinet members have been enough to unsettle Europeans already facing an increasingly uncertain future of their own. Perhaps on their own too if the President’s impatience with Nato’s budget laggards persists.

In past few days, Francois Hollande, France’s deeply unpopular, socialist president, has admitted defeat and withdrawn from next April’s re-election campaign, hoping that Francois Fillon, the economic Thatcherite now confirmed as the mainstream right’s official champion, will be able to see off the hard right National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

Across the Alps Italy’s Matteo Renzi, briefly the EU centre left’s best hope in the rising generation, lost the referendum he rashly called - echoing the mistake made by Britain’s ousted David Cameron - - on reforming the constitutional impasse that blocks urgent economic and social reform in Rome -- echoes of familiar gridlock on Washington’s Capitol Hill. There were legitimate objections to Renzi’s plan to cut the Senate from 315 to 100 and replace their elections with appointments, but the decisive 60:40% defeat was much more than that: a rejection of the governing elite, of economic malaise, immigration and of Renzi personally, outsider though he was just two years ago. Italians, like Americans, prefer weak government and think it a luxury they can still afford. Renzi’s defeat by a left/right coalition of populists is dubbed “ Trumpismo” and avowed sympathy with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian nationalism is in its DNA.

With Britain, France and Italy rapidly losing their elected chief executive, that leaves Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, long the solidly cautious sheet anchor of the wider European project, as the last woman standing, That is unless we include Britain’s rookie prime minister, Theresa May, who deftly stepped into the top job when David Cameron resigned. But since the UK’s Brexit vote, EU leaders no longer count her.

At regular summits, the EU 27 (from giant Germany down to little Malta) exclude May from their inner counsels. They warn her visiting ministers that they delude themselves if they think they will get favorable exit terms - to “have their cake and eat it” as one leaked Whitehall memo put it - in the brisk two year period allotted to negotiate UK withdrawal. That process begins once what is known as the “Article 50” procedure is formally triggered, by March 31 according to May’s sketchy timetable.

There need be no firing on Fort Sumter to leave this Union, but the divorce will be bloody all the same. The abandoned party promises to make sure of that. Even within divided Britain, feelings still run dangerously high. Among the 52% who voted Leave (on a 72% turnout that makes the 37% of the electorate), a widespread view persists that they can just walk away - not so much a divorce as leaving a room. But the Article 50 process is itself bogged down in the UK Supreme Court. Can May’s executive branch of government trigger it alone (as her lawyers have been arguing) or must the legislature, parliament, have a say before individual rights - notably to live and work in Europe - are taken away? A lower panel of judges who found in parliament’s favor were denounced as “enemies of the people” bent on “blocking Brexit” by angry tabloids whose currency is increasingly “ elite betrayal.” As with candidate Trump’s denunciation of an American judge of Mexican heritage, moderates on both sides were shocked.

But unless the case is somehow referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), something British judges are keen to avoid for obvious reasons but may not be able to prevent, it will be resolved in January and “A50” will proceed. May, whose House of Commons majority is just 13, has conceded under pressure she will publish some details of what she hopes to obtain. In a highly charged atmosphere, the House of Commons has voted by 448 to 75 votes ( the holdouts mostly Scottish Nationalists, Lib Dems and an ardent Labor and Tory pro-EU members) to endorse May’s March 31 deadline, subject ( at the Labour opposition’s insistence) to her publishing her negotiating plan. Both sides claimed a mighty victory, though it changed little and the Supreme Court may require them all to enact a formal law.

And the May plan? Access to the single market for British goods and (more important) financial services which need bureaucratic “passporting” rights in return for a limited contribution to the budget, is one version floated by David Davis, her cabinet minister for Brexit. That sounds close to the model Norway evolved after voting against EU membership in 1973. But the price is high and includes “free movement” of would-be migrants, anathema to Brits who voted to “take back control” over immigration.

Germany, which has its own domestic politics to worry about, will be even less helpful than it was to Cameron before the Brexit vote. Now 62 with 10 years as chancellor behind her, Merkel hoped she might find a suitable successor to lead her “grand coalition” with the social democrats (SPD) rather than fight a for fourth term. But none emerged and she knows her rashly generous decision to admit one million refugees from Middle East conflict in 2015-16 has angered many Germans, especially in the ex-communist eastern lander. It gives further impetus to nativist populism seen elsewhere (but not previously in respectable post-war Germany) and damaged confidence in her and her party.

Pushed into third place (19% to 22%) by the surging Alternative for Germany (AfD) in regional elections in her own Pomeranian backyard in September, Merkel has been forced to fight on - and to trim to the rightward winds. At her CDU party conference in industrial Essen this week, she called for a ban on the full Islamic veil, the burka - “with us, the rule is show your face,” the chancellor said. Given modern Germany’s precious civil rights laws the policy may not prove enforceable, but it cheered her supporters, if only as a symbol. Few Muslim women wear burkas in Germany.

But Merkel, most of whose fellow countrymen have been exemplary in their reception of genuine refugees from Syria and elsewhere, was following a trend in France. Here last winter’s spate of suicide bombings - 130 died in the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 - exacerbated unease and worse about the sizeable Muslim population (7.5% compared with 5.8% in Germany and 4.8% in the UK, according to Pew data) and the edgy legacy of brutal colonial rule in North Africa, Algeria serving as France’s Deep South. The French doctrine of secularism - laïcité - bans all religious symbols in school and last summer some leading politicians backed local attempts to ban modest “burkini” bathing suits on Mediterranean beaches. In the present mood, the notion that burkinis may represent an integrationist compromise escaped the ban’s cheerleaders. On fashionable French beaches many bikinis have long been topless.

Wealthy Lombardy, home of Italy rightwing populist Northern League, also dipped a toe into burka ban politics in 2015. Mainstream politician, their support hollowed out by an economic “lost decade” - the Japanese phrase was deployed this week by the Bank of England’s Canadian governor, Mark Carney - and by stagnant incomes, lack the confidence to resist it. In any case Italy’s most pressing challenge as it struggles to put together its 65th government since 1945 (four times the number in Britain, five times the 13 US presidencies) is the fragile state of its banks. Most urgently the world’s oldest such institution, the Banco Monte dei Paschi de Siena may soon need a tricky state bailout which clashes with EU ground rules.

After its success in tactical coalition with the left populist Five Star Movement, the Northern League immediately demanded a UK style referendum on Italy’s EU membership. Even the option of leaving the eurozone, whose exchange rate has proved excellent business for high tech Germany but crippling for Italy, might prove fatal to the project. The threat comes just when the zone’s overall unemployment rate has finally dipped below 10% for the first time since the financial crisis and growth is edging up at last. But progress is patchy. Real GDP per head at purchasing power parity rose 11% in Germany between 2007-16, in France it barely moved, in Italy it fell by 11%. Spain is slightly better off, Greece, Italy’s partner in the frontline of the parallel Mediterranean refugee crisis, far worse.

Such calculations do not render quietly prosperous Austria (0.4% growth in Q3) immune from far right, anti-immigrant populism, though the one significant win for the EU’s hated “liberal lite” this fall has been last Sunday’s decisive defeat of Norbert Hofer, the Freedom party’s candidate for the Austrian presidency by a Green-backed economics professor. Hofer blamed Nigel Farage, former leader of Britain’s Ukip Independence Party and new best friend of President-elect Trump, for his latest tactless intervention in someone else’s “sovereign” election. On Fox TV Farage had wrongly claimed that Hofer would seek an In/Out EU referendum too. Austrians, like Greeks, want a different EU, not a ticket to leave. Fear of the old Ottoman Turkish empire, at Vienna’s gate for centuries, runs deep.

Europeans, usually the better off, the better educated, the young and socially liberal (libertarian populists are conflicted on gay marriage), who would like old certainties restored grasp at passing straws, anything that may signal that the populist tide has peaked, populism’s simplistic remedies exposed for what most of them are, feel-good comfort food full of fats and sugar to be paid for later. So a December by-election victory for Britain’s pro EU Liberal Democrat party in the prosperous London suburb of Richmond upon Thames, a rough equivalent of Washington’s Chevy Chase, raised cheers among the 48% of Brits who voted Remain on June 23. Even Brussels bureaucrats tweeted their congratulations.

Never mind that the contest was triggered by the protest resignation of the sitting Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, because May’s Conservative government had finally resolved to build London’s next airport runway at busy Heathrow, its noisy flight paths over wealthy Richmond as well as over the Queen at Windsor Castle. The winning Lib Dem was also anti runway, but she fought a campaign urging buyer’s remorse over Brexit. Since 70% of Richmond had voted to Remain, it worked. The Eurosceptic Goldsmith, (personally rich enough to sit in a Trump cabinet but for his Green credentials) lost.

As in Austria’s little local victory nothing will change as a result. The EU’s top Brexit negotiator, French tough cop, Michel Barnier, is telling the Brits they have just 18 months to negotiate their retreat. Any trade deal must come later, its terms necessarily worse than the status quo. Optimistic Brexit champions who see a great unburdened future for free trade Britain and place great store by President-elect Trump’s promises, argue that the EU has more to lose than Britain by a tariff war. In Europe’s fragile condition, they may be right: who knows?

Meanwhile another straw floated past Richmond in the wind. Historian and contrarian, Niall Ferguson, a vociferous pro Remain campaigner until a few weeks ago who loftily denounced Brexit supporters as “happy morons” and “Anglo loonies” who would do the country great harm, announced that he had been dramatically wrong. Listing all the failures of the EU on economic management to security and immigration, long evident to all but the most blinkered Europhiles, Ferguson complained that elite analysts like himself should have spent more time listening to blue collar workers in England’s provincial pubs.

Professor Ferguson holds the Laurence A Tisch chair of history at Harvard. He is a senior fellow at Oxford and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Later the same day Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford) was found to have insulted his touchy Saudi allies over their “proxy wars” of religion, a casual outburst worthy of Trumpismo’s chieftain himself. Strange times indeed.

Michael White is a former Washington correspondent and political editor of The Guardian.