The Populism of Brexit

By Teodor Ispas.

It is the year 2019, the UK Prime Minister has met with the European Union Commissioner to ask for a Brexit extension. No one knows or remembers what this is about or how it started. In the UK it is a celebrated Holiday.

Firstly, the UK wants to leave the European Union; secondly, it has failed in every attempt to do so since the referendum took place in 2016.

Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, one point remains undisputed in 2019. What was once a complicated discussion between the UK and the EU about compatibilities of different values, economies and legal systems, has now been reduced to a set of actions and baseless claims which turned a complex debate into a form of populism. There is no secret that populism has been growing exponentially in the last 5 years with more and more political establishments adopting this particular movement as a primary means to an end in their quest for gaining or maintaining power; and so, to name a few prominent examples, America’s got Trump, Italy’s got Salvini and Britain ended up with Brexit.

Generally, there are four core elements of populism: (1) the people (2) in a morally, socially and financially charged (3) battle against (4) the elites.

Firstly, within the context of Brexit, ‘the people’ does not refer simply to the British people as a whole. Instead, it makes reference to the people who found themselves severely at odds as a result of the deindustrialisation process which took place in the 80s’ and 90s’ and who have struggled ever since. Moreover, it also refers to the people who have been badly impacted by the austerity measures adopted by the Conservative government to mitigate the 2008’ Financial Crisis effects on the country. Arguably, Brexit appeals to these people to a greater extent, because it gives them a culprit, an external entity that is responsible for their problems, another institution to blame for past and present issues they are experiencing. However, the people do not realise that in the last ten years the austerity measures were, in fact, a product of the UK’s own government misjudgements and mistakes rather than European Union’s fault.

Secondly, Brexit portrays the British people as facing severe social and economic problems, mainly attributing this to the current immigration policies. It has convinced them to blame mainly European immigrants for the severe unemployment rates which the country has faced in the last five years. This has effectively diverted the public’s attention away from the UK government’s inability to stimulate the market and create more sustainable jobs.

Brexit Demonstration Flags. Photo source.

Finally, Brexiteers have successfully painted the EU as an oppressor, creating an unrelenting image of them as a body of elites who profit off the British people, giving them nothing in return. It has framed Brussels as more remote and inaccessible than it is in reality.

Furthermore, it has created the impression that the EU and UK not only do not share any common values but also that the EU is set on a course of subjugating the British people completely. Therefore, the people feel an overwhelming desire to resist against this perceived reign of terror and fight for the sovereignty of their own country. This sentiment is the fuel behind the idea of ‘taking back control’.

Despite the fact that it was a project doomed to fail from the start, Brexit continues to challenge the integrity and purpose of the European Union. This is mainly because of the strong populist elements that are integrated within it. It continues to advocate for individual nationalistic values, over a sense of unity and cooperation between European countries. These are indeed turbulent yet interesting times, as Brexit does not just simply reflect issues within the UK. In the long run, it exposes a threat which populism poses to the existence of a united Europe, which arguably, could not have come at a worse time.

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