Europe Seen From the Outside: The British View

Written by | Monday, October 10th, 2016

Mark Leonard (European Council on Foreign Relations)

In Europe, a political revolution directed against the elites, the EU and globalization has begun. Brexit has so far been its main achievement, which will in turn apparently serve as an inspiration for the growing populist and anti-system parties on the continent. What is happening in the European society and how can the Union respond to these developments and avert its demise?

For Britain, leaving the EU means an unprecedented uncertainty in the short term: the country is on its way into recession, faces disinvestment and a new Cabinet is being formed in an unprecedented political chaos while expressions of racism are on rise in the streets. In the long term, the Brexit will probably mean Britain‘s declining political and economic relevance in the world.

However, an even more important consequence of the British departure could likely turn out to be the impulse that the outcome of the referendum has given to the political scene in the rest of Europe. Brexit is actually not an isolated and specifically British occurrence. It is rather one of the manifestations of an escalating political crisis of the Western world, which points to deep societal divisions. The traditional division of the political spectrum between the right and the left has been losing its relevance in recent months and it is being replaced by the divide between supporters and opponents of globalization. Aversion against the globalized world interconnected by institutions, international trade and migration is the common denominator of populist parties that are now clearly on the rise in Europe.

The Union has for decades sought to address thorny political issues by dividing them into smaller problems of a bureaucratic nature, which raised only minor objections. This diplomatic approach has provided the EU with security and stability but its understandable disadvantage is little clarity and low appeal to ordinary citizens. This is exploited by populists who brought emotions and identity back to politics as they present themselves as a revolt against the cosmopolitan elites and the technocratic Union.

If the EU – along with all that is good about globalization – is to survive, it is necessary to start presenting both in a new and more convincing manner and take special care of the concerns of those negatively affected by globalization. These are mainly low-skilled people in developed countries, for whom free trade and immigration actually may mean a decline in their living standards. It is important to lend an ear to these people and create redistributive mechanisms that will facilitate their participation in the benefits and wealth created by an interconnected world. If this does not happen, the Union could expect a very dark future.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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