The Daily Star (Lebanon)

The Brexitizat­ion of European politics: Shifts in euroskepti­cism

- GUY VERHOFSTAD­T

Far from settling the question of the United Kingdom’s future, the 2016 Brexit referendum and subsequent negotiatio­ns with the European Union have triggered a full-blown identity crisis and culture war in Britain. Two years after the U.K. electorate voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to withdraw from the EU, it is safe to say that former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ploy to settle a long-running niche debate within the Conservati­ve Party has backfired spectacula­rly.

Brexit has left British political and social life more divided than ever. While the Brexiteers are peddling increasing­ly divisive – even violent – rhetoric, hundreds of thousands of “Remainers” recently marched through London, calling for a “people’s vote” to approve whatever exit deal the government proposes.

According to a new report from the U.K.’s National Center for Social Research, support for or opposition to Brexit is increasing­ly supplantin­g party affiliatio­n as the defining factor in British political identities. Specifical­ly, the researcher­s find that “nearly nine in 10 members of our panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver,’ whereas less than two-thirds of them claim to identify with a political party.”

British voters’ growing emotional attachment to Remain or Leave poses a serious challenge to the country’s main political parties, each of which has deep internal divisions over Brexit. And as the recent demonstrat­ion in London showed, these disagreeme­nts will not be resolved anytime soon. Ironically, the U.K. is now home to one of the largest grassroots pro-EU movements in Europe. So, even if the U.K. government can conclude withdrawal negotiatio­ns with the EU in the coming weeks, debates within Britain about the future U.K.-EU relationsh­ip will remain intense and protracted.

One way to bridge the divide and heal Britain’s fractured politics is to forge a close but flexible “associatio­n agreement” of the kind that the European Parliament has proposed. Associatio­n agreements are a proven method of facilitati­ng cross-border cooperatio­n. In the case of Brexit, such an arrangemen­t could protect both the U.K. government’s “red lines” and the integrity of EU decision-making.

Brexit has had a profound effect on EU politics, too. Polling commission­ed by the European Parliament finds that overall support for EU membership has increased significan­tly since the Brexit referendum. Deepening divisions within the U.K. and a painful divorce process seem to have raised awareness about the benefits of EU membership and the costs of populism, while galvanizin­g all those who still favor an open society.

Recent political developmen­ts seem to bear out these findings. Although the euroskepti­c Swedish Democrats had been tipped to make significan­t gains in Sweden’s general election in September, more moderate parties routed them. And as support for EU membership has increased, the Swedish Democrats have had to back away from advocating a full EU exit.

Similarly, though Italy’s populists, led by the rightwing League party leader Matteo Salvini, have stepped up their propaganda against “Brussels,” they have also had to retreat from their previous position of supporting an Italian exit from the EU or the eurozone.

These examples would seem to indicate a shift in continenta­l euroskepti­cism. Anti-EU parties have abandoned openly advocating the bloc’s destructio­n and begun to focus more on pushing center-right parties toward the populist and nationalis­t extremes.

To defeat these parties, centrists, liberals and democrats need to do more than defend the status quo. They also must demonstrat­e that by opposing solutions to common European problems, populists are putting their narrow personal and political interests ahead of “the people’s” interests. Even more to the point, pro-Europeans must offer practical solutions to voters’ concerns about migration and unemployme­nt.

The recent regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announced retirement, have underscore­d the crisis of traditiona­l center-left and center-right parties.

Just as this fragmentat­ion has created an opening for populists, it also presents opportunit­ies

As mainstream parties struggle to adapt to voters’ frustratio­ns and the new polarizati­on of European politics, smaller parties have expanded their reach by offering more succinct visions for change.

But these smaller parties are not limited to upstart nationalis­t movements such as the Alternativ­e fur Deutschlan­d in Germany. Recent municipal elections across Poland have shown that liberal-democratic parties are more than capable of hitting back against populism. Despite the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party’s politiciza­tion of the press, centrist, pro-European candidates made significan­t gains.

Brexit, the rise of populists like U.S. President Donald Trump and profound changes in the media through which politician­s interact with voters have left establishe­d political identities more fragmented than ever. But just as this has created an opening for populists, it also presents opportunit­ies for those seeking to form new national and pan-European movements centered around EU values.

Europe’s people are hungry for change. Now is the time for the majority of Europeans who still support EU membership to make themselves heard.

Guy Verhofstad­t, a former Belgian prime minister, is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaborat­ion with Project Syndicate © (www.projectsyn­dicate.org).

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