In country after country, moderate ideas have been pushed aside by emotionally charged debates.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union throws not only the island but also the continent into uncharted territories. No one really grasps, at the moment, the long-term implications for the economy and ordinary citizens.
It is likely though that the anti-European political forces that have been recently on the rise in various European countries will get a boost from this historic decision. Some indications are already making themselves felt.
In France, the president of the far-right National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen, immediately called for a similar referendum to be held. In Italy and in the Netherlands, far-right leaders Matteo Salvini from the Northern League, and Geert Wilders, from the Party for Freedom have expressed the same demand for their countries.
These parties, and their predecessors have been consistently rejecting the idea of a European Union, on the tropes of national sovereignty, if not plain nationalism. They form the bulk of a Eurosceptic camp organised into two groups at the European Parliament, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, led by Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party, created after the 2014 European elections, and the Europe of Nations and Freedom, created exactly a year ago and led by Marine Le Pen’s FN.
They form a small but vocal political minority whose ideas have spread rapidly in a context of economic gloom and crisis. Their criticism of EU institutions in particular finds more and more takers across the ideological spectrum, from the left to the ranks of traditional parties.
But it would be too easy to lay the blame for the current events to individuals and parties that are nothing more than the beneficiaries of processes and dynamics that run far more deeply within European societies. One such dynamic is the growing polarisation of EU societies and the displacement of the median voters towards the fringe that separates the conventional right from the extremes.
The notion of median voters was formalised into a theorem by Duncan Black in 1948, and further developed by Anthony Down in 1957, in his Economic Theory of Democracy. It states quite simply that in a majority-rule voting system, organised around a linear left-right ideological axis, parties will compete for the voters located in the space that separates the major ideological poles, hence ensuring that centrist views tend to prevail. The median voter theorem is seen as a reason why democracies tend to be governed at the centre (or near the centre). Parties must dilute their discourse a bit in order to expand their support base towards the centre, which supposedly has a moderating effect on the public debate.
But in recent years, that median space has greatly reduced, in a context of economic crisis, increased inequalities and focalisation of the public debate around socially divisive – yet crucial – issues.
Take any prominent issue that has marked public debates in Europe in recent times – gay marriage, the Greek bailout, the migrant crisis, terrorist attacks – and you will see that there is little space left for the expression of moderate ideas or positions. These debates often take misinformed and emotional – if not plainly hysterical – turns, that leave deep scars in the social tissue once the media attention has shifted towards another issue.
A demographic shift
Parties floating radical notions on these questions thrive as a result. They receive support from social categories and groups that are not part of their traditional support base – the conservative, elderly, lower middle classes. Economic hardships and mass unemployment have also pushed voters that traditionally voted left towards the right. In France, more factory workers vote for the far right now than for the far left parties, their traditional protectors.
As a result of this demographic shift towards the right fringes, conventional rightwing and centre-right parties have been engaged into a competitive process aimed at reclaiming these voters. They have done that by adopting the campaign themes of the far right, claiming to bring forth better solutions than their radical opponents. “The National Front has the wrong answers to the right questions” is a common refrain heard among the leaders of the French conventional right.
This move was also meant to strategically define the terms of the political debates and campaigns to come around issues on which the left is not supposed to be at ease: security, authority, national identity and immigration. These themes have all been blended together and the structural incapacity of the EU to address those issues has reinforced its image of an ineffectual organisation.
In this process, extremist parties and their ideas became banalised. The left parties are deeply divided around what strategy to follow – either fight their opponents on their chosen terrain, or reject the terms of the debate, at the risk of appearing detached from people’s genuine concerns about these issues.
Facing the unknown
In France, Francois Hollande has attempted to operate a turn towards the centre with the idea of developing a French brand of social democracy, based on dialogue and conciliation with established bodies such as unions and employers’ organisations. The result is that he is ending his first term with the lowest approval rating of a sitting president in French history (about 16%), governing with a fractured majority, a substantial number of his own MPs voting against his bills. And as far as social dialogue goes, the country has been gripped by crippling and violent protests for the past three months around a labour law reform that his government imposed by (legally) bypassing the parliament.
The debate over Brexit has to be placed in that larger context of social polarisation and drift towards conservatism. The campaign was deeply polarised, the arguments exacerbated into caricatures on both sides. The idea of Europe or what it stands for was barely debated in a campaign dominated by penny-pinching cost-benefit calculations and arguments that were quite often disconnected from facts or reason. The very idea of the referendum came from the desperate attempt of the now outgoing prime minister to claw back voters from the far right in order to win last year’s general elections.
Today, the country that voted for its so-called independence stands more divided than ever, facing the unknown, with right-wing radical forces gloating at the spectacle of their ideas spreading beyond their wildest dreams.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of his institution of affiliation.