Things happened in 2016 we hardly thought possible: a majority of UK voters opted to leave the EU. Donald Trump won the US presidential race. The toll of refugee deaths at sea reached new peaks. Institutions – deaf to the anger and discontent of Europeans – seemed unable to cope with the rising wave of populism and neonationalism. But lessons have been learnt, and the game is not lost.
First of all, the aftermath of the UK’s referendum remains unclear. If Article 50 is triggered in March 2017, this could still result in all sorts of possible outcomes: hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, almost Brexit... What to me is absolutely clear is that negotiations must not be carried out behind closed doors by only a few men and women. There is a paramount need for transparency and the involvement of elected representatives, as indicated by the Supreme Court when it ruled that the Scottish and Welsh governments could intervene in negotiations. Indeed, the electorate in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to remain in the EU, and their voices must be listened to. After all, it is not just Brexiteers (who constitute just 37.4 per cent of eligible voters) who should ‘take back control’ of decision-making.
We have to focus on the quality of the agreement between the UK and the EU. A deal that gives up some of the most important advantages of the EU, like freedom of movement or environmental policies, food safety and product quality standards, will neither be good for the EU, nor welcomed by Remain voters. In the long run, it will represent a loss for everyone.
Brexit was not an isolated case in 2016. The idea of ‘taking back control’ is being successfully adopted by nationalistic and reactionary forces all over the world. But the success of such movements is not based on the value of their proposals nor on facts, what analysts today call ‘post-truth democracy’. Can we consider Leave’s divisive campaign based on lies and manipulation fair and democratic? Was Trump’s election democratic, when he lost the popular vote by over 2 million votes? The populist Five Star Movement in Italy, moreover, is leading Europe in terms of fake news, and its ‘activists’ have links with the far right.
The European Commission’s (EC) inability to counter misinformation or push for media pluralism is also helping figures like Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and the powerful Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński push through reforms against freedom of speech and expression. It is easy to imagine that the upcoming elections in France and Germany may be affected as well.
But why is this happening? The EU seems unable to respond to the ‘existential crisis’ highlighted by EC President Jean-Claude Juncker. By pushing through austerity policies, it shows it does not grasp the policies needed to find a viable solution.
The EU’s biggest problem, though, is perhaps its lack of transparency and confusing structures. National governments take advantage of this, blaming Europe for their own failures, and taking undue credit for every success. The Apple case, where the EC ruled that Ireland gave illegal tax benefits to the tech giant, had a tremendously positive impact in the public’s eye, but remains an isolated case. The overriding perception is still of an EU that gave up on its values, has forced austerity on Greece and supports Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan instead of helpless refugees.
Having said that, we must look for the positive elements that do exist: Alexander van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election, backed by the country’s Green Party, sent a positive and historical signal that many Europeans refuse to buy into the nationalistic propaganda of the populist parties cluttering our continent. There are still progressive forces that must build coalitions and provide an alternative to nationalism. We need to react by building a realistic yet positive discourse.
Van der Bellen won because he did not polarise: he presented himself as a president for the entire population and promoted positive transformation – not just for Austria, but for the entire EU. This is the transformation that is needed: a common vision for democratic reform that tackles the green economic transition, European cooperation, tax justice, migration, youth unemployment.
Disintegration is not the natural course of the EU, contrary to what people like Farage and his counterparts in other countries say. But Europe needs to reset and reform, and progressive forces should be at the forefront of the European project.
It can be done. And we are first in line to make it happen.