The long-term ramifications of Brexit are difficult to predict. In a way they represent the existential theme of being condemned to be free, which, in turn is a leap in the dark with no pre-established outcomes.
As a believer in a more federalist Europe characterised by pluralism but united by common basic values, I hope that Brexit will not have a ripple effect on other member states where anti-Europeanist rhetoric is gaining ground.
Having said that, there is no such thing as one monolithic populism. This would vary from left to right and from cultural to ultra-nationalist.
Brexit could be seen as an example of the movement towards a less uniform EU, in this case through the most radical measure, namely exit from EU itself.
Within today’s EU, some member states and regions are struggling, while others are notably richer. There are big divergences between northern and southern Europe. For example, median incomes in Sweden and Austria are much higher than those in Portugal and Greece. Employment opportunities vary widely across north and south, with Malta being a southern exception, and a relatively good performer at that.
Yet, even in countries which have achieved relatively high economic growth, social inequalities have increased. In this regard, progressive analysts Patrick Diamond, Roger Liddle and Daniel Sage say that “the uneven impact of austerity has increased a horizontal line across a new, economically divided, post-crisis Europe”.
Populist parties have gained ground in this context. Some, like the leftist Syriza in Greece, have found themselves in government through democratic election and consequently adopted a more mainstream approach through reforms, which though being austere, have equality in mind at the end of the tunnel.
The progressive vision for Europe argues for increased political integration, increased compromise and more tailor-made prescriptions
Other left populists, like Podemos in Spain, seem to prefer to remain in Opposition than forming progressive coalitions in government. On the right, populist parties, such as the UKIP in Britain, have been instrumental in the Brexit referendum, whilst Front National in France is being kept out of power even due to broad alliances of convenience across the mainstream political spectrum.
Nationalistic populists on the right and left in Hungary and Slovakia respectively are showing little support to the European project, and some right-wing populist parties, such as those in Sweden and Austria, use nationalistic rhetoric in ‘defence’ of their respective nations’ achievements at the expense of migrants.
Within such a context, what can be done to defend and strengthen the Europeanist dream shared by different parties and movements across the political spectrum?
Progressive scholars and also analysts embracing different political orientations are putting forward various proposals on this urgent matter.
Diamond, Liddle and Sage call for a European reorientation towards country-specific recommendations for reforms and accompanying mechanisms to facilitate respective financing.
Joseph Stiglitz calls for a ‘flexible euro’ system within which different countries (or even groups of countries) can have a Euro currency having fluctuating values but remaining within the policies and boundaries of the eurozone.
Mario Monti calls for give-and-take policies between Europe’s north and south. In his view, the south should be more supportive of fiscal discipline, but the north should be more supportive of public-investment policies aimed towards growth.
Jurgen Habermas calls for deepened European cooperation as well as for compromise within the eurozone. However, in his words “Germany will have to give up its resistance against closer fiscal, economic and social policy co-operation and France be ready to renounce sovereignty in these corresponding areas”.
Similarly, Joschka Fischer calls for a grand compromise between Germany and other eurozone countries through deeper political integration and less political nationalism. And Yannis Varoufakis calls for a Europe-wide political alliance of democrats so as to avoid history repeating itself when the ugly face of totalitarianism gripped much of Europe last century.
There are differences among such progressive proposals. However, I also note a common thread within this discourse. Basically, and at the risk of simplifying a very complex challenge, the progressive vision for Europe argues for increased political integration, increased compromise, and more tailor-made prescriptions for different parts of Europe.
This might be very difficult to achieve, but the alternative increasingly seems to be characterised by confrontational nationalism, populist rhetoric devoid of sustainable solutions, and a weaker Europe.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.