By Marco Iovino
Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union—or “Brexit”—and the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president have been coupled in analysis of innumerable op-ed pieces across the world. The causes and symptoms are supposedly the same: a vote for the anti-establishment option, a rebellion of rural citizens against an urban elite who have left them to decay, “fake news,” nationalism, and xenophobia. Having been in London during the referendum and in California for the election, both nights played out in a surreally similar manner. The mainstream prediction that Britain would remain in the EU and that Hillary Clinton would become the 45th President of the U.S. unravelled live on television late into the night for the whole world to see. And each time I woke up to a nation baffled by the result and its implications.
Hindsight is obviously key. Many of the most compelling parallels between these two votes were written about and observed after the fact. Before a consensus was even reached on the root causes, political commentators began to speculate about what this could mean for future elections in Western democracies—with the rising popularity of France’s far-right candidate Marine Le Pen positioning itself as the third substantial point in this trend line. The premise for this projection was that the prior two momentous results had globally legitimized the sentiments of the far-right, which had emboldened them to continue the momentum. In effect, the Domino Theory of the Cold War has been inverted to apply to the far-right instead of Communism.
It was this projection of the trend and the media narrative that perhaps made commentators unnecessarily skittish about the French election; Macron won decisively in line with the forecasts of pollsters by a substantial margin. Le Pen’s record support should be a cause for concern for France’s centrist and leftist movements, but it was not a real risk in winning the governing majority as popular commentary suggested at the time.
And this is not the only spanner in the works. There has not been a major victory for the right wing in Western democracies in the seven months since Donald Trump was elected. This is true for Austria, the Netherlands, France, the UK and Italy.
This trend also applies across smaller powers elsewhere in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, such as Finland. The exception in Eastern Europe would be in Hungary, which has expressed strong anti-refugee rhetoric supported by the vote in a national referendum. The parliamentary election is scheduled to take place in early 2018. However, elsewhere in the region, Bulgaria’s far-right United Patriots lost at 9.1 percent of the vote.
It is interesting to note that in every single one of these elections the far-right party has achieved a final result below its polling average. Gathering objective raw data has not proven to be a hurdle in most cases; however, the weighting of this data has proven to be an issue. More recently in the UK election, pollsters have been accused of assigning weighting to fit their own political analysis of the situation, thereby greatly underestimating the turn-out of youth in spite of what voting intention polls stated. Likewise, it is wholly possible that polling groups across other nations are following the narrative of far-right momentum and weighting their predictions too highly.
Renowned pollster and political pundit Nate Silver made the bold statement that “Donald Trump is Making Europe Liberal Again.” He uses polling information to demonstrate that far-right parties have declined since Trump’s election. The data is compelling, including many of the above elections as well as the predictions for Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany Party, which has declined in popularity. Silver’s analysis suggests a host of reasons, the most prominent of which is that Trump is very unpopular in Europe, being viewed as an establishment figure that many of the anti-establishment, disenfranchised voters originally revile.
This analysis makes sense. Trump’s recent trips to Europe had largely unpopular coverage and this negativity was further compounded by his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The response of many major European powers was to redouble their environmental protection efforts in isolation from the support of the US, a move which is popular among European citizens. The vast majority of Europeans believe that climate change is a serious problem. This phenomenon extends dramatically beyond climate change, with the Pew Research Center recently releasing a study concluding that the “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership.”
However, this analysis overlooks another factor: Brexit. Perhaps Britain’s protracted attempts to leave are also to blame for putting a damper on the rise of the far-right. Almost exactly a whole year has passed since the referendum and the British government is no clearer on what it wants to negotiate for its leaving deal. High-level positions have been allocated and vacated in resignations before formal talks have even been initiated. The far-right in Europe is uniform in its dislike towards the EU and has been hoping to capitalize on Euroscepticism and the election of Trump. If Britain were on track for getting a “better deal” outside the Union, it would surely embolden this Eurosceptic sentiment. On the contrary, Britain’s currency has suffered and inflation is on the rise. Its negotiating counterparts at the EU have stood steadfast while May’s team has been in a perpetual state of disarray, worsened by the currently hung parliament. Recent polls are even suggesting that Remain has regained a majority of support.
The realization of the immense difficulty of enacting an exit from such an integrated entity is finally dawning, both domestically and abroad. The collapse of UKIP and the Conservative Party’s loss of seats are manifestations of this fact. The Swiss newspaper Der Bund labelled Britain “The Laughing Stock of Europe.” This is coming from a wealthy nation that is not even an EU member. The EU bloc has announced a bill of “painstaking detail” to set the agenda of the separation of several dozen agencies, funds, and projects.
The far-right have certainly made in-roads, gathering unprecedented vote shares in recent years. The position of centrist and left wing parties is more tenuous than it has been in the past. If these parties hope to maintain power, now is not the time to tread with caution and temporarily placate the people. Serious reform must be made in order for these parties to shore up a defense against the far-right. The news media should also exercise more caution in ascribing trends with so few data points. It’s understandable to try to make sense out of political shift as unexpected as the victory of Brexit and of Trump. These kinds of ‘domino’ narratives are tempting because they try to neatly package explanations and apply templates to nations. In an era where we increasingly look at globalization more critically, a finer case-by-case review and individual cultural understanding is in order. While many of these countries may literally be in a union, their respective analysis is not necessarily universal.
Marco Iovino is an Executive Office Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. He is currently in the middle of completing his bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in California but he calls London his home and tries to go back often. He can be reached at marco.iovino (at) pomona (dot) edu.