Archive for the ‘European politics’ Category

Did we ever really understand how the EU works?

piers ludlowDespite its long membership, Britain has seriously failed to grasp the way the EU works, writes N Piers Ludlow (LSE). Many of the stickiest points in the Brexit negotiations, including the Northern Ireland backstop and the decision to trigger Article 50 so early, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how the bloc operates.

The United Kingdom ought to have started the Brexit negotiations with the EU with one distinct advantage. As an insider of 40 years standing, the UK should have been well placed to anticipate virtually every move by the EU27. The Brexit talks should thus have resembled one of those divorce disputes where each party knows every foible of their former partner and is acutely aware of their vulnerabilities and strengths.

Bizarrely, however, this has not proven to be the case at all. Rather than making full use of their inside knowledge to pitch their case in the most skilful fashion possible, the British have instead blundered through much of the Brexit negotiation as if dealing with the EU for the very first time. This highlights how superficial has been the understanding of the system acquired by much of the UK political class during the four decades spent inside the system.


Prosecco on a North Sea beach. Photo: James West via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

There have of course been some who have understood the EU. They include a few of the ministers, officials and diplomats who have worked in Brussels, a sprinkling of journalists, and some academic specialists. But none of those who did know how the system functioned have ever been able to make such knowledge mainstream. Instead, the highly polarised internal debate about ‘Europe’ has meant that such expert views have tended to be seen as contentious statements of ‘opinion’, to be debated and challenged rather than taken on board. The former Commissioner Arthur Cockfield, for instance, gradually saw his ability to explain the system to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party dwindle as he became ever more seen as ‘one of them’ rather than ‘one of us’. As a result, the British debate about Europe both before and since the 2016 vote has been characterised by a startlingly poor understanding of the EU.

The first widespread mistake has been the failure to realise that the European Single Market is much more than just a free trade area – and that therefore tariff free access to the EU will not give British exporters anything comparable to the access that they currently have. Michael Gove for instance referred in 2016 to a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to Turkey of which Britain would, he was confident, still be part. The UK, in other words, would go on enjoying tariff-free access to EU markets, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum. But this focus on tariffs was quaintly anachronistic, because ever since the 1980s the main target of European liberalisation efforts has not been intra-European tariffs but instead the various non-tariff barriers that clogged up trade across European borders. The elimination of these last lay at the heart of the Single Market programme masterminded by Cockfield and strongly backed by Thatcher. It was therefore the degree to which Britain maintained regulatory convergence with the EU that would do most to determine the country’s commercial access after Brexit rather than the question of tariff levels.

But – remarkably – hardly anyone took Gove to task for this misleading claim. Instead the vast majority of commentators seem to have regarded his statement as relevant and legitimate. And this misguided fixation on tariff reduction or elimination rather than regulatory alignment has continued through the Brexit talks themselves. The British debate about what underpins its trade with the EU – and hence about what will change as Britain leaves – has been characterised by little awareness of how the EU’s internal market operates, despite the key role that the UK played in creating this very market. We have forgotten – or unlearnt – what we once energetically championed.

A second feature of the EU that we ought to have known about but have blithely failed to think through is the importance of timetables. European integration history is studded with the use of timetables and deadlines designed to compel member states to respect their obligations and to bring about simultaneously the administrative, commercial and legal changes that they have agreed to make. Fixed dates for tariff dismantlement stood at the heart of the original 1957 Treaty of Rome; similar approaches lay behind the adoption of the CAP and Common Fisheries Policy; and the technique was famously reprised both in the 1980s and early 1990s with the building of the Single Market and in the 1990s with the establishment of the single currency. As seasoned insiders, the British ought to have taken the two-year timetable set out by Article 50 seriously. In so doing they should have realised a) that two years was a very short period of time to work out even the immediate modalities of leaving the EU, let alone deciding upon the longer term relationship between Britain and Europe; and b) that one of Britain’s strongest weapons was the fact that it alone would determine when to invoke Article 50. The sensible course would therefore have been to determine what Britain wanted to get out of the negotiations, as well as what was likely to be negotiable before allowing the countdown to begin. Instead Theresa May invoked Article 50 in March 2017 well before any clarity existed in the British debate about either point, and has been under severe timetable pressure ever since. By failing to think through the consequences of the Article 50 timetable, the UK seriously weakened its bargaining position.

Another avoidable error has been to underestimate the degree to which Brexit’s impact upon Ireland would become a central concern for the whole EU. In so doing the British have again been guilty of overlooking two further realities about the EU that as insiders they should have been recognised. The first is that the EU is always prone to support an insider in a tussle with an outsider, almost irrespective of the merits of the insider’s case. And this is all the more so, given that many of Ireland’s fears centred on the damage border controls in Ireland might do to the Good Friday Agreement, thereby undermining the EU’s own self-perception as a peace project. The EU has long liked to believe that it had played a useful role in overcoming the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ – and had been encouraged to think this by the governments of both John Major and Tony Blair as they sought EU money for the region – and hence its dismay at any backwards step in the peace process and its readiness to back Dublin should have been easy to anticipate. Instead there has been general perplexity in much of the British debate about why the EU was seemingly putting the interests of a single small member state above the bloc’s economic and political interest in a rapid settlement with the UK.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the British debate about what was likely to prove negotiable has failed repeatedly to take into account the political nature of the entity with which it is dealing, and the fact that it is the UK and not the EU that is asking for change. The first of these realities is best illustrated by the Boris Johnson ‘prosecco’ argument – or the idea that the strength of Britain’s bargaining position in the negotiations springs from the commercial interest of many continental exporters in keeping access to the lucrative UK market. This overlooks the extent to which all of the EU27 regard a flourishing EU as even more valuable than the British market, whether economically or politically. And yet giving UK the sort of exit terms which many Brexiteers seemed to regard as likely so as to avoid the loss of sales to Britain would seriously endanger EU unity and incentivise others to follow the UK’s example. The potential negative consequences would far outweigh the loss of the British market, however prized. This helps explain why the EU27 opted immediately after the referendum for a negotiating procedure which maximised the likelihood of their staying united and minimised the scope for the British to divide and rule.

The EU27’s whole approach to the talks, in other words, underlined how the politics of staying together trumped the potential value of trade with Britain. Furthermore, the underlying dynamics of the negotiation were always going to be profoundly asymmetrical, not just because it pitted 27 against one, but more importantly because the EU could unite in the defence of a pre-agreed system whereas the British had to devise its desiderata from scratch. Mapping out what Britain desired would always have been a challenging task, not least because Leave voters hold markedly divergent views on the question; it has been even more so in a deeply polarised country, led since 2017 by a minority and profoundly split government.

Here too, though, an extraordinary number of those commenting on the negotiations totally failed to anticipate this reality. Instead there was a widespread expectation that it would be the EU27 and not the British who would be divided and weak in the negotiations. Mervyn King, for instance, told the BBC that immediately after the referendum EU leaders must have asked themselves ‘How on earth could the European Union manage to negotiate against this one decisive group on the other side of the channel?’

The EU’s strength should not have been at all surprising. Uniting around a pre-agreed position, and maximising internal coherence even at the expense of external rigidity, has been the EC/EU’s default approach to negotiation ever since it was first created. And yet once outside (or at least on their way out and treated as already having left in terms of how the Brexit talks have been organised) the British have reacted in horror at this deep-rooted – and hence entirely predictable – characteristic.

All told, therefore, the manner in which the British have allowed themselves to be taken aback by the realities of negotiating with the EU says much more about our own shallow understanding of the system than it does about European vindictiveness. A tiny minority of UK officials and politicians did correctly predict the likely course of negotiations from the outset – most famously Ivan Rogers. But the vast majority of the British political elite have gone on being ill-informed, not to say deluded, about the nature of the EU. What this means for the eventual outcome of the Brexit process remains unclear. One lesson, however, is already  apparent. We have been ‘in Europe’ for over four decades, but as the whole depressing spectacle of the Brexit talks amply demonstrate, few of us have ever really understood what this means.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on N Piers Ludlow’s article in Diplomatica, Did we ever really understand how the EU works?, vol. 1, issue 1.

N Piers Ludlow is a Professor in the Department of International History, LSE.

Brexit has been a wake-up call about the value of European integration

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has sent shockwaves through its institutions and the member states, but there are also indications that Brexit represents more than merely the dramatic culmination of the EU’s decade of crisis, writes Maximilian Conrad (University of Iceland). The resulting pro-European backlash, witnessed both domestically and throughout the union, suggests that the referendum may indeed also be taken as a turning point, maybe most importantly as regards the ways in which political discourse makes sense of Europe.

After decades of a blame-game of predominantly Eurosceptic discourse on European integration, heavily emphasizing issues such as loss of sovereignty, democratic deficits or threats to national identity, Brexit appears to have served as a wake-up call that has reminded Europeans of the high normative as well as instrumental value of European integration. Initially, this turning point was best illustrated by the Pulse of Europe rallies that sprung up in various European cities from the summer of 2016 onwards. But the parallel rise of right-wing populism has lent particular urgency to the idea that European integration needs to be rescued from its enemies, as was especially evident in the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections in 2019.

From this vantage point, Brexit presents a peculiar conundrum to the sort of political actors that scholars of Euroscepticism would refer to as “soft” Eurosceptics. Based on a distinction introduced by the political scientists Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak, soft Eurosceptics are those who oppose the European Union in its current form, but who are not categorically against the idea of some form of European integration. Their conundrum is essentially that they have to advocate for the continued existence of the European Union, while at the same time maintaining their (however legitimate) criticism of the current EU, its ideological orientation and/or policy priorities.

This conundrum has been particularly clear in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in Germany, where European integration has become considerably more contentious in the wake of the Eurozone debt crisis, the so-called Greek bailout packages and the refugee crisis, all of which have also been contributing factors to the sudden rise (and radicalization) of the “Alternative for Germany” party from 2013 onwards. Germany is also a relevant case in point in the sense that any kind of politically relevant Euroscepticism, if it exists at all, has tended to take a very soft form. This may very well be due to an unspoken assumption that underlying all legitimate criticism of the EU is, in fact, a broader consensus on the desirability of European integration – a consensus which has however begun to crumble significantly.

The recent “One Europe for All” demonstrations – initiated by a network of soft Eurosceptic German civil-society organizations and held one week prior to the EP elections in more than 50 European cities – are a clear illustration. Our analysis of the messages communicated by the participating organizations clearly demonstrates the sense of urgency accompanying the EP elections. Despite all criticism of the EU, the organizers emphasize that the future and existence of the EU is at stake in the EP elections, as “[n]ationalists and right-wing extremists want to use them to herald the end of the EU and bring back widespread nationalism”. Far from being merely a symbolic event, the elections are therefore construed as an opportunity for citizens to vote “against nationalism and racism”, “contempt for humanity and racism” and “for a democratic, peaceful and united Europe”. Maybe most importantly, the elections are framed as an opportunity for choosing the future direction of European integration, emphasizing the importance of a “vision of a different Europe” that entails “humanity and human rights”, “democracy, diversity and freedom of expression”, “social justice” as well as “fundamental ecological change and solving the climate crisis”, all of which the EU is alleged to have failed to achieve so far.

Our analysis of the messages communicated by the participating organizations points to three important findings. First, we can observe what might be referred to as a discursive reclaiming of the European project. What is at stake in the elections is nothing short of “our Europe”, which is currently at risk of being taken hostage by right-wing forces that threaten not only its historic achievements, but indeed its very existence. This must not be misread as any sort of uncritical approval of the status quo in today’s EU. Nonetheless, it does clearly spell out a sense of citizens’ ownership of – and responsibility for – the European project. In most cases, this is also accompanied by a specific vision of how the EU should change in order to become e.g. “a Europe of human rights and democracy” or “a community in which the individual, not the economy, is at the centre of attention.”

The second key finding is that at least some of the participating organizations maintain their strongly confrontational position towards the EU. These are arguably the ones who have been most critical of the presumably neoliberal orientation of the EU in its current form, such as most notably Attac. In fact, Attac goes as far as blaming the EU’s neoliberal orientation as at least one important root cause of the recent surge of right-wing populism. But even organizations that consider themselves to be decidedly pro-EU, such as Mehr Demokratie, speak of an “ever more nontransparent and centralist EU” and call for a democratic restart of the union.

The third key finding is that in the face of the EU’s existential crisis, a more explicit and unambiguous commitment to European integration is now expressed by organizations that had previously been critical of the EU’s alleged lack of ambition in areas such as environmental or social standards. As a case in point, Friends of the Earth Germany, which had been a vocal part in the campaign against TTIP and CETA, now emphasizes the necessity of a deepening of European integration as a “core requirement for an effective fight against today’s environmental problems”.

We can conclude that the Brexit context has, in fact, had a moderating effect on EU contestation in Germany in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections. Most of all, it has created an apparent need for soft Eurosceptic actors to spell out more explicitly and unambiguously that their legitimate criticism of specific aspects of the current EU must not undermine the project of European integration as a whole. However, with a view to the development of a new narrative for Europe, the contentious claims raised in connection with the “One Europe for All” demonstrations should, by all means, be taken seriously.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image: C00 Public Domain.

Maximilian Conrad is Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. His work includes the monograph Europeans and the Public Sphere: Communication without Community? (Ibidem Press, 2014) and the volume Bridging the Gap? Opportunities and Constraints of the European Citizens’ Initiative (Nomos, 2016).

Both Northern Ireland and the UK will suffer at least 3-4 % reduction in GDP per year for a decade as a consequence of Brexit

Of pressing concern is how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland in terms of trade, freedom of movement of persons, foreign direct investment, and loss of European Union funding.  In this blog, M. Leann Brown argues that evidence suggests that NI and the United Kingdom will ultimately suffer at minimum a 3-4 per cent reduction in GDP per year for a decade as a consequence of Brexit (EU Exit Analysis, 2018).

While states withdrew fairly frequently from regional economic organizations during the “first wave of regionalism” (the 1950s-late 1970s), very little literature provides theoretical guidance as to how to think about the consequences of states’ seceding from regional economic organizations. The EU is so unique and advanced in economic and political integration, there are no comparable cases to draw upon to build or test a theory of member state secession.

Economists’ predictions regarding the potential effects on GDP range from +2 to 20 per cent in some sectors like agriculture. These predictions vary by the models and timelines employed as well as by the analysts’ ideology. However, it is clear that NI will suffer economically more than the rest of the UK, save perhaps the Northeast and West Midlands. Trade will be negatively affected although perhaps more slowly than might be expected. FDI will be more immediately affected by the loss of the 500 potential consumers in the Single Market and the uncertainties associated with these processes.  Various forms of EU funding will cease, and although Britain has committed to compensate NI for some of these losses, its willingness to meet these obligations will undoubtedly be affected by the negative economic fallout Britain itself suffers.


With or without a bilateral trade agreement, leaving the EU Single Market will negatively impact NI’s trade. In 2017, 56 per cent of NI’s exports worth £8.7 billion went to EU member states. The Republic of Ireland is NI’s number one destination for exports; the value of those exports in 2017 was £2.7 billion (Polley and Hoey 2017). As a member of the Single Market, no tariffs are levied on NI exports to EU member states.  Under the worst case scenario, the EU would treat imports from NI under third country import rules, i.e. they would subject to tariffs and quotas. That would translate, for example, into about a 3.2 per cent tariff on agricultural goods, undermining those exports’ competitiveness.

Post-Brexit, the UK itself might introduce import tariffs or other nontariff barriers like customs controls which would increase costs for NI importers and consumers. However, the UK could reduce or remove regulations and other barriers on third country imports, for example on agricultural or food products.

In negotiations, both the EU and UK have said that they wish to avoid the worst-case scenario regarding loss of access to the Single Market. Analysts have speculated that Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU might follow Norwegian or Swiss models of having access to the Single Market. For example, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area and has adopted 3/5 of the EU’s acquis communautaire. Both Norway and Switzerland are expected to contribute to the EU’s structural and cohesion funds, but lack the ability to participate in EU decision making. After recent negotiations, the EU and the UK have announced that they will avoid the negative trade consequences of leaving the Single Market, but Theresa May said that the new relationship would not be like the Norwegian, Swiss or Canadian relationships, which means that at this point we have no sense of post-Brexit trade relationships.

The border

In addition to trade, the status of the border is fraught with concerns relating to freedom of movement of persons; these concerns are usually discussed in terms of whether there will be a “hard” or “soft border” between NI and the Republic after Brexit. A combination of the 1952 Ireland-UK creation of a Common Travel Area, the creation of the EU Single Market in 1987, and the 1998 demilitarization of the border after the Good Friday Agreement has meant that recently there has been freedom of movement across the border.  Approximately 30,000 people live and work across the border, who would be inconvenienced by reestablishment of border controls. Some suburbs of Derry/Londonderry effectively sprawl across the border (Bell 2016).

Freedom of movement

About 7 per cent of the workforce in NI is from EU countries – Poland, but also Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal.  If there is no control at the borders, EU immigrants seeking work in the UK could cross the Republic-NI border without being challenged. Immigration control was a major issue in the Brexit referendum. The Republic has already identified 250 sites that will require personnel if a hard border is established after Brexit.

Everyone is aware of the political sensitivity of the border. Theresa May said from the outset that the UK aspires to a “seamless” or “frictionless border.” This issue remains unresolved. Questions include where will the border lie – between NI and the Republic or between the island and the UK? What form will the new border controls assume? Could new technologies such as use of vehicular number plate recognition technologies and drones help soften the border?  Most scholars believe that it will be impossible to avoid the reestablishment of some kind of border controls in the wake of Brexit.

Foreign direct investment

The primary question with regard to FDI, is the extent to which NI’s attractiveness as a destination for FDI will be affected by its loss of access to the Single Market. The economic uncertainties associated with Brexit will heighten perceived risk, affecting indigenous and foreign investment, particularly in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing that are closely associated with EU trade. There are already significant disincentives for foreign firms to invest in NI – relatively low productivity rates, a weak private sector, and corresponding strong dependence on public funding, its peripheral location and rurality.

Much discussion has centred around whether a lowering of the corporate income tax could offset the negative effects of Brexit for NI. The NI government has been granted the right to put into place a local corporate tax rate to make the region competitive with the Republic’s 12.5%. Of course at this time without a government, the lowering of the corporate income tax is on hold. Most analysts concur that a lower tax rate will not compensate for the loss of potential FDI’s access to the Single Market and the several years of uncertainties will greatly compound existing deterrents to DFI for NI.

Loss of EU funding

Given that conflict resolution figured prominently among the EU’s original missions, it has devoted significant resources to conflict amelioration in NI. A European Policy Coordination Unit was established within the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and an Office for the NI Executive was established in Brussels in 2001. The EU created a Northern Ireland Taskforce after the re-establishment of power-sharing in 2007. Overtime, the NI Taskforce has interacted with 17 Directorate Generals, the first time the Commission has established such close relationships with a single region over so many areas. Three MPs represent NI in the European Parliament.

The EU has provided billions of euros in funding to support NI under several programs, likely £11 billion since 1984 (EU Funding Allocations).  The monies have been available for infrastructure projects, business sectors, and political reconciliation projects. The various PEACE projects are very sophisticated, featuring “peace-building from below” strategies that promote cross-border, inter-cultural dialogue. Examples include inter-cultural daycare centres, programs supporting discussion of history and storytelling, and cross-border musical events (Phinnemore et al. 2012).

The sector likely to suffer the most from loss of EU funding is agriculture. Between 2005-2014, NI farmers received £2.5 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy, representing approximately 87 per cent of farm income. Agriculture accounts for about 38,000 jobs, 3.3 per cent of civil employment in NI. Another sector likely to suffer is civil society that employs 4 per cent of the total workforce. Loss of EU funding will translate into loss of jobs in this sector, particularly among women (Miller 2013).

Again, the UK has promised to match the current level of EU spending in these sectors through 2020, but what will happen after that is unclear.  Agriculture is among the sectors devolved to regional responsibility.

So to reiterate, evidence suggests that it is likely that both the UK and NI will suffer annually at minimum 3-4 per cent reduction in GDP, respectively, as a consequence of Brexit. A loss of 4 per cent GDP in NI will throw an economy not yet fully recovered from the Great Recession into negative growth for a decade. These could be very uncertain and painful times in NI.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by .holger licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

M. Leann Brown retired after thirty years in the classroom of the University of Florida in May 2018.  Her most recent publication is REGIONAL ECONOMIC ORGANIZATIONS AND CONVENTIONAL SECURITY CHALLENGES (Palgrave, 2018). Her current research focuses on how states’ identities affect foreign policymaking.

Baltic Countries Will be Excluded From the Russian Energy System by 2025

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland signed with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy, Maroš Šefčovič, in charge of the Energy Union, a road map for synchronization of their grids with the Continental European Network, quoted by

This is stated in a document published by the Commission. The Continental European Network (known by the abbreviation UCTE) is the largest in the world with over 400 million users. It does not cover all countries of the European Union but includes the Western Balkans, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

The step means that the electricity grids will be dismantled with the energy systems of Russia and Belarus. The process must be completed by 2025. The funds for the first phase were secured with an agreement of EUR 323 million, signed by the European Commission in March.

Despite the existing links with the European partners "for historical reasons", the Baltic network is working in sync with the Russian and Belarusian ones, and the change is the key to the development of the EU Energy Union.

The Russian newspaper RBK cites an adviser to the Lithuanian president who told the Lithuanian BNS site that there is already a specific timeframe for exclusion from the post-Soviet system, while Brussels will be involved in talks with representatives of Moscow and Minsk.

Nearly 700,000 Europeans with Permission to Stay in the UK After Brexit

Nearly 700,000 people have been granted permission to remain in the UK after Brexit, the UK Department of the Interior reported, e-mailing the Daily Mail.About 166,900 people turned to the government scheme to settle European citizens in May to secure their status after Brexit, according to statistics.


As of May 31, the total number of applications since the scheme was opened was 788,200, with 668,000 approved, according to a statement from the Ministry of Interior.

Of these, 66% received established status and 34% received a pre-established status.

Interior Minister Sajid Javid told parliament on June 10 that his number has risen to over 800,000 and nearly 700,000 have succeeded.

The scheme was open to the audience on March 30th.

As for EU citizens, the scheme is open to citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway who are in the European Economic Area (EEA) but are not EU Member States, as well as those from Switzerland. Successful candidates are granted immigration status confirming their right to continue living and working in the UK indefinitely.

People who have lived in the country for five years can get established status. People with less than five years' residence may have a pre-established status that can later be converted into established status.

EU Leaders Decide Who to Inherit Jean-Claude Juncker

EU leaders meet today and tomorrow at a meeting in Brussels. They have to decide who will be the successor of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission and who will head the European Central Bank, the European External Action Service and the European Council.

Bulgaria is represented by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, writes BNT.

In his invitation to European leaders, European Council President Donald Tusk says he is "cautious optimistic" to agree on the distribution of top positions. However, the decision must be taken before the first meeting of the newly elected European Parliament, which is in early July and where MEPs will elect their chairman. So if leaders fail to understand today, they will have to reunite in Brussels before the end of the month.

For three weeks now, Tusk has been in talks with the political groups in the European Parliament and with various European leaders.

However, there have been intense contacts in recent days between Mr Tusk and all 28 national capitals, as well as the political groups within the parliament.

He will talk to all 28 EU leaders today, while the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the French President Emmanel Macron, who have been at odds on the issue, will meet ahead of the summit.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will also be meeting the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, according to

They will discuss the state of play in the Brexit process, and in particular the direction in which the Conservative Party is going in the midst of its leadership contest.

The 2019 European Parliament: the far right International is here – when will the left wake up?

The political forces most hostile to European integration are also the only ones to have formulated a common vision for Europe, writes Lea Ypi (LSE). Now is the time to bring the various local social justice campaigns together, and put them at the service of a renewed political project.

As Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Geert Wildeers and other far-right leaders concluded their European electoral campaign in a joint rally in Milan, they hailed the dawn of a ‘peaceful revolution’ in Europe. A recording played Puccini’s aria Nessun Dorma and its refrain of “Vincerò’ (I shall win) filled Milan’s Piazza del Duomo. They did not win, or at least the advances were not as significant as expected. But the results in France, Italy, and also the UK, show that the far right have succeeded in something arguably more lasting: shaping a common nativist vision of a Europe that is neither purely reactive nor purely nostalgic.

In Milan, the far right spoke with one voice. It vowed to defend the true Europe, a Europe of peoples rather than oligarchic neoliberal elites. The electoral campaign was made of references to immigration and Islam as shared threats, the common heritage of Leonardo Da Vinci and Jeanne D’Arc and a vision defending the victims of austerity against the elites in Brussels.

The left may challenge the facts behind these assertions or the good faith behind the promises. Research shows that immigration benefits host societies. Flat taxes of 15% like the one defended by Salvini exacerbate inequality. Religious intolerance has divided the continent well before the rise of multi-culturalism. Patriarchy dominates even in secular family structures. Our shared heritage is as much one of colonial oppression, as it is of collective freedom. Yet pointing out these isolated facts is unlikely to challenge the grand narrative of the right. The left needs its own vision of a pan-European democratic revolution, not just reacting to the threat of its right-wing counterpart.

The secret of the advance of the new right is that it practices what the old left used to preach. It is a new international, with a shared message, a shared vision of social change, shared adversaries and now a shared political platform. It does all that while cultivating local roots and speaking a language that people understand. Instead of classes it speaks of nations, instead of politics it speaks of culture, and instead of capitalists it speaks of immigrants.

Yet it is a paradox that those political forces most hostile to European integration have also been the only ones to formulate a common vision for Europe should not be, and should. It is a paradox that it befell on Salvini to evoke the founding fathers of Europe, from De Gasperi to De Gaulle, and to speak of their betrayed dream of a Europe of peoples.

At no point during the electoral campaign was there a concerted effort of the largest social-democratic parties to occupy a platform together, to organise a common rally, to critically reflect on Europe as a joint project, to involve their activists in deliberation about its future. At no point did they try to take stock of Europe’s crisis of representation, or acknowledge their complicity in its failed neoliberal structure. At no point did they try to understand why the right is proving so effective at filling the gap between representatives and the represented.

Plausible transnational initiatives, like that of DieM25 were on the right track morally, and politically. But without a history of mass political mobilisation and without local roots they were always going to remain isolated from bottom-up traditional forces, and attractive only to a handful intellectuals.

Elections are usually the time when parties reconnect with members and ordinary citizens. Increased turnout shows European citizens are neither indifferent to Europe nor hostile to politics. Yet while the European elections were greeted everywhere as the most important in recent history, domestic issues continued to dominate. The centre-left continued to chase the right, on the critique of multiculturalism, on tougher borders, on tax cuts, and, as predicted, it has lost the ground. In France and Italy, the left has now all but disappeared, in the UK it has become a victim of its ambiguity. Where it survives like Spain and Portugal or where the Greens have made significant advances it is because of clear commitments against austerity and reaping the benefits of the only pan-European protest movement to have occupied the screens: climate strikes.

It is time to bring those isolated social justice campaigns to Europe as a whole, and to put them at the service of a renewed political project. Unions, disenfranchised immigrants, self-employed workers, climate activists, local campaigners are let down by the current economic structure, by an alienating system of representation and by years of technocratic administration and political demobilisation. The centre is now dead, and while the radical left and the radical right wrestle with each other, only one of them has the potential to deliver lasting social justice without the exclusion of vulnerable minorities. Only one of them has the political tradition and democratic resources to resist racism and xenophobia, to part ways with neo-colonialism, to challenge capitalism, to defend the environment. From the left, only the vision of a socialist European federation will offer a radically new alternative the status quo. The far right international is here, when will the left wake up?

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy and on The Independent. Featured image: Pixabay.

Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.

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