Time to Call the Populists' Bluff

Farage, leader of the UKIP and MEP holds a British Union Jack flag as he waits for the start of a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, has been a populist thorn in the E.U.'s side.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The opponents of the European Union are frightened to find that leaving the bloc comes at a price, says the author.

  • Facts


    • Boris Johnson, a leading advocate of Brexit, announced on Thursday he would not be a candidate for British prime minister.
    • German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has made the Brexit consequences clear: In is in, out is out.
    • The European Union is a project of the majority — not only in polls, but also in elections.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

If we’re honest, we have to admit that for years the business model of populists in the European Union couldn’t be beaten.

They could make European integration seem ridiculous by spouting outlandish E.U. regulatory myths, like mandating a cucumber’s curvature or banning London’s double-decker buses.

They could condemn the bloc sometimes as too liberal (workers’ freedom of movement) and sometimes as too restrictive (recognition of diplomas).

One day they could accuse it of too much dirigisme (the social chapter), and the next day of cold-heartedness (no common social policy).

Above all, they mocked E.U. officials day after day as elite bureaucrats and power-obsessed “men in gray suits.”

But there was one thing the populists never had to do: Present a political alternative and take responsibility for it.

Now Brexit has changed everything. For the first time, E.U. opponents have to say what they want to do. Now, finally, they can leave the “Gulag” or “Brussels dictatorship,” as they like to call it. One would have expected them to hightail it right away.

It’s simple to destroy something, but exceedingly difficult to build something better on this continent that tore itself apart for so long.

The opposite is happening: They are playing for time. Boris Johnson, the top Brexit preacher, has lost his courage. Now he doesn’t even want to be a candidate for prime minister. He drove the cart into the ditch and is now disappearing to his country estate.

The air is hissing out of the pumped-up inquisitors. They are shocked to find that leaving the European Union does in fact come at a price.

It wasn’t fear mongering when pro-European politicians and economists warned that the pound would plummet, the real estate market collapse and growth decline. 

Now the Brexit advocates, who were so proud a week ago, are piteously complaining that the European Union is seeking to punish Little Britain. Scotland doesn’t want to plunge into the Channel along with the conservative English. Yet, that’s out of the question.  The one thing that applies is the statement of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble: “In is in, out is out.”

Before the referendum, Brexit supporters didn’t have to spell out their project. Now they realize they don’t have one and won’t be able to agree on one. Ultra-liberal euroskeptics such as Patrick Minford, an economist, want to eliminate all barriers to trade and to free enterprise. The frightened English outside big cities aren’t at all enthused by his proposals.

It’s difficult to come up with an alternative to the bloc, Brexit supporters are now realizing.

The European Union in its current form certainly doesn’t please us in every aspect. In fact, what is bothersome about Brussels isn’t its preference for trivial details, but its laxness regarding big issues.

Countries are still able to coast along regarding financial or economic policies, because they throw their national weight onto the scales and break the rules that apply to all. They continue to block a common policy regarding asylum and security. They would have pumped even more billions into “their” banks if the European Union hadn’t intervened.

The bloc is the fruit of 70 years of Realpolitik. What has emerged is what six, then 12, then 28 countries could agree on. The E.U. is a project of the majority — not only in polls, but also in elections.

It is neither an accidental product nor a conspiracy of freemasons. Many things were tried. But in the end a community was invented in which all Europeans could find a place for themselves.

Until the Brexit vote, that is.

It’s easy to destroy something, but exceedingly difficult to build something better on this continent that tore itself apart for so long.

How the populists hated former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for his statement that the European Union was a matter of war and peace! Yet today one can see clearly the truth in that statement: A new border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic could undermine the peace treaty there, the Good Friday Agreement.

The European Union fosters peace because it makes controversies about borders irrelevant. Whether Irish, Germans and Czechs, Germans and Poles, Slovenes and Croats: Gone are the borders that would otherwise divide us.

The Brexit example, which will perhaps end in an exit from the Brexit, cuts the populists to the quick. Their slogans won’t pass the reality test. It might sound naïve, but one can hope that the expensive experience of the referendum was good for one thing: It exposed the populists for what they are.


To contact the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!