How modern nationalism led to Brexit

Two experts weigh in on how the United Kingdom came to vote to exit the European Union.

Amid outcry and protests, voters and politicians remain divided over deciding the terms for Britain's future relationship with the European Union.

On Tuesday, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May proposed a potential coalition with opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to draft a new deal before the extended deadline of April 12 after failing to reach a deal by the original March 29 deadline. UK lawmakers continue the struggle to reach a consensus as parliament has rejected all of the alternatives to May's deal, according to the BBC.

May also announced that she will try to get another extension with the EU until May 22.

As the EU’s extension deadline looms closer, experts link the vote to a rise in nationalism, not only in the UK, but all over Europe.

Populist parties in European countries have seen an unprecedented surge in support and popularity over the last two decades. In a study conducted by the Guardian in conjunction with 30 political scientists, it was found that more than a quarter of Europeans voted populist in their last elections and that there is a presence of populist parties in the governments of 11 European countries. This phenomenon represents a much more far-reaching mindset shift that can be seen all over the world.
Political expert Robert Shrum cited revanchist nationalism as a motivator of the Brexit vote, which refers to a time when countries try to regain territory after war. Similarly (though not literally), Vote Leave Campaign, which was in favor of Brexit, says it wants to regain sovereignty from the EU.

"You have the rise of a kind of revanchist nationalism that looks back to an imagined glory time," Shrum said. "In Britain I think it's people who still, either explicitly or implicitly, mourn the loss of an empire."

Steven Lamy, a professor of international relations at USC, argued that Britain's situation reflected "the idea of trying to hang on," both to the traditional British identity and its old value system. Lamy weighed in on the fact that Vote Leave supporters feel that the European Union presents a challenge to their sovereignty. "You had people who felt the British community and its values and traditions were being undermined by this larger European community," he said.

"There's an idea that life would be better without the European Union and without the foreigners," Lamy said, adding, "that life would be better because we were once an empire."
Shrum said that the Vote Leave Campaign's message to the British people was, "we're being held to ransom by Europe, we no longer have control over our own laws and we can't go out and make our own trade agreements," and that this is how they convinced voters.

Shrum said that Europe's current trend towards populism was due to a multitude of factors, two of which were the 2008 financial crisis and the hatred and suspicion of 'the other.'

"But you can't deny that in reaction to the financial crisis, the failure to make sure that the people who were left out of the benefits of globalization were taken care of, and the fear of 'the other' – prejudice, racism – those things are the causes," Shrum said. "Brexit is a manifestation of it."

Lamy said that the fear-mongering over immigration that the Vote Leave used in their message to the public played a "huge" part in their success. Similarly, Shrum said that Vote Leave took advantage of a newfound fear of 'the other' by using immigration as the "scapegoat" on which voters could blame things.
Social media contributed largely to the success of the Vote Leave Campaign as it provided platforms for their unfounded claims, on mass immigration and false allegations of money spent on the EU, to spread dramatically fast. Lamy called both the Remain and the Vote Leave Campaign  out for not educating the British voters enough.
"Do you think people had adequate knowledge of the European Union? What its function was? The importance of it?" Lamy asked. "I don't."

He also added that Vote Leave essentially told their voters, "You don't need to know more about the European Union. Let me just tell you: it's taking away your jobs." He compared this tactic to the method that Big Tobacco used to fool smokers by employing the "social production of ignorance" in areas that didn't serve the political purpose of the industry. In Britain's case, the Vote Leave Campaign promoted ignorance about the EU and the benefits of the UK being a member.

"[Vote Leave] got there by fake news, if you will," Lamy said. "They used narratives that essentially represented different perspectives. Social media allows us to manipulate narratives to serve a political purpose, and that's what we're fighting even when the narrative is false."

Of the losing Remain Campaign, Lamy said there was a feeling of shock at the outcome. “They were caught,” he said, adding, “they weren’t ready for this, they didn’t prepare.”

He said that the Remain Campaign should have been hosting programs in different villages and cities around the country educating citizens on what the European Union does and its importance for the UK. Shrum also argued that Remain should have never only relied on their message that Vote Leave was "Project Fear" and that "not telling people what the benefits of being in the EU were was a terrible mistake."

Both Shrum and Lamy agreed that the increasing share of the populist vote in Europe will not keep climbing in the future. Lamy called it a "trend" and argued that it all has to do with educating people to reverse it. Shrum also called it impermanent.

In order for lawmakers to successfully address rising populist sentiment, Shrum urged that politicians have to "go out and address people's real insecurities and tell them what you're going to do about it." He predicts the trend will die down in the next few years and the populist share of the vote in Europe will drop. "I think there are sensible people who see and understand this and are trying to think this through and who think there's a different way we have to respond."

Shrum and Lamy both described themselves as "optimists" who have faith in the ability of education to combat the rising nationalist and populist sentiment within Europe. But for Britain's post-Brexit future, they are both less optimistic.

"What you're seeing in Britain, another country I love, is one of the greatest acts of self-harm I've ever seen a country inflict on itself," Shrum said gloomily, noting all the businesses that might prepare to move to other European capitals from London. Among the companies decreasing their UK presence or relocating entirely are Nissan, Honda and UBS, according to Business Insider.

Although Lamy admitted that he thinks Britain will have it “rough” for a while, he also added “I think they’ll survive.”