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No One to Trust: the Anger That Connects Brexit, Trump, Le Pen

  • Mistrust of elites, institutions drives anti-EU campaign
  • ‘Everyone for themselves’ in G-zero world, Bremmer Says

In 1999, the historian Norman Davies predicted the breakup of the U.K. There was nothing inevitable about the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, he wrote in “The Isles,” and no reason to think it could withstand the competing nationalisms it contained.

Likewise the European Union. In less than 24 hours, the world will know whether Britons dismissed the warnings of countless experts -- and their own leaders -- that they risked grievous self-inflicted harm by voting to leave the 28-nation bloc.

“Nothing stands still,” says Davies, whose history of the British Isles foreshadowed Scotland’s 2014 bid to secede. “Everything is moving in some direction or another.”

Chart showing net trust levels in business leaders, politicians and others among supporters and leaving and remaining in the EU.
Chart showing net trust levels in business leaders, politicians and others among supporters and leaving and remaining in the EU.

The drift today demonstrates a growing lack of faith in the institutions that secured relative peace and prosperity for three generations of Europeans and Americans. Moreover, the Brexit campaign shows that many are willing to throw these over without a credible replacement in view.

The British debate over exiting the EU has echoes around the world. It draws from the same cocktail of grievances as nationalist movements across Europe, as well as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the U.S., according to interviews with historians, pollsters, analysts and former diplomats.

It’s a story of disillusionment. The Brexit campaign has tapped into the almost limitless distrust of elites in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That’s the defining difference between the U.K.’s 1975 referendum on Europe (in which Britons voted to stay by a whopping 67 percent to 33 percent) and today’s, according to Bob Worcester, the veteran pollster from Ipsos Mori. At the time, Worcester was advising Labour Party leaders on the campaign to stay in. "Then it was all about whom does the public trust," he says. "Now they don’t trust anybody."

Brexit is also in large part an expression of rising English nationalism, says Davies, and it feeds on the same drivers as other the nationalist, anti-EU movements rising across Europe. Think Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, or Austria’s far right Freedom Party, which in April missed winning the presidency by less than a percentage point.

"The EU is an organization that was created after the Second World War for calming down the nationalism of member states, and it did so very successfully,” according to Davies. “But many people have now forgotten all about that.”

That might be because the bloc has floundered in addressing more recent challenges, such as the euro area’s difficulties in rebounding from the financial crisis and the sudden influx of refugees arriving from the Middle East.

"The more unsuccessful the union is, the more natural it is that the movements in the other direction are strengthened," Davies says.

Chart showing poll of 8 EU nations on whether they too want an exit referendum, and what proportion would vote to leave the EU if they could.
Chart showing poll of 8 EU nations on whether they too want an exit referendum, and what proportion would vote to leave the EU if they could.

The backlash Brexit represents is understandable, according to Simon Fraser, who until last year was Britain’s top career diplomat and is now a managing partner of Flint Global, a firm in London that advises corporations on how to navigate the EU. "People are challenging the conventional wisdom around trade, openness and cooperation" because they feel let down, says Fraser.

That’s by no means all the EU’s fault. For decades, Brussels has served as a convenient scapegoat for national leaders looking to dodge blame for unpopular policies.

But the EU has, like other institutions that set the terms of the global economy since World War II, failed to adapt to the upheavals that followed the end of the Cold War, according to Fraser. The question of how to integrate China and Russia, in particular, into largely Western-built economic and security structures was left unanswered. Those institutions were unable to help governments ameliorate inequality or the impact of globalization on jobs and wages for many in the West.

‘Shared Rules’

And yet, says Fraser, "we need a system for running the world; you need systems that set shared rules." The referendum result will show whether a majority of Britons agree. November’s presidential election will decide the same for Americans. Yet the Brexit and Trump campaigns are likely to have a deep impact even if they fail.

There’s a word for where the world is heading now: "G-zero," a label coined by Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political-risk consultancy, and economist Nouriel Roubini in a Foreign Affairs article five years ago. The reference was to the progressive irrelevance of the G-7, G-8 and then G-20 to global governance.

Trade was an early indicator. The last full-blown global deal was the so-called Uruguay Round in 1995. Since then, only partial and regional trade pacts have been achievable. Now, as support dwindles for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposal to deepen commerce between the U.S. and the EU, the prospects for even regional agreements are fading.

"Brexit fits very closely" into this procession towards a world without collaborative international institutions, says Bremmer, noting that campaign on both sides has been almost entirely inward-looking. "We have moved from a situation in which the transatlantic relationship was the most important thing, to everyone for themselves."

The U.S. presidential contest has also been isolationist, forcing even Hillary Clinton to abandon support for the TPP trade deal she helped to get signed as secretary of state. As for Trump, his "position is about as far as you can imagine from the U.S. world order," says Bremmer. "His view of the world is about who pays for the evening meal -- you got the buffalo wings, you pay for them.”

Brexit Lesson

Brexit may hold a more optimistic lesson, however, especially if the Remain camp wins. The changes under way could also produce new or restructured arrangements for international management, rather than the Hobbesian world Bremmer fears.

China’s leaders, for example, have looked on with puzzlement at the British debate. China may champion national sovereignty and chafe at U.S. dominance, but it is also pragmatic, says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. It gains from the existing economic order and sees multilateral economic institutions as useful -- in the EU’s case, to the tune of $590 billion in trade last year.

"The U.K. is a very attractive destination for Chinese investment and financing, but after withdrawal from the EU it would be less interesting," says Brown. So when President Xi Jinping said on a visit to Britain last year that he wanted a united EU, with Britain helping to deepen Chinese-EU ties, he wasn’t just chalking up a political favor to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

Although the Brexit movement may well encourage similar efforts to leave in other EU countries, it is likely at the same time to accelerate new ideas to reshape the union, according to Davies.

Already there are signs that some EU leaders have taken the message to heart. On Tuesday, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that even if the U.K. votes to stay, "we will simply not be able to go on as before." He called on Germans to recognize the EU’s value to them and to understand that they do not carry an unfair share of its burden.

Such calls to reform the EU have been made before -- to little effect. In the long term, however, Europe can’t simply return to a "normal" era in which nation states were preeminent, according to Davies, because that was never the norm but a brief and bloody aberration from other forms of European union, such as empire. "It was in the 20th century that national sovereignty really ruled the roost, and the EU was formed to cure that," the historian says. "If the EU were to collapse now, something similar would have to be invented."

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