By Andrei Navrozov
It is doubtful that until a few months ago Donald Trump had ever heard of Brexit, though he had heard of immigration. And, speaking last week at his golf resort in Scotland, he summarized the question facing Europe with characteristic bluntness: “The people have spoken. I think the European Union is going to break up. Other countries will follow Britain.”
Fear of uncontrolled immigration, such as that stoked by Trump in the conduct of his campaign, was certainly among the key factors that made 17 million Britons rise up and call a halt to the toil of nearly a half-century under the yoke of the European Union.
Another factor, which tends to be swept under the rug by cynics — and most political commentators on both sides of the Atlantic are proud to think of themselves as cynics — was that it simply did not behove the cradle of democracy to have placed its institutions under the control of the unelected cabal known as the government of the European Union.
Finally, silent resentment and accumulated frustration over the social and political status quo, of the kind that have put the wind in Trump’s sails over here, accounted for yet another factor in the electorate giving the politicians the proverbial kick in the pants. A protest vote, then, primarily, yet seismic enough to be very nearly causing a constitutional crisis in Britain.
Thus Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in Europe, is threatening to break away from England, despite the result of a Scottish referendum two years ago that seemed to put paid to secessionist ambitions. And Scotland, alas, is home not only to Trump’s golf resort, but also to the Trident nuclear submarine base upon which Britain’s status as a world power rests. Small wonder, then, many in Russia believe that Brexit has played into Putin’s hands.
But it is the consequences of Brexit for the future of the European Union itself that are now in the focus of anxiety for the bureaucrats of Brussels, not any geopolitical fallout that may benefit Russia or China by enhancing the influence of these powerhouses across the Eurasian continent. And that future is looking bleak, to the joy of hundreds of millions of Europeans who despaired over their countries having been suborned into a betrayal of representative democracy — the betrayal that Brussels, with its unelected decision-makers wielding real power over 500 million people, had symbolized ever since it became something more than a European Common Market talking shop.
Germany, which has ever looked upon the European Union, with some justification, as its own invention and projection, is staying put. According to a Forsa poll for the Handelsblatt newspaper last week, 82 percent of Germans said they would vote to stay in the EU if a referendum like Britain’s were held in Germany, while 71 percent opposed the very premise that one should be held. But these same respondents were less far confident when asked if they thought Brexit would cause other countries in Europe to follow Britain out of the EU, with only 51 percent dismissing that notion.
Their doubts are justified, as Germany’s political elite knows full well: “Angela Merkel Warns Other Countries should be Stopped from Leaving” is but one of many recent newspaper headlines shoring up Britons in their belief that what they have done others are thinking of doing.
Indeed, no sooner were the words out of Merkel’s authoritarian mouth than France’s president Francois Hollande was in crisis meetings following the popular National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s call for a referendum on France’s EU membership.
“Victory for freedom!” had been Le Pen’s laconic tweet on the morning of the Brexit vote count, and it is highly probable that the 41 percent of the French who, according to the newest polls, now support leaving the EU will vote for her in next year’s presidential election.
It is no coincidence that jocular names like Frexit, Grexit, Swexit, and Czexit have now sprung up, but it is in Italy that the chances of such an exit are highest.
A protest vote is as natural a thing here as spaghetti with clam sauce, as the rise of Beppe Grillo’s “Five Stars Movement” has confirmed. Grillo, chosen by Time magazine as one of its “European Heroes” in 2005 for targeting corruption and malfeasance in Italian government, founded his party in 2010 with an anti-EU declaration, and in the general election three years later the party polled 26 percent of the national vote.
Mayors of Parma, Turin, and now Rome, have followed suit. While he has spoken cautiously of Brexit, there is little doubt that, when a hard stand on Italy’s EU membership becomes politically opportune, Grillo will take that stand.
Moreover, while most European countries in the EU have but a single visible and audible fountainhead of anti-EU opposition, such as France’s Marie Le Pen, Nigel Farage in Britain, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Italy has two.
In addition to Grillo, Matteo Salvini, who heads the “Northern League,” has made no secret of his distaste for Brussels since his election as the party’s leader two years ago. The party campaigned on the controversial slogan “Basta Euro” in the last European parliament elections, securing 6 percent of the popular vote and sending five members to Brussels.
In regional elections, just over a year ago, Salvini’s party polled 41 percent in Veneto, 20 percent in Liguria, 19 percent in Emilia-Romagna, and 16 percent in Tuscany — all significant bellwethers for an eventual referendum contest.
If Italy and a few other EU member states choose to follow Britain, the nearly half-century-old bureaucratic structure of Europe will doubtless collapse, even as the principles of representative democracy and national sovereignty are reasserted. Whether such choice would play into the hands of Moscow, Beijing or Washington is a big question – and, ultimately, a tactical issue. For that choice would be a strike for fairness, justice, and liberty – and history shows that those who choose fairness, justice, and liberty do well in the end.
Andrei Navrozov is a Russian-born writer and journalist who lives in Italy. His “Wednesday’s Child” column appears weekly on the site of The Fleming Foundation.