Seemingly within minutes of Theresa May announcing her surprise plans to hold an election on June 8, three years ahead of schedule, the UK’s public service broadcaster the BBC was on the British streets with its microphones asking the public what they thought and why.
Amid the expected noises of devotion, distrust, displeasure and disinterest, one voice seemed to sum it up perfectly. “Everything,” said a man with a particularly English tone that seemingly manages to defy logic by mixing apathy with anger, “is about Brexit.”
And so it seems to be.
The reason the British Prime Minister gave for declaring the snap election was that she wants to create stronger parliamentary unity before the formal divorce talks with the European Union commence.
The election, that she seems certain to win – presuming certainty does indeed still exist in democratic politics – will be held within a year of the 2016 referendum. That asked one simple question – Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? – and saw 48.1% say yes but 51.9% say no.
And what a year that 3.8% difference has brought.
May’s predecessor David Cameron held the referendum in a misfiring attempt to placate a groundswell of far right anti-immigration and anti-EU populism that threatened to derail his governing majority.
His error cost him his job but few in the “establishment” worlds of politics, media or business, like Cameron, thought, wished or predicted that the UK would actually end up leaving.
Yet the Brexiteers found resonance by simply saying “Let’s take back control” and since that June 23 “leave” vote, this brand of wide-sweeping populism – until recently seen as fringe and often even daft, eccentric or dangerous – has entered the political mainstream of just about every part of the liberal western world.
Or should that now be every part of the world formally known as liberal western?
Two days before the US presidential election, Donald Trump announced his endgame would bring “Brexit plus plus plus” and even then few from the establishment believed him. But much like the Brexiteers, when the campaigning Trump said he would “Make America great again” Middle America duly put him in the White House.
And, in France, a similar pattern of anti-establishment uncertainty is currently playing out around this week’s elections.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron seemed a sure bet for president a month ago, but as the first round of voting approaches on Sunday, the race has tightened. Initially his main challenger was the the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who promises a “Frexit” vote and an immigration ban if she becomes the next president of France.
While support for her has slipped in the final week of canvassing, the surprise late challenger is the far-left rabble-rouser Jean-Luc Melenchon, who says he will impose a 100% tax on the wealthy, take France out of Nato and renegotiate its EU position.
The margins between them all are now tight and narrowing, and France, as the third largest economy in the EU – when the UK leaves, it will be the second – is politically and financially important to Europe. Commentators are puzzled and investors are duly spooked.
And to the south there is Italy, the EU’s fourth largest economy, that has yet to recover from the political chaos caused in December, when centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi committed a similar act of political suicide as Cameron by being resoundingly defeated in his own constitution-changing referendum. His loss was seen as an emphatic victory for the anti-establishment, right-wing and populist Five Star Movement and the xenophobic Northern League.
Italy is holding elections next year and the Five Star Movement – run by former comedian Beppe Grillo, who, with little nuance, described Trump’s victory as a “big fuck you” to the establishment – now holds a six-point lead over the ruling socialists. Grillo says EU membership will be reassessed if he takes power.
Even in Holland, with its strong 400-year tradition of political and religious tolerance, its elections last month in March saw the centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte fight hard and right to the end to beat the nationalist anti-Islam and anti-EU Geert Wilders.
Consensus, post-Brexit, seems to have flown from liberalism’s European heartland.
To the east of the EU sit the broodingly powerful and decidedly un-liberal autocracies of Putin and Erdogan. The agendas and alliances of Russia and Turkey often are – and through history have so often been – at odds to those of the EU’s member states.
Today both hold significant influence over the far more complex problem to Europe’s south; in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS and all the other abominations that have brought the chaos and resulting wave of immigration. And with it, of course, the rise of populism to the EU.
When Angela Merkel last year opened Germany’s borders to the thousands of migrants and refugees, it caused a political crisis that saw her political allies pleading for a cap on migration and her enemies, the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland party, soaring in regional elections.
Alternativ fur Deutschland won more than 20% of the vote in some areas, finishing ahead of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union party that ended up polling some of its worst results.
Yet Merkel stayed resolute. After the election she addressed the Bundestag: “If we only look for small advantages over one another – to just give each other a black eye on election day – then those who rely on slogans and simplistic answers will win.” Urging Germany’s politicians to stick to truth and facts, she said: “If we do this, we will win back the most important thing: people’s trust.”
Today Alternativ fur Deutschland’s popularity has slumped and today its poll rating hovers around 5% while Merkel looks certain – yes pre-Brexit and pre-alternate-fact – to win the German elections, that look set to be held some time this autumn.
Merkel is impressive among Europe’s other leaders and not just because their policy pondering have seen them come and go. In her 12 years in office she has never – perhaps uniquely – compromised in the face of anti-EU or anti-immigrant populists, but she has also remained true to the vision and values of the EU and repeatedly states why it remains more than important.
In March, Merkel addressed the EU parliament where she said it was a “unique success story” because of its prime role. As a guarantor of European peace.
Merkel, like most Germans, knows her European history. Before a formal European bond, there were constant bloody squabbles that then saw Adolf Hitler, the Second World War, fascist dictatorships in Spain and Portugal and a Central Europe that was ruled by Soviet communism.
In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the pre-cursor to the EU, the European Economic Community, or “Common Market,” and since then there has been no conflict between member states. Instead members were given the choice to debate instead of fight over their differences.
As British political and military hero Winston Churchill – who was also one of the founding fathers of the union in Europe – said: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
In Britain on June 8, there will be little real choice. Theresa May will be voted back into office – she has no real opposition – and the UK will continue, full of verve and bluster, on its idiosyncratic island-nation path.
Everything is, will remain, Brexit. But not so for Europe. Over the next year or three there will be many choices. And they will probably be hard ones.