Global Affairs November 23, 2019 by

Sergei Oudman

Brexit and populism

This is a re-post of a blog post I did on own blog in 2016. Three years later and Brexit still hasn’t happened or has it? The one constant in Europe thus far has been populism.

The word Brexit shows everything wrong with politics these days. And not just with politics and politicians but also with the polity, who for some reason, like to do no effort to educate themselves. If there is anything that the Brexit referendum shows it’s that the pot calls the kettle black. If you think that is harsh let me summarize some highlights from the past decade to demonstrate some key points that matter from a political scientists point of view.


Regardless of your political preference, European politicians over the decades used some form of populism. National politicians often usurped the successes of the EU as their own national (personal) successes, while attributing the negative ones to Brussels. It’s convenient, Brussels is far away and blaming some bureaucrat behind a dusty desk in Brussels isn’t personal so no one will complain. This is one of the major contributors why the polity in e.g. the UK, the Netherlands and other EU countries see the EU the way they do. Add to that politicians that call for a referendum to exit the European Union in an attempt to stay in power, and you get a combination of ingredients that will fuel disinformation and polarization. The day after the referendum Google came out with figures that showed voters in the UK informing themselves: Google Trends . Logic would dictate you inform yourselves before you vote, but people didn’t. They quickly came to the conclusion that they just didn’t vote for a Brexit (leaving the EU), but it also showed that the word Brexit meant different things for different people. The problem is that the majority of issues they attribute negatively to the EU have nothing to do with the EU and will not change. Lower classes will remain poor, farmers will still have the same amount of rules and regulations, there will still be foreigners and your politicians still won’t listen. And can you blame them? If there is one thing the Brexit vote shows then it’s how easy people believe politicians and do no effort whatsoever to educate themselves.


Globalization is something we all enjoy, the world has become a smaller place. Several hundred years ago you wouldn’t be affected by something that happened in China as much as today. Although the physical distance has remained the same we now have technology to aid us in our travels and exchange of goods and information. This means that the world has become a more complex place because we are all more interdependent on one and other than we were in the past. There is however a small problem with globalization; it’s not homogeneous. In other words, globalization is a process that takes place all over the world but may vary per country and even per region inside a country. This means that some groups benefit more than and others don’t. The result is that most rural regions in countries have more poverty than urban regions, and subsequently hardly feel the benefits of e.g. in this case an European Union (note that I say feel). I would recommend reading the Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman. Globalization has increased in speed over the past decades that many have a hard time catching up.


The Brexit vote showed something very important, a generational gap. The majority of younger voters are in favor of staying in the EU, while the older generations long back to the good old times. The previous generations their point of reference is one of post World War II and the Cold War. They grew up after a major war when western Europe rebuild itself and prospered, they had the sixties and seventies. The generations that come after that are the generations that saw the rise of the internet and the EU. They have a completely different reference framework and a different identity. Unlike the previous generations they felt like are part of a bigger identity, a European one. They could travel freely abroad and enjoyed and utilized globalization because they could.


Perhaps the most damaging one in combination with the previously mentioned points. It actually just shows how lazy the polity is. Because globalization increased and technology also plays an increasingly role in our lives, our lives have become more complicated. We are more connected and interdependent now than we ever were. There is a host of complicated processes and factors that we need to address these days, but the polity somehow looks like the user of an end product. They don’t really care about how difficult it is to build the product (e.g. cell phone), as long as its easy to use. So when Nigel Farage used the £350m NHS claim with regard to money being send to the EU he simplified something complex into a false claim. The idea that you need to pay a membership fee to be in the EU for a subscription is demagogic. It also doesn’t benefit the polity, who don’t have clue how complex the international relations scene is.


In the end one can only wonder why on earth politicians put treaties up for a referendum. Treaty law is a complex and specialized field with a selective group of specialist that operate under the mandate of an elected government in an electoral democracy. Creating a referendum for a Brexit in the UK or the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement is asking for disaster. The polity becomes the victim of groups with hidden agenda’s that usually cannot operate in an electoral democracy. One could blame them for it, but in the end politicians like David Cameron should ask themselves if their political careers are more important than the future of a whole nation. Perhaps they should create a fact sheet with all the good things (including increase in wealth) that the citizens of the EU have enjoyed over the past 50 years. We can’t really refer to a recent war, however the Cold War never really ended, it just changed. But that’s a different debate I guess.

Lets hope the polity of the UK can get the same space as Nigel Farage with regard to his NHS claim. Lets hope the polity can say their vote was a mistake and that they want to redo it. Why not? Politicians do it all the time!

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Sergei Oudman

Sergei Oudman