The year 2016 marked the rise of populism in the Western world, particularly in the UK and the US. The unexpected outcome of the June 23, 2016 referendum in favor of the UK exiting from the EU and the election of a maverick political outsider to the White House in November 2016 all speak to the rise of populism in the West. The margins of victory in both cases were slim: it was 51.9 percent vs 48.1 percent in favor of Brexit in the UK case, and while President Trump won the electoral vote by 304 to 227, he lost the popular vote by 46.1 percent to 48.2 percent and had almost three million popular votes less than that of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Few observers challenged the outcome of both electoral exercises, but the closeness of the counts reflected the divided conditions of the societies and many analysts had expressed concerns about the political stability of both the UK and the US in 2017.
Populist Reversals in 2017?
If the year 2016 defined Western populism, 2017 seems to indicate a reversal. US President Trump’s unprecedented plunge in popularity for a newly installed president and his deepening legal troubles confirm the worries expressed earlier by many analysts. The fixed term nature of the US presidency and the strong executive power bestowed on him have somehow shielded the country from political paralysis. However, the surprise decision of UK Prime Minister Theresa May to call a snap election on April 18 and the unexpected election result that saw the Conservative Party losing its parliamentary majority plunged the country into political instability and raised the spectre of an exit from Brexit — an almost unthinkable black swan event.
The series of electoral victories in the Netherlands and France by pro-EU politicians have further led many to wonder if the populist politics that defined 2016 are being met with equal and opposite forces in 2017. The sweeping victory of Emmanuel Macron as French President and his parliamentary majority of 61.5 percent seems to support that notion. The series of unexpected local election victories by German Chancellor Angela Merkel have improved the electoral prospect of her political party, the Christian Democratic Union, going into the September German national election. She is widely expected to win the election and the shared worldview of Macron and Merkel have reinforced the belief that the silent majority are pushing back against populism in Europe.
Election Results a Call for Exit from Brexit?
When Theresa May called the snap election on April 18, the public opinion polls showed her governing Conservative Party to be enjoying a commanding 20 percentage point lead over the opposition Labour Party. She called the election three years ahead of the end of the current parliamentary term in 2020 with the hope that a stronger parliamentary majority would strengthen her negotiating position ahead of the scheduled June 19 start of the two-year Brexit negotiation with EU. She knew that the Brexit process was not going to be easy and both EU representative sitting across the negotiating table and her hard-line or pro-stay EU party mates would add unexpected problems while the negotiations are ongoing. She had threatened a hard Brexit stand if the EU imposed too tough conditions on the negotiations.
Following the UK general election, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have expressed their willingness to take the UK back into EU if the UK so wished.
In a surprising result, the Conservatives suffered a net loss of 13 seats with 42.4 percent of the vote and a seat count of 317, which was short of the required parliamentary majority of 326 seats. The opposition Labor Party made a net gain of 30 seats with a 40.0 percent vote share and a seat count of 232. This was the closest result in vote share between the two main parties since February 1974, and was the highest vote share for an opposition party since 1970. The voter turnout was 68.7 percent, which was 2.3 percent higher than the 2015 general election. Although many reasons contributed to the election debacle of the Conservative Party, it should be noted that the higher turnout was the result of a higher youth turnout in the election. Last year’s Brexit referendum had distinct age and geographic divisions, with the young and urban voters tending to vote for Stay, and the older and rural folk tending to vote for Exit.
After the election, Prime Minister May had to fend off calls for her resignation and her rhetoric on Brexit shifted to a more conciliatory tone that favored a “soft” Brexit.
Brexit Negotiations Ahead
Following the UK general election, both the new French President Macron and the venerable German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have expressed their willingness to take the UK back into EU if the UK so wished. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has launched a campaign to put business at the heart of Brexit, and has warned that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be “a very, very bad outcome for Britain” and that the country has to leave the EU “via a slope and not a cliff-edge.” Hammond’s conciliatory pronouncement was a significant departure from earlier emotional statements by pro-Brexit politicians about the EU’s infringement on the UK’s national sovereignty, and the harms by immigrants to UK society. Hammond’s focus on business is an argument in favor of staying in the EU, or at the very least, a call for maintaining the special relationship with the EU.
The official Brexit negotiations that started from June 19 are not going to be easy for the UK. The new-found political consensus of France and Germany will mean a united EU sitting across the negotiating table. They must make it tough for the UK to leave to deter other opportunistic members from following the UK’s exit. The combined GDP of the remining EU countries is more than 4 times that of UK, giving the EU a strong hand in business negotiations. The hope of UK to reach liberal free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as the US, China, Canada, and Australia is not likely to happen sans a UK-EU FTA. The remaining EU countries account for 45 percent of the UK’s external trade and the EU is the natural candidate to reach the first FTA with the UK. The reworking of thousands of agreements that the EU has entered on behalf of the UK, and the EU rules in so many areas, mean a long and messy road ahead for the Brexit negotiations.
Challenges to Political Leadership
The June 9 election has resulted in a politically unstable UK government and the possibility of another general election is looming large. If there is a new general election and if the candidates who advocate for a reconsideration of Brexit win in that election, then the possibility of an exit from Brexit cannot be discounted. That will mean the end of the political career of Prime Minister May and mark a colorful start and end of populism in the UK. In the meantime, the UK public and the world will watch closely the ongoing Brexit negotiations and hope for a good outcome that will not disturb the current economic order.