Brexit marks rise of anti-establishment populism

By Sun Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/31 18:34:42

Martin Jacques

Editor's Note:

The UK decision to leave the EU has brought added turbulence and uncertainty globally. Martin Jacques (Jacques), a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, shared his thoughts over the major issue with Global Times (GT) London correspondent Sun Wei recently.

GT: Martin Wolf recently wrote an article on Financial Times, titled "Brexit will reconfigure the UK economy." He said Brexit is "probably the most disastrous single event in British history since the Second World War. This is for me, among the saddest of hours." What's your comment?

Jacques: I understand his point of view. It's a reasonable point of view. I am not sure whether it's the worst moment. Looking back, the election of Thatcher in 1979 was a pretty disastrous moment too.

The combination of events around Brexit is very worrying and alarming. It's not just Brexit, it's the reasons why Brexit happened. What's happened is a number of things: Britain voted to leave, which is a seismic event. It's done without knowing what to do. There is no plan B. The Leave Campaign is utterly irresponsible. They don't have any alternative to offer. They don't think the truth matters.

I think in a way the murder of Jo Cox was kind of symbolic. She was a fantastic person. She was murdered by a very right-wing racist. That's what one of the things this campaign released and enabled. There is lots of racism in Britain, but you didn't see much of it most of the time. People have learnt in some way it's not good to have that kind of attitude. When the votes were carried, it then becomes ok to say these. 

It's a comprehensive crisis. The fundamental reason for the instability is: most people who voted to leave don't really understand the European issue. It's a complicated question for an average person to understand. I don't think the vote primarily was against Britain's EU membership, but against the establishment, and against globalization. It's a social class question.  

GT: Newspaper across Europe believes that UK's vote to leave the EU was influenced by the rise of populism. Do you think the leave result will boost populism across the continent?

Jacques: We need to be clear what we mean by populism. I think what populism means is that people who were previously invisible, inactive, without a voice become involved. It's no longer something conducted in polite society, it becomes much on the street and social media. 

It's already taking place in the continent. You can see it in the European countries from left to right. For example, on the left, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain. On the right, in France, Marine Le Pen, her supporters have increased. If you look at the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland, there are new anti-globalization, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant movements. 

GT: Will they follow suit?

Jacques: Some of the movement wants to leave EU, the question is:are they likely to be successful? The EU is in trouble, hit hard by the financial crisis, and the Euro has never recovered. It has caused deep crisis in Greece, and southern Europe. These countries are politically unstable.

For a long term, the EU was doing fine, so lots of countries joined. Now the climate has changed. The EU is in decline. It matters much less in the world now. 

Will the EU survive? Definitely not a certainty. A range of countries could leave. It's in trouble, no one knows the solution. 

GT: Would Britain face break-up after Brexit? What does it mean for Scotland and northern Island?

Jacques: At the moment it's difficult to say what's going to happen. Is the Brexit going to happen? Not necessarily. The EU is going to be tough for Britain, but Britain doesn't want to rush to give the Article 50 notification (that officially starts the two year leaving process.) 

Brexit is a huge decision. No one has a clear idea how long it will be, what is involved, what the terms will be, how workable it would be, or what the cost would be. We are in the land of the unknown. 

Britain was held together in some way by the imperial success. Scotland became a very successful junior partner of England in the imperial project. After the Second World War, and the loss of empire by the 1960s, we see the rise of Scottish nationalism. Scotland is getting more and more different from England. Scotland at some point will go.

Historically speaking, Northern Ireland will at some point become part of the Irish Republic. But it will take a long time.

GT: EU leaders have called for the UK to leave as soon as possible. What result can be negotiated? Is Brexit happening?

Jacques: The EU will be tough on Britain. If it's an "in but out" situation, Britain could get some concessions, which this round it didn't get. Immigration was the biggest single issue. 

If it's an "out but in" scenario like Norway's, that's a worse situation. You have to pay money in, you have to observe the rules, and you don't have any power in it. You might feel free to some degree, but it's a weaker position. 

GT: US President Barack Obama reaffirms "special relationship" with UK after Brexit. How do you evaluate the relationship?

If Britain leaves, it will be less important. Britain is in decline. Germany is the key country in Europe for the US. Germany is a much bigger economy, the centre of the EU , and much more influential than Britain. 

If Britain doesn't matter so much, Americans are going to think more about the major power in the Europe. 

GT: Some say the biggest winner of Brexit is China. Leaving the EU might allow the UK more room to launch new strategic initiatives with China. How will Brexit impact the China-UK relationship?

Jacques: There is some potential. One possible scenario is that the UK needs China more than before. Maybe the UK will just get on with it. It will be a free relationship, not circumscribed by the EU rules.

China has gained enormously from globalization, and now begins to feel more confident about globalization. That's why it has become more proactive, in some way it's going to lead globalization, One Belt One Road, AIIB, and so on. Cameron and Osborne were absolutely right in getting closer with China. But we are now in a territory of uncertainties.

GT: Some believe that Brexit will allow UK to sign the TTIP with US before EU. Meanwhile, Brexit could accelerate China-Britain free trade agreement. It might be more beneficial for Britain's economy in the longer term. What's your comment?

Jacques: The British economy is not large enough to be important. While it's possible, UK could do a deal with the US. Its consequence could be quite limited, because UK just has 65 million people. It's not like the EU.

We know small countries can survive in some circumstances. Scandinavian countries, Singapore, they've done well. 

What China can learn from Brexit is the dangers of inequality, and of the growing disparity of income wealth in the society. If you have rich people getting richer while a large population of people getting poorer, don't think it doesn't matter. It doesn't happen tomorrow, next week, next year, next five years, or even in the next 30 years, but one day, it will really matter.

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