Just the other day, I happened to be speaking to one of the chief campaigners for Brexit, United Kingdom Conservative Party MP, former minister and most recently, failed candidate for prime minister, Michael Gove. When I suggested to Mr Gove that it was grossly inaccurate to compare the results of Sunday’s Italian referendum on constitutional reform to Brexit, he agreed wholeheartedly. The same goes for the Austrian rerun of the presidential election, I said. Absolutely, he responded, going on to lament the tendency among journalists (of which he is one) to seek out simple, straight and clear strands that link everything to everything else. Political developments in different countries are “sui generis”, he declared.
Unlike the UK Independence Party’s former leader Nigel Farage, whose buddy US president-elect Donald Trump categorised his own November 8 election victory as “Brexit plus plus”, it was evident that Mr Gove did not want to ostentatiously trademark Brexit.
What he said makes a lot of sense. The result of the June 23 British referendum on membership of the European Union was not a prototype for anti-establishment revolt across the western world.
If anything, it was the culmination of a long relationship between the UK and Europe that can only be described as complicated. For all that the UK formally joined the then European Economic Community 43 years ago, the union was always turbulent.
In 1975, just two years after it pledged its troth, Britain was already thinking of getting a divorce. Prime minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government was forced to fight a bruising campaign to nudge the public to vote “yes” in a referendum on continued membership. Several members of the Wilson cabinet spoke out against staying within the European club. Though that referendum was decisively won — 67 per cent voted in favour — the ructions over Europe continued over the decades, affecting successive British governments, not least that of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In all sorts of ways then, British Euro-scepticism has always been more establishment than not. Unverified reports say that even the British Queen, surely the very pinnacle of the Establishment, is not particularly inclined to EU membership. In a sense then, the Brexit vote was a result that went as it should — for the anti-EU establishment.
How does any of that link in to the Italian and Austrian elections, both held on the same day, December 4, and both feared to continue, as The New York Times wrote, “a populist movement [of which] Brexit was the first brick that was knocked out of the `establishment wall”.
The Italian and Austrian elections were not like Brexit. First, the facts. The Italian vote was a referendum on sweeping constitutional changes proposed by prime minister Matteo Renzi. It was not about Europe at all but dealt with a fundamental big-ticket change in domestic political arrangements. The reform was meant to remove Italy’s perfect bicameralism or the system that gives equal power to both houses. It would have reduced gridlock, shrunk the senate, the legislative upper house, and given the largest party in the lower house more seats and a more assured hold on power for a full five years. Theoretically, the change could have enabled a strongman to stay securely in office, a worrying possibility for a country once led by Mussolini. The only populist element in Italy’s election was the “no” campaign led by a party headed by a former comedian, and which calls itself the Five Star Movement. That said, mainstream politicians, including former prime minister Mario Monti, were supporting “no” as well.
If anything, the Italian election result, which rejected the change proposed by the government, preserved the status quo rather than upending it. Membership of the EU was not up for discussion.
Similarly, the Austrian presidential contest — a rerun on technical grounds for a largely ceremonial post — was not particularly Brexit-like. It’s true that a far-right anti-immigrant candidate was in the race and he opposed greater European integration. However, the main issue was not Austria’s membership of the EU or Oxit, as the locals call it, drawing from the country’s German name Osterreich.
If there was an anti-establishment element in the Austrian election, it was that two non-mainstream choices were on offer. Norbert Hofer belonged to the far-right Freedom Party. His victorious rival, Alexander van der Bellen, is a centre-right politician backed by the Green Party.
So what’s with the drumbeat about the West facing a series of Brexit-like elections? In March, the Netherlands holds parliamentary polls. In May, France gets to pick its next president. September sees Germans at the ballot box. In each of these, we’re told, there are elements of a Brexit surprise, mostly because a far-right, anti-immigrant political force lurks within the field of vision. These are the Netherlands’ Islamophobic Geert Wilders; France’s similarly inclined Marine Le Pen and Germany’s AfD, which compares diverse societies to “compost” heaps.
The common thread is a dread of the “other”, an appeal to an instinctive inward knowledge of an inherited, shared identity. As Mr Gove said, Brexit started the fightback against “transnationalism”. But that still doesn’t make the Italian and Austrian polls, and every other election on next year’s calendar, a Brexit replay. The nuances within each are sui generis. Rolling them into the same barrel may make it easier to tell a story, just not the right one.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs
On Twitter: @rashmeerl
Originally published at www.thenational.ae.