By Dominik Kirchdorfer
For years now, we have seen the effects of a new political cleavage that has long overtaken classic struggles, like owners vs. workers, which are still ingrained in most our minds as the core elements of the left-right division. We have seen election after election prove this over the last few years, but the agreement between the EU and China reinforces this shift further and opens up some important questions for our future.
While academic research mostly still focuses on existing theories and frameworks to explain today’s shifts, this approach continuously fails to predict and explain the great political upheavals of our time. On the eve’ of the EU-referendum, I was at the London School of Economics and Political Science and looked on in awe, as all scholars but one notable exception (Simon Hix), predicted with full confidence that the UK would remain in the European Union. The famed German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed me early in the evening, asking me for my opinion on the remain outcome. When I asked why I was not asked for my opinion on the leave outcome, my interviewer laughed out loud, as if I had made some terribly witty joke.
A year before that, I had completed my master’s degree at the very same LSE with a dissertation on electoral behaviour in the European Union. One of my key findings was that fringe parties were getting more support in peripheral regions. This does not necessarily mean rural areas, but small towns and villages that surround larger cities and are generally inhabited by less wealthy citizens. As it turns out, people are not overly fond of unhindered globalisation that centralises all resources in big global cities, while smaller communities are sucked dry and left behind.
Think about how you would feel if you were a young man who lives in a small town. All you want to do is work hard, earn a good living, find a girl to fool around with and eventually, maybe, buy a place of your own. That is the dream that you grew up with and the promise you’ve seen a thousand times up on the silver screen. Yet, as you grow up, you see most of the girls leaving for the big city, to get an education, while you would have never thought of moving away from your birthplace.
You keep on working hard and paying your taxes, but one by one you see companies moving away, shops closing down, perhaps even schools and hospitals. It’s just not economical to keep running them in your town, they tell you. Why don’t you just move to the big city, like everyone else?
Perhaps you finally give in and move there, but you quickly discover that the big city is a whole different world. The skies are filled with big glass towers that all sport the names of big multinational banks and consulting firms and they have little use for someone without a university degree. There are even fewer such jobs still that pay enough to make a living with the high rent prices in the big city.
The good jobs with the great wages are filled by highly educated people, including but not limited to foreigners. But why are foreigners better off than a citizen of this great country? That’s what you think to yourself and suddenly a politician appears and tells you that you are right. It is not your fault. It is all those damn foreigners that have made your life miserable. They are the ones stealing your jobs and girls and generally just making things worse for you. You are not to blame at all. If anyone else is to be blamed, it is all those corrupt politicians from the traditional parties. Because they didn’t care for you, or our country. They let these evil foreigners in and let them destroy our nation, while they lined their pockets. But now we are going to make them pay; together. All you have to do is vote for me.
From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Populism doesn’t just straight up lie to people, it reinforces their own preconceptions and tells them that they were right all along and that there is an easy target and solution for all their problems.
In that same dissertation in 2015, I discovered that in 26 of the 28 EU member states, voters were between 20 and 40% more likely to vote for a fringe party if they lived in a small town or village. Only Greece and the Netherlands did not follow this trend, which can be explained by their unique situations. Greece is made up of multiple islands and they tend to be quite rich, compared to the mainland. The Netherlands also have some very rich small towns in between their large cities, e.g. Delft between Rotterdam and The Hague. Meanwhile Rotterdam also has its own very poor areas.
Almost three years after the Welsh and English periphery voted against Northern Ireland, Scotland and all major English cities in the Brexit referendum, we have seen a new U.S. president elected by the U.S. periphery, Macron being backed by cities, while Le Pen scored in the periphery. We have since been able to observe many more similar cases. The Austrian presidential elections were neck and neck and were nearly repeated four times. The Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won by convincing voters on the periphery in addition to the city dwellers with a very clever campaign that appealed to people’s sense of community.
Yesterday, we saw a further delay to Brexit, which completely overshadowed that just a day before an EU-China Summit was held, which resulted in breakthroughs in trade relations between the two trade blocs. China, a country that is notorious for the strong control the state exerts over its people and its economy, is slowly, but surely, opening up its markets to the world. Meanwhile, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America, two of the most prolific champions of free trade, are building barriers (or walls) and shutting themselves off from the world.
And the European Union? The EU has chosen its side. It is on the side of free trade and globalisation and if China and the US are trading places in the landscape of economic policy then so be it. After all, the European Union is fully integrated in terms of trade, but not politically. Herein lies the problem.
China’s track record with human rights has not been great so far, to say the least, nor has its interpretation of copyright or privacy laws. The EU prides itself on its European Charter of Human Rights, yet at the end of the day, the EU is incomplete and thus all about trade. Social policies remain secondary, weakening its bargaining position in this area. It is a nice sentiment that we might be able to have a positive influence on other countries through trade, but if we are disjointed in this, what goes around comes around. If we come to rely on a strong and unified China, which certainly has goals and values of its own, who is to say China will not start influencing our social policies in their favour? Just look at Russia and the influence it enjoys in Europe already.
The new cleavage is not just centre vs. periphery, it is globalisation vs. protectionism. But this cleavage creates a dilemma for the EU. Where does our allegiance lie? Can we really align ourselves with China economically and ignore their social policies? And can we continue to work with countries like the United States or Brazil, despite their new protectionist stance?
The world is shifting, and Europe has to ask itself: where do we fit in and who if anyone can we really work with?
Let me ironically quote British Prime Minister Henry Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
Black and white perspectives on “The West” against the rest must be laid to rest so that the European Union can accept and fulfil its role as a major autonomous player on the world stage and work with all that are willing on individual projects and agendas, rather than relying on a single set of allies for everything. The European Union has to stop following others and finally begin to drive forward its own priorities; if it ever agrees on what those priorities actually are.