Like a flash of lightening on a dark summer night, the British referendum on the European Union revealed the weakness of the political establishment. A quick look at two other elections suggests that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon that points to the opening of a new chapter in the continent’s postwar history.

On May 22, Austria’s voters selected Alexander Van der Bellen, the seventy-two-year-old one-time leader of the Green Party, as their new president. In one of the closest national elections in modern history, a mere 31,000 votes (0.6 percent of the total) denied the presidency to Norbert Hofer of the radical right-wing Freedom Party.

In a runoff election on June 19, Virginia Raggi, a thirty-seven-year-old political newcomer, became Rome’s first woman mayor, with an impressive 67 percent of the vote. Her party, the Five Star Movement, also won a majority of seats in the City Council.

And finally, on June 23, 52 percent of the British electorate voted in favor of leaving the European Union, thereby making Britain the first member state to exercise this option.

Although these elections were driven by different issues, were conducted under different electoral laws, and were of quite different historical importance, they shared one significant characteristic: all of them demonstrated the further disintegration of the political alignments that once dominated European public life.

Austria is perhaps the most dramatic example of this process. Since 1949 Austrian politics has been controlled by the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People’s Party, whose alternating competition and cooperation provided remarkable political stability—as well as a great deal of patronage for the parties’ leaders. Since 2006 Austria has been governed by a coalition of the two parties; while both suffered losses in the parliamentary elections of 2013, they retained a diminished but sufficient majority. This spring voters had a chance to express their disenchantment with the coalition in the first round of the presidential election, when the Social Democratic and People’s Party candidates each got about 11 percent (in 2010, the Social Democratic incumbent had been reelected with over 70 percent of the vote), opening the way for a runoff between the Freedom Party’s Hofer and Van der Bellen, who was supported by virtually everyone else. Although the Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial office (with some significant emergency powers), the possibility that it might be occupied by a representative of a radical right-wing party sent shock waves throughout the European establishment. On July 1 the Austrian Supreme Court, citing irregularities in the counting of mail ballots, decided that a new election would have to be held, thus giving Hofer a second chance at victory.

Like the Austrian presidential runoff, the Roman mayoral election was notable for who was not there. From 1948 until 1994, Italy was essentially a one-party state, run by the Christian Democratic Party that was (except for one brief interval) part of every government, sometimes alone, usually in a coalition with a smaller party. The Christian Democrats’ rule collapsed as the result of a massive corruption scandal (at one point, half the members of parliament were charged with taking bribes), which created a political vacuum that was eventually filled by the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Since Berlusconi’s own fall from power and conviction for tax fraud in 2013, Italy has been governed by a shaky coalition led by the former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Italians’ disaffection with their political system can be seen in the bewildering number of parties, most of them very small, that are scattered across the electoral landscape. Among the most remarkable of these new groups is Mayor-elect Raggi’s own Five Star Movement, founded by a professional comedian and blogger, Beppe Grillo, in 2009. Grillo emphasizes that his organization is not a party, but a movement, in which direct online democracy (one of his five stars is the right to internet access) will do away with the cumbersome, corrupt institutions of representative government. In the parliamentary elections of 2013, the Five Star Movement came in second, with 25 percent of the vote. Because the electoral law favors coalitions, Grillo’s movement won only 109 out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, which is still impressive for a group that celebrates its lack of organizational efficiency and programmatic coherence.

Although the tone of British politics is quite different from Italy’s opera buffa, here too traditional political formations are in disarray. This disarray, clear in a number of recent public opinion polls, was underscored by the referendum of June 23, in which a majority of voters rejected the urgent appeal of both major parties to remain in the EU. The referendum triggered a leadership crisis in the Conservative and Labour Parties—Prime Minister David Cameron, who won a surprising victory in last year’s parliamentary elections, has resigned, while Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, suffered a resounding vote of no-confidence from his party’s parliamentary delegation. Behind this immediate crisis is a long-term decline in popular support for both Conservatives and Labour, which has already reshaped British political culture and will eventually transform parliamentary alignments as well.

Everywhere in Europe the political establishment is in trouble. The principal beneficiaries of its decline are a diverse collection of alternative parties, all of which emphasize their opposition to the status quo. Prominent among these parties are those on the populist right, whose programs feature hostility to both immigration and European integration: Italy’s Northern League, the Alternative for Germany, Denmark’s People’s Party, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Britain’s Independence Party, France’s National Front, and Austria’s Freedom Party. But there are also others, like the Spanish Unidos Podemos, that try to mobilize anti-establishment sentiments on the left, as well as some ideologically inchoate groups like Grillo’s Five Star Movement or the Pirate Party in Germany. Finally, there are regionally based parties in Italy, Britain, and Spain that call into question not only the political establishment, but also the definition of the national state itself.

The rise of opposition parties is the result of several recent shocks to the European system: the lingering effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, especially in the Eurozone (that is, the nineteen of twenty-eight members of the European Union that use a common currency); increasing levels of international violence in Ukraine and the Middle East; a terrifying series of terrorist attacks; and, most important of all, the catastrophic growth in the number of refugees, some of them fleeing political upheavals, others desperately searching for economic opportunity. Taken together, these developments have put enormous pressure on individual European governments as well as on Europe’s common political, economic, and military institutions. Not surprisingly, the result has been growing popular dissatisfaction with anyone identified with the status quo. This is not a good time to be an incumbent.

The impact of these immediate crises has been amplified by two underlying changes in the social basis of European public life. The first is the gradual erosion of many of the social institutions that shape and sustain traditional political alignments. Consider, for example, the case of the Catholic Church in Germany, an important source of support for the Christian Democratic Union, a pillar of the political establishment throughout the postwar period. In 1950, more than half of German Catholics regularly went to Mass; in 2014, about 10 percent did—a statistic that points to a radical decline in the church’s social and cultural role, and therefore in its political power. Trade unions, another powerful link between society and politics, have lost members and influence everywhere in Europe. Increased social mobility, new forms of communications, shifts in the nature of work and family—all the familiar features of contemporary life have helped create a more volatile electorate, for which traditional forms of identity and alignment have less meaning.

Closely connected to the decline in these traditional sources of political identity and alignment has been a growing alienation of important sectors of the electorate from the political elite. Since the late nineteenth century, students of democracy have worried that the leaders of political parties tend to become estranged from the rank and file, obeying what one of them called “the iron law of oligarchy.” In a famous book about “the republic of pals,” published in 1914, Robert de Jouvenel argued that French politicians’ primary allegiance was to one another, not to the interests of those they were elected to represent. There was, he provocatively claimed, "less difference between two deputies, one of whom is a revolutionary and the other not, than between two revolutionaries, one of whom is a deputy and the other not.” Among the most important things the various European protest parties have in common is a disdain for what a leader of Unidos Podemos has called la cásta, the caste of politicians and other elites who allegedly serve themselves, not their constituents. To prevent the formation of a political caste, some parties, beginning with the German Greens in the 1980s and now including the Italian Five Star Movement, have adopted strict term limits—which, unsurprisingly, turn out to be very difficult to maintain.

Popular hostility to a caste of self-serving politicians is particularly prominent among the critics of the European Union. There is, it must be admitted, good reason for this. Well-paid but underworked, the 750 members of the European Parliament are without strong political ties to their constituencies. (Ironically, the members of the European parliament with the greatest popular support are those who, like Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine LePen, use their office to attack the European project.) The parliament meets in both Brussels and Strasbourg; the latter venue, used for no more than a few weeks each year, costs more than 60 million Euros. The list of the Union’s foreign political accomplishments is brief, but its External Action Service has 3,600 employees, who, like all of the EU’s bureaucrats, have higher salaries than civil servants in the member states and enjoy extraordinarily generous benefits. No wonder that to many of those suffering from government cutbacks and other austerity measures, the European “republic of pals” seems wasteful and unnecessary.


THIS BRINGS US BACK to the British referendum. We should not overestimate the direct and immediate impact of Britain’s departure on European institutions. In the first place, Britain was not part of either the Eurozone or the Schengen open borders agreement, two of the most ambitious and controversial aspects of the European project. Second, while the exact terms of Britain’s departure are unclear, they will probably end up resembling the Union’s relationship with Norway and Switzerland, two other non-members who have had to accept a number of European laws in order to be part of the single European market. Many of the Brexit camp’s promises of national independence will turn out to be empty. Finally, Britain will remain a key member of NATO, which provides the security architecture for European integration, as well as a critically important transatlantic connection. Indeed, there are some indications that NATO has been energized in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Although the institutional impact of Britain’s departure from the Union may be less severe than some have suggested, the referendum of June 23 will be seen as a historic turning point because it so clearly and dramatically expressed the deep and pervasive disaffection with which many people view the European project. As long as things were going well, it was possible to overlook this lack of democratic legitimacy. That is no longer the case. The depth of popular antipathy to the EU is difficult to measure. We do not know how many other EU members would follow the British example if they were given the opportunity. Nor can we predict if individual governments will be able to withstand popular pressures to put the matter to a vote. Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that, despite its many accomplishments during the longest period of peace and prosperity in European history, the EU has failed to persuade a significant portion of its population that it speaks for and to them.           

Europe’s future will be shaped by a series of elections to be held over the next year: there will be a replay of the Austrian presidential election; in October, a referendum on constitutional reforms will decide the fate of Matteo Renzi’s efforts to create a stable regime in Italy. In the spring of 2017 there will be a presidential election in France; finally, and most significantly, Germany will have parliamentary elections sometime that summer or fall. It remains to be seen if the centrist parties can win enough support to form the basis for effective governments. In this effort they have two important if not necessarily decisive advantages. First, the anti-establishment parties will inevitably have to come to terms with the electorate’s volatility and suspicion of politicians; the more successful these opposition parties become, the more they will begin to seem like part of the problem. Second and more important, the opposition parties, while effective at channeling people’s anger and anxiety, do not have clear and persuasive alternatives to the existing order. “On waxen tablets you cannot write anything new until you rub out the old,” Francis Bacon wrote. “With the mind it is not so; there you cannot rub out the old until you have written in the new.” Unlike the enemies of liberal democracy in the first half of the twentieth century, so far the current political opposition has nothing new to offer; unless or until they do, the status quo will survive.

There is, however, a clear alternative to the EU: returning to a Europe composed of fully sovereign, independent nation states. It was this Europe that a majority of the British electorate seemed to want, at least for themselves, when they voted on June 23, and it is the Europe that a variety of national parties have begun to demand. Dismantling the Union would be a complex, expensive, and perilous enterprise—demonstrating this may be one of the unintended consequences of the British decision. It is an enterprise that, for good reason, the European establishment wants to avoid. Whether they will be able to do so depends on their ability to halt the steady erosion of their constituencies at home and, no less necessary and difficult, their ability to begin the difficult process of reform within the Union itself. Europe’s future depends on how well its leaders can meet these two challenges.

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: View Contents
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