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A Year After The Brexit Vote: Have We Reached Peak Populism Yet?

22/06/2017 17:10 BST | Updated 22/06/2017 17:11 BST
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I was truly shocked when a slim majority voted for Brexit a year ago, on June 23. It was to be the first shock caused by an election outcome in 2016 in which populists whipped up popular resentment and won. The question troubling me since: When is it going to stop? When's the world coming to its senses?

When you haven't got the benefit of hindsight it's hard to tell major bumps along the way, a cluster of exceptional incidents, from real historical trends. Is history running its course or is the zeitgeist drunk at the wheel but could still come to its senses before crashing into the wall?

I feared Brexit, further propelled by voting Trump into office, might not have been a freak phenomenon but a historical turning point that could usher in an age of reactionary politics, and even sustained decline. The West really might be well past its heyday, once and for all.

Strangely enough, it's almost always the people shouting to want to make this, that or the other great again who will very likely achieve the exact opposite. How great will Britain really be after Brexit? How great will America be after Trump's reign of angry incompetence has run its course?

The West had shaped the last few centuries on a global scale - not always for the better, but surely to its advantage. Now it showed serious signs of self-combustion. Looking for historical parallels, I thought, we might be witnessing times that the late Romans witnessed before us.

Infographic: British Still Divided Over Brexit | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

Particularly from a liberal German perspective, the world turned a darker shade last year. Brexit in June and Trump in November shook many Germans' belief and trust in two long-time allies and important role models.

Most historically aware Germans very much appreciate what the United Kingdom and the United States did after the Second World War: Rebuild Germany from the rubble after a terrible war ignited by her own doing. That's what I call true greatness.

The Western Allies fostered reconciliation, even though the reflex to punish Germany for her systematic and large-scale misdeeds must have been formidable. Without the foresight of the liberal minded leaders of those two Anglo-Saxon countries West Germany, and therefore today's reunited Germany, would not have become a post-war democratic power in its own right.

After the First World War, the Entente powers chose to fiercely punish Germany, eventually resulting in another world war. After the Second World War, a broadminded approach towards Germany under the leadership of the UK and the US fostered a period of peace and prosperity never seen before in European history.

You could argue that America and Britain also had their own interests at stake: An economically dependent and politically unstable Germany would not have made for a good buffer state against the Soviets, who quickly turned from a wartime ally into a Cold War foe.

After Brexit and Trump, it looked like populism and anti-internationalism might not just discredit two longstanding role models, but could spread further: Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Lech Kaczyński in Poland, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Germany's homegrown populist movement, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), were all vying for or already in power.

Beginning with the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the below chart depicts some of the outcomes of votes which pitched populist candidates or ideas against more moderate or liberal candidates and ideas. Each vote had its very particular national setting, so this overview is also food for thought if those votes can and should be thrown into the same basket.

Infographic: Populism in the United States, Europe and Turkey  | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

Some of the votes were close calls, like the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, or the Turkish referendum that granted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers. Other votes that observers thought might be tighter races were clearer cut, like the presidential election in France, in which right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron battled it out.

For now, it looks like the populist movements have lost some momentum, probably because people realise that the world order really is in a fragile state - one more kick and the whole thing might come tumbling down. Therefore, the underlying question might be, if those voting for populists are really convinced of those policies or if they are more concerned with throwing a wrench in the works, to send a message.

Germany is voting for a new Bundestag in a general election in late September 2017. This will also be a vote on the liberal-leaning policies of incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel. The broad sentiments that underpin the success of populist movements are still simmering. The jury is still out on whether we have reached peak populism yet...