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Europe in revolt

Across a continent, there is a void between governments and their citizens. Ignoring this vacuum leaves it free for the chauvinists to exploit

F rom the timeless cafés of Vienna, or from the trendy bars of Berlin and Amsterdam, it is easy to dismiss Brexit as a curiously British affair. Did Winston Churchill not describe Europe as “where the weather comes from”? Have Brits not always thought of themselves as an “island nation,” close but quite different from the rest of Europe?

The United Kingdom’s role in the European Union has added to this impression. British governments have made much of their opposition to closer integration in areas such as defence or on issues that threaten the financial supremacy of the City of London. The perception of the UK as an awkward European partner has been so strong that some Europeans welcomed Brexit. Without those truculent Brits, they argued, the European project can finally take off and embrace its federalist destiny.

However tempting this sort of thinking may be for the EU’s supporters, it is a fatal misunderstanding of the meaning of Brexit. Far from being an isolated event, Brexit is a symptom of a much deeper and more extensive crisis of politics. This crisis is not only playing itself out in the UK and in the United States under President- Elect Donald Trump. Across Europe, mainstream politicians struggle to command the trust and faith of voters. Traditional parties are dismissed as belonging to a corrupt and self-serving political elite. In Germany, the “word of the year” in 2010 was wütburger, meaning “angry citizen.” In Spain, protest movements have been organised under the name of los indignados, “the outraged ones.” In France, a pamphlet written by a nonagenarian war hero entitled “Indignez-Vous” (“Time for Outrage!”) became a global hit, selling over four million copies.

Far from being a short-lived response to the hardships of the European financial crisis, this sentiment has hardened. Some malcontents, such as those who are sitting in the Italian parliament as representatives of the Five Star Movement, are taking up the challenge of politics themselves. Others are turning to radical parties on the right and left, from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany to Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The Chinese call this, with a good measure of schadenfreude, “the great revolt.”

This revolt differs from bourgeois and workers’ revolutions of the past. The emotions of anger and frustration prevail over those of hope. No rising force within society claims the mantle of the “universal class.” According to the late Irish political scientist, Peter Mair, politicians in Europe have over the last few decades retreated into the state. Citizens, for their part, have disappeared into the private sphere. What used to be a relationship of representation between governments and citizens has been transformed into a relationship of antagonism and deep distrust. As a result, 21st-century politics in Europe is all about trying to bridge what Mair called “the void”: an absence of any meaningful and legitimate political relationship between politicians and voters.

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In Prospect’s January issue: Adam Tooze and Francis Fukuyama examine the “American Century.” Tooze says that the 1917 opened the door to the future because the US seized the chance to lead, rather than for the Russian Revolution. Fukuyama says that the US has fallen from its perch, a change embodied by the election of Donald Trump. Anna Blundy puts Samuel Pepys on the couch and uses his diaries to psychoanalyse the Restoration’s chronicler. Also in this issue: Chris Bickerton examines the rise of populist parties across Europe, Peter Tatchell and Malcolm Rifkind debate whether the Uk should stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend, Philip Collins reviews a collection of Brexit books and DJ Taylor examines Alan Bennett’s diaries.