A few days ago, a narrow majority of British voters decided to put an end to the United Kingdom’s participation in the European Union (EU). This result has opened a Pandora’s box whose contents will cause disturbances across a range of issues, from the precarious recovery of the global economy, to the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and the future of European integration, one of the pillars of the international order born from the rubble of World War II. For now, I have three reflections, mostly related to political fissures revealing the result and the complex effects that globalization is having on democracy.
The first reflection is that Brexit is not an isolated event. It is, rather, the most powerful example, so far, of the deep contempt towards elites and traditional political structures, which haunts all democracies. This story includes the rise of Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen, as well as the eruption of Pablo Iglesias and Alexis Tsipras, among many recent examples. However, the British case is remarkable. The array of voices in favor of staying in the EU included Prime Minister Cameron, the leadership of all parties (except UKIP, the xenophobic right-wing party led by Nigel Farage), all European institutions, the IMF, the Bank of England, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, virtually all major companies in the country, and a long and illustrious list of others, who all pointed out the dire consequences of Brexit. It was all for nothing. Most voters decided to give the establishment the middle finger and follow the delirious harangues of imposters like Farage and Boris Johnson, who offered the mirage of a world without immigrants or uncertainty. Herein lies the paradox once described by Costa Rican political scientist Rodolfo Cerdas: when people do not believe in anyone, they are more willing to believe anything.
At the root of this anger is the toxic legacy of the Great Recession—of which this result is but a delayed aftershock. But there is more. The crisis exacerbated long accumulated resentments, linked to the economic and cultural dislocations generated by globalization. Of all the factors that explain a community vote for or against Brexit, none shows a stronger correlation than the educational level of its inhabitants: the less educated population voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. That’s no coincidence. Brexit, like the success of Trump, is the revenge of globalization’s developed-world losers. It is the reaction of those who live with the daily risk of seeing their jobs swept up by the unleashed forces of globalization: technological innovation, competition with labor in the developing world, and migration. It is the people who feel they have lost control over their lives and have nothing to lose. It is in their anxiety where extremists sow, spreading simplistic explanations, irredeemable villains, and implausible promises.
But to feel anger is not the same as to have answers—and it is answers that we urgently need. To blame those who voted against the EU as ignorant is as arrogant as it is useless. It is better to recognize that globalization leaves an abundance of losers. They are less than the winners, but they are plenty. The challenge of moderate political options—in Britain and elsewhere— is to offer solutions to those that globalization has left behind. Solutions, that is, that go beyond the regressive utopias that are so popular today. Otherwise, our democracies will live dangerously, at the mercy of tricksters and charlatans.
The second reflection is about the limits of politics to change society. The EU is a very successful project: it has been the best vaccine against centuries of periodic devastation in Europe and has transformed European societies in myriad positive ways. But integration has been a project of the elite that that has advanced through forced strides, almost always without the direct consent of voters. The idea, embodied in the documents of the EU, that its member states are destined to an “ever closer union,” is a sign of supreme voluntarism in a continent where national identities remain deeply rooted. The European project is, in any case, an idea that has never been unquestionably accepted by public opinion in many European countries. No matter how successful the results of this effort, the disconnect between elites and societies has just come to collect its due in Britain, with interest.
Herein lies a fundamental political lesson: if politics moves faster than society, sooner or later society will rebel. It is doubtful that citizens in contemporary democracies are eager to participate in the management of collective affairs—evidence shows the contrary: they want to be rid of them—but they do not tolerate being taken for granted. The EU experience suggests that people not only judge political projects by their results, but also by the process used to reach them. As Camus said: in democracy the means justify the ends.
The third reflection is about the danger of plebiscitary politics. The inherently polarizing nature of this instrument has already been clear in many places in Latin America. I would not argue that we renounce its use. However, what we have seen in the UK makes me think that we should be very clear that the combination of social anger and a referendum is extremely dangerous and provides an inexhaustible mine that will be exploited by extremists and demagogues. And I warn, too, that it is insane not to subject referenda to safeguards that are par for the course in political processes. If we are to use the referendum to decide themes of exceptional importance (e.g. those relating to territorial integrity or form of government), then similar rules should apply to those in place in most countries with regards to constitutional amendments: referenda should be approved by a qualified majority and through two votes in different years. Less than that is playing the lottery, as the British are painfully aware today.