The rise of the populists is bad news for Remain

The election of two Five Star Movement candidates in Italy, to the mayoralties of Rome and Turin, should act as a wake-up call for those still campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU.

Right across Europe and beyond – including in the US with the rise of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – mainstream political parties are being challenged by movements described variously as populist or anti-establishment.

On the old right, these populist movements include Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which came third in terms of votes cast at the 2015 British General Election; Marine Le Pen’s recalibrated Front National in France; Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands; and Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party, which so nearly took the presidency in Austria a month ago.

On the old left, the most notable populist movements include Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, fought a futile stand-off with the EU over debt repayments – a conflict settled, in the end, by just three individuals, none of whom was Greek, behind closed doors in Brussels.

In Italy, in part due to the once seemingly endless saga surrounding former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was replaced by an unelected EU bureaucrat in 2011, there are several parties fighting to claim the anti-elite mantle. These include the Lega Nord, which adopts a regionalist perspective, and comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which campaigns against corruption in politics.

While emanating from different directions, what unites these various groups and individuals is a staunch criticism of mainstream elites and an appeal to those who feel they’ve been bypassed or overlooked by parties that once represented them.

None of these movements can claim to be fully formed. Indeed, there are quite evident problems with the maturity of some of the main players and their organisations. But this should not blind us to their ability to galvanise significant numbers of people. We should not be surprised if they change and develop into more mature movements in due course.

The lazy approach is to sneer at these new populists, and especially their current leaders, with a view to dismissing the entire enterprise. That would be a grave error. As we see now in Italy, these movements are all placed to achieve significant breakthroughs — if not now, then at some point in the not-too-distant future.

So, what does this mean for Britain’s Remain campaign? It means that their very aim — for Britain to remain in the EU as it is — is erroneous. No matter what the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, there will be no remaining in an unchanged EU.

The biggest lie perpetrated by the Leave campaign is that there is a significant Brussels machine hell-bent on usurping our national sovereignty. In fact, it is popular sovereignty that is under threat by the EU. The real decision-makers in the EU are figures that are well-known to us all, including David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande. The EU is where Europe’s national leaders, who gather in the European Council, go to hide from their electorates.

But that European Union — the one primarily driven by the European Council — is only as strong as the sum of its parts. And if all of its parts are under attack domestically, through the rise of alternative movements like those elected in parts of Italy this week, then it will soon be a very different EU that emerges.

The need to reconnect politics with the people is the fundamental challenge we face. And, for all the flaws of the official campaign, it is the Leave side of the EU referendum that best represents that cause.

Bill Durodié is professor and chair of international relations at the University of Bath.

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