The United Kingdom shocked the world in the summer of 2016 when they decided to leave the European Union, commonly known as Brexit. This event could be a sign of democratic erosion. Recent studies have shown that over the course of the last several decades democratic erosion has become more prevalent. Democratic erosion in such a traditional powerhouse state could have big implications on all democracies, if they aren’t immune to it then weaker democracies seem almost destined to go through democratic erosion. In this post I plan to demonstrate that Brexit is a step towards populism and polarization, which will naturally lead to democratic erosion.
I will start by explaining the events that lead to the eventual Brexit event. On June 23, 2016 a referendum was held to decide whether that United Kingdom should leave the European Union. 30 million people voted and leave won by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. The European Union is a club of 28 European Countries. These countries formed this group after World War II and are given special privileges like a free trade market between the countries.[i] They have their own currency and Parliament that the United Kingdom does not use. One of the major issues that lead to Brexit is immigration.
Immigration appears in the form of the Schengen Agreement. The Schengen Agreement is an agreement between 22 members of the European Union to remove border checks that way European citizens can move freely in Europe. The United Kingdom is not a part of the agreement and requires everyone that is not a countryman of the United Kingdom to go through costumes.[ii] The United Kingdom has gotten stricter in the past couples of years with the Syrian refugee crises and the acceptance of some of the poorer European countries into the European Union. These two events are not the only reason for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, but it has become one of the faces of Brexit.
Populism is a natural indicator for democratic erosion because it pulls at the very foundation of what democracies are made of. One part of what makes a democracy a democracy is the natural freedoms that are given to its citizens. When populist movements show up they can lead to radical leaders that can change these rights of people in the country. These right changes can lead to less freedoms in the country and therefore democratic erosion. Populism towards the right side of the spectrum is generally considered to be more accepted because world players can still have economic liberalization.[iii] UKIP is politically right, but it gets fuzzy when it comes to the economic side of things. This may be why Brexit was received with such negative responses by other nations.
This ant immigration sentiment is a sign that populism is appearing in the United Kingdom. Populism creates an us versus them mentality and that is exactly what UKIP used to fuel their campaign in the United Kingdom to have Brexit occur. UKIP created two separate versions of this separatist view. One is the United Kingdom versus the European Union, which was caused through the exclusion of them in the Schengen Agreement and their difference in currency. This was a natural barrier that left the United Kingdom feeling as if they were only partially apart of the Union. The other version was one of nationalism. The United Kingdom’s citizens versus immigrants. UKIP believed that immigrants were ruining the national identity of their Kingdom. All together this form of politics begins to look a lot like populism which is a natural indicator of democratic erosion.
Polarization is also an indicator that a democracy is eroding. Polarization is the natural split between groups based on their interests and opinions. Polarization is especially devastating in a two-party system with a legend amount of veto players.[iv] The United Kingdom has two main parties in the Labor party and the Conservative party. These two parties are naturally polarized based on them being on opposite sides of the political spectrum. UKIP however was a third party that had been gaining support. The polarization between the two main parties lead to them being able to suit to the needs of the people and political gridlock. This allowed for UKIP to rally a populist movement to pass the agenda of Brexit. If populism allows for democratic erosion and polarization makes populism possible, then polarization also lead to democratic erosion.
Brexit is an alarming sign that democratic erosion is occurring in the United Kingdom. The rise of UKIP was based off a populist movement that was based off nationalism and immigration. This populism leads to the insecurity in the rights of citizens and therefore questions the power of the democracy. This populism is only made possible through polarization. The inability for the United Kingdom’s two main parties to appeal to the citizens through action and legislation caused a crack to form in the people’s trust of democracy. This crack was filled with the populist movement of Brexit. If one of the world’s premier powerhouses can fall to democratic erosion, then there should be a major concern in other countries about democratic stability. Hopefully these other countries can learn through the United Kingdom’s mistakes and keep polarization and populism out of their countries.
[i] Cox, Nicky. “This Is How to Explain Brexit to Your Children.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 26 Sept. 2017, www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-european-union-how-to-explain-to-your-child-theresa-may-article-50-a7968411.html.
[iii] Weyland, Kurt. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 3, 2013, pp. 18–32., doi:10.1353/jod.2013.0045.
[iv] Sunstein, Cass R. Going to Extremes: How like Minds Unite and Divide. Oxford University Press, 2011.