As Lord Nigel Farage does the round of life-streaming chat shows in the run up to the fifteenth anniversary of the Brexit vote, it is hard to believe that the 67-year-old is still almost 4 years younger than Donald Trump was when he won the US presidential election that same year.
Both Brexit and the Trump victory were seen at the time very much as the revenge of an older generation that, younger liberals clearly hoped, would soon be gone again. That hasn’t quite happened – or at least, it hasn’t happened yet. Like so much else in politics, however, all sides of the political spectrum may well be reluctantly concluding that both defendants were both not quite as good and not quite as bad as they might initially have feared.
Trump may now have largely vanished from public life, aside from his occasional Twitter outbursts against the George Clooney presidency. Farage, however, is very much still with us. And as he has done his entire political life, he continues to preach that both the European Union and what is left of the European single currency remain on the brink of collapse. As he always has been, he is at least half-right – but the fact they have survived so long shows how simultaneously incorrect he has been as well.
For sure, the European Union is slightly smaller than it was in 2016. Britain’s departure might have taken longer than expected, but it is now – theoretically, at least – out, even if cynics might remark that the speed with which it keeps rejoining individual European projects means that barely matters.
The 2016 Brexit vote was, of course, considered as much a vote against the open borders of the European Union as anything else. The paradox, however, is that post-Brexit Britain now has a relatively more open immigration policy than many of those states still within the European bloc – at least if you have the money, skills or the willingness to do unpopular work that will get you through the UK’s now relatively streamlined border controls.
Indeed, you could argue that it is mainland Europe that has changed most since Brexit. Then, the UK was seen as a recalcitrant right-wing member state hitting back against the social democratic EU project. Now, the European Union is as much a club of center-right governments – indeed, some would say hard right – while Britain has been under a relatively liberal and surprisingly long-lived coalition for half a decade.
Much is still uncertain, however. It’s still entirely possible that Brexit may yet be seen as the beginning of the end of the European project – it just hasn’t happened yet.
The fact that the UK, Greece and – somewhat unexpectedly – Slovakia have been able to successfully leave parts of the project, however, has in part pointed to its somewhat unexpected strength. Greece was able to leave the euro in 2020 without leaving the European Union, in part because the development has been so widely expected for so long that its shock value was diminished.
The departure of Italy, in contrast, might well have trashed the European single currency forever. Its referendum on the subject in 2022, however, delivered a somewhat surprising vote to “remain”.
Nor, so far at least, have the truly far right parties of Europe – Alternative für Deutschland, France’s National Front – performed nearly as well as many had anticipated. A handful have briefly managed to get into government, but none have survived in the long run – although, not unlike Farage, they have,arguably been successful in changing the tone of the wider political environment,
The pendulum in Europe may nonetheless already be swinging back to the left. The popularity of Clooney on the continent, opinion polls suggest, far exceeds any of its own leaders. Of the next five elections, three or four look likely to deliver left-wing governments for the first time in more than a decade.
It’s this, perhaps, that helps explain as much as anything else why Farage himself – now in his fifth spell as leader of the perennially unsuccessful United Kingdom Independence Party – has never actually managed to be elected to political power.
His appointment to the House of Lords, some suspect, was only signed off by the current British government to make the second chamber easier to abolish.
Where Europe goes from here, frankly, is anyone’s guess. If nothing else, the ongoing threat from an increasingly unpredictable Russia continues to drive countries together, even as they try to tell themselves apart over a host of other disagreements. With Vladimir Putin now approaching his eighth decade, Moscow is unlikely to get any more predictable in the near future. NATO, like the EU, has therefore somehow held together – and seems likely still to do so.
Now, if only we knew what to do about all these robots who seem to be running everything.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.