“EU policy at work.” Superimposed over a photograph of a hardhat-wearing worker sitting on the pavement, a begging cup placed in the foreground, the message could not be any clearer. Brussels is the aristocracy, and the British people, the proletariat.
The idea is ludicrous, of course. Particularly given the UK’s role in the European Union and the aggressiveness with which it pursues British economic interests in the bloc. But this was advertising, after all. Truth was not what was at stake here.
The only thing that mattered was the advert’s us-versus-them framing and how it appealed to the anxieties of working class Britons, looking for a scapegoat for their powerlessness. It isn’t neoliberal economic policies that are the problem. It’s foreigners.
Run as part of UKIP’s 2014 EU election campaign, the eye-catching poster served as a foretaste of the sorts of equally strategic advertising the party would use in the run-up to the Brexit referendum two years later, albeit more heavily focused on immigration.
Despite the shock with which the later adverts were received, in many respects, the 2014 edition remains more prescient, insofar as what it communicates about Brexit’s appeal. Its core value is class. By ‘restoring sovereignty’, Britain is made equal once again.
As a transnational political project, heavily involved in the implementation of neoliberal fiscal policies, the EU is an easy target. For the left, that is. Few progressives would argue that Brussels has consistently been on the wrong side of the economic crisis.
The problem is the way that insight has been taken up by Europe’s far right. Hence the communist-style messaging about exploitation and the exaltation of workers in the UKIP advert. Its insincerity is painful. But its appeal to leftwing tropes, brilliant.
When trying to make sense of Brexit – what it really means, and why it has so far worked – it is impossible to downplay its manipulation of progressive ideas. From the very get-go, its proponents have employed and redirected them on behalf of a decidedly reactionary agenda.
Hence, the affirmation with which pundits such as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland greeted Theresa May’s Article 50 letter on Wednesday. Trumpeting its acknowledgment of what the UK is losing in leaving the EU, Freedland couldn’t help but read it as a guilty plea. We know what we’re losing, but we have to do it anyway.
The liberal columnist was right to harp on the admission. The prime minister, originally in the Remain camp, knows what time it is. The problem is that she’s been all too willing to lead the UK out of the European Union, regardless.
Why? Allegedly, as in keeping with the messaging of the 2014 UKIP poster, to honor the ‘will’ of the British people. As though its support for Brexit had been built democratically, on the basis of rational economic interests, and not, as it were, fear.
Few political cultures emphasise class as overtly and self-consciously as Britain’s does. If only it was able to do so without being exploited by its own aristocracy.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Wishful thinking. The EU will disappear, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told a rally on Sunday, promising to shield France from globalisation as she sought to fire up her supporters in the final four weeks before the election begins.
Blame it on the left. The mobilisation of National Front voters and widespread apathy among the rest of France’s electorate may hand Marine Le Pen a historic victory in the second round of the presidential election in May.
Otherwise AfD voters. On Saturday, members of the CDU’s right wing will seek to end a shift to the left in the German party. Their platform: “Liberal-Conservative Awakening in the Union,” is designed to unite Merkel’s critics around the country.
Workers’ paradise. A victory for Martin Schulz in the German election will be a chance for Europe to end “unsuccessful” austerity policies and bring back social justice to Europe, Thomas Oppermann told Sarantis Michalopolous.
The Schulz effect. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party easily won a re-election in the Saarland on Sunday, dealing an early blow to centre-left hopes of ending her more than decade-long reign.
Populism is the new normal. Austria’s government will seek an exemption from having to accept more asylum-seekers under an EU relocation system, it said on Tuesday, arguing it has already taken in its fair share during the migration crisis.
Authoritarian personality. At the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Malta, Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán called calling migration a “Trojan Horse of terrorism” and attacked the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Only the elderly need apply. Denmark’s government wants to be able to block unaccompanied refugee children from entering the country if borders are closed due to exceptional circumstances.
Heartbroken and vulnerable. As tragedies unfold, aid workers talk about the lack of hope among refugees in Belgrade and their potential for self-harm.
Austerity fisherman. The killing of protected mammals in the Aegean Sea has raised eyebrows in Brussels, which called on the Greek government to punish the culprits.
Cheap shot. Krystyna Pawlowicz, a Polish MP from the ruling Eurosceptic PiS party, has written a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, accusing him of “alcohol dependency”.
There’s always Moscow. Serbia is committed to EU membership, but it will work hard to improve relations with Russia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told Reuters ahead of a presidential election on Sunday (2 April).
And water is wet. Vladimir Putin is cozying up to the far-right to divide Europe, the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said on Thursday, a week after France’s Marine Le Pen met with the Russian leader.
Brexit is a PR exercise. Brexit is not what Britain’s politicians say it is, Princeton University’s Andrew Moravcsik told EURACTIV Slovakia. It’s more akin to a half-truth, disguising business-as-usual.