In two dramatic developments, 2016 saw the end of globalisation as we have known it. The first was Brexit last May, the decision by the UK to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership. It came in the only conceivable way it could happen – a referendum. The country’s elected leaders would never have voted for it, but a referendum might and did. Even now the consequences are largely unknown. It seems likely that the UK will leave the EU, but the terms of its leaving, and what alternative arrangements it might negotiate instead, are shrouded in uncertainty.
The longer-term impact on the European Union is similarly uncertain. Brexit was undoubtedly the biggest blow the EU has suffered since the former Common Market was founded in 1957. The expansion of the EU from the initial six members to the present 28, was the most obvious yardstick of its success. Now the process of integration has been put into reverse with Britain’s exit: 28 is becoming 27. And in the wake of the decision by one of the largest and most influential (albeit reluctant) members to leave, others could follow. Could the EU unravel? It is not impossible. Certainly the EU has been malfunctioning for a long time: it is no accident that the EU has, with Japan, been the worst economic performer in the developed world since the Western financial crisis.
It is important to recognise that the British vote was not just about Europe. It went much deeper. It was a protest vote by a large section of the population against how they felt left behind in recent decades: stagnant or falling wages, the increasingly precarious nature of their circumstances and growing inequality. These processes had been at work since the late 70s, as pro-globalisation policies had combined with the extension of the free market, large-scale immigration and the withdrawal of state provision to create a much harsher environment. The Western financial crisis in 2007-8 proved a decisive moment in this process. Real incomes are now on average lower than they were in 2007: they have never fallen before like this over the course of more than a century. Seen in this light, it is clear that the vote was not just about Europe but more fundamentally was about globalisation and the neo-liberal regime that had held sway since 1979.
The same general trends are evident in varying degrees across most of Europe but the most dramatic expression came in the United States. The theme is familiar: a large section of the white male working class has suffered stagnant or falling real wages over a period of decades but especially since the financial crisis. Unlike in Britain where the revolt took a largely right-wing form – mainly because of immigration – in the US it could be seen on the left (Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton) and on the right in the form of Donald Trump. Although Trump won the Republican nomination, he did so against virtually the whole of the Republican establishment. He went onto win the presidential election opposed by most of his own party’s leaders, the whole of the Democratic Party and the majority of the media. More than in any presidential election since 1945, Trump’s victory was that of a populist authoritarian leader rather than a party: in so doing he overturned many of the established norms of American democracy.