Jan Zielonka is Professor of European Politics at Oxford and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony's College. In Germany, his book "Counterrevolution: The Retreat of Liberal Europe" was published in February, blaming the (left-) liberal elites for the rise of nationalism and right-wing populism.
"Chaos rules," she announced Daily Mail lively and true. Not only bad news for the UK, but also for the whole continent. After months of lengthy negotiations, we still do not know whether Britain will actually leave the European Union, and if, under what conditions. It looks like we'll be preoccupied with Brexit for an indefinite time, that we'll be obsessed with it and neglect many other pressing issues.
The idea propagated by Theresa May and the EU representatives is that "there are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal" – it is misleading. A no-deal option does not exist because it is impossible to build a wall in the English Channel Great Britain effectively foreclosed by the EU. 20,000 laws and regulations linking both sides must be unraveled in one way or another. Old rules must ultimately be replaced by new ones. The transitional period would be pure pain and chaos.
No compromises, no respect
The decision is made between more chaos or less chaos, but in the end there will have to be some kind of deal. The question is: what price are both sides willing to pay? It may well be that the British are willing to pay a higher price, but the citizens on the other side of the canal may prove to be less resilient to bear the inevitable burdens of divorce. After all, they do not have for the United Kingdom and Gibraltar European Union membership referendum and their governments have not prepared them for its painful consequences.
That leads to the most disturbing aspect of the whole affair. Since the Brexit referendum, we have witnessed a shocking illness democracy become. This is paradoxical, because Brexit was supposed to be about the "will of the people", the power was to be taken from Schuman Square in Brussels back to the "mother of all parliaments" on the Thames. This maxim has been turned upside down in the past three years.
At its core, in democracy it is about mediating between opposing interests in an orderly way. Consensus is usually difficult to achieve, but democracy should ensure that the inferior minority accepts decisions resulting from the agreed procedures. This requires genuine dialogue, a willingness to compromise, and respect for political opponents and their opposing views. We did not see much of that in this Brexit saga.
A festival of populism
This is partly because Brexit was decided in a referendum. And referendums cause a plebiscitary disease whose symptoms are: little room for consideration and plenty of room for demagoguery. Complexities are reduced to simple decisions, and the winner gets everything – without the need to search for compromise.
However, due to the lack of viable democratic structures at European level, there is always the temptation to legitimize difficult decisions with a referendum. This was not only observed in the UK, but also in the Netherlands, Italy and France. (In some countries, such as Ireland, a referendum is a legal requirement before major international treaties are ratified.) All these European referendums looked more like a festival of populism than democracy. This only emphasizes once again how urgently democracy must become the primary objective of the EU reform agenda. The EU needs to find institutional ways to improve citizens' participation, otherwise the citizens will rebel.