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Implications of 'Brexit': A Historical Perspective

‘Brexit’, the emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s candidate for President, the proliferation of barbaric terrorist atrocities, the coup in Turkey and the worrying increase in public racism and xenophobia have caused writers such as Paul Mason to ask whether ‘we are living through another 1930s’.[1] It is safe to say the uncertain political climate on both sides of the Atlantic indicates that all is not well with mainstream politics. While the similarities should not be exaggerated, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the centre-ground in politics is today at its most fragile than since the decade immediately preceding the Second World War. After that war, moderate politics dominated in Europe, helping to facilitate the emergence of what we know today as the European Union (EU). European integration involving France, Germany, Italy and in due course the United Kingdom stabilised the continent contributing to the seven decades of peace Europe has enjoyed. However, the European project received its most serious setback on 23 June 2016 when the UK electorate voted to leave the EU.  While the implications of British withdrawal from the EU are still to be worked out, it is clear that ‘Brexit’ has the potential to seriously destabilise the Union.[2]  A changed relationship between the UK and the EU could also have ‘far reaching consequences for Ireland’ with regard to trade, migration and the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland.[3] 

In the context of an inescapable feeling that we are entering a new era in the continent’s history, this post will re-examine the genesis of European integration and the parallels between the present and the inter-war period. It will then suggest that the inspiration for a twenty-first century renewal of the EU may be found by looking to its roots in the moderate Christian Democrat and Social Democrat political traditions.

The Inter-War Years, 1918-39

Writing in 1929, at roughly the mid-point of what historians now label the ‘inter-war period’, Spanish Philosopher Ortega y Gasset, described the all-pervasive sense of pessimism that had engulfed Europe. The First World War (1914-18), he argued, had had a corrosive effect on society. War on an industrialized scale had destroyed European faith in progress and its consequences created the conditions that would allow unscrupulous demagogues flourish during the 1920s and 1930s. Ortega y Gasset believed the anti-Liberal extremes of both the left and right, then gaining momentum, threatened to plunge the continent into another dark age, undoing the constitutional advances made in the nineteenth-century.[4]

The very name ‘inter-war period’ encapsulates the failures of, 1918-39. The horrors of the trenches and industrialized killing were followed by two decades that brought anti-Liberal movements to power in numerous European countries before leading, inexorably, to a Second World War – a war of annihilation even more repulsive than the First World War. Taken together, the 1920s and 1930s were decades of economic scarcity; virulent nationalism; political extremism and political violence.

During the 1920s, governments had tried to recreate the pre-1914 economy. The decades preceding the First World War had been marked by unprecedented levels of globalisation and economic interdependence dominated by the imperial powers. The successful operation of the gold-standard required a degree of international cooperation, with governments playing by the ‘rules of the game’, something economic historians refer to as ‘gold-standard orthodoxy’.[5] This entailed balanced budgets, laissez-faire and minimal barriers to international trade. The effort to restore pre-war conditions entailed levels of financial stringency that placed the burden of sacrifice on the shoulders of ordinary voters. Elsewhere, the problem was inflation. Horrified German workers carried their worthless pay-packets home in their wheelbarrows.  By the mid-1920s it seemed as though these economic storms had been weathered as stable conditions returned. This fragile recovery proved short-lived, however, and gave way to a new crisis after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.

In the depressed 1930s there was little appetite for cooperation and interdependence. Instead, Europe lurched towards economic nationalism and authoritarian forms of government. Liberal democracy found itself with few enthusiastic defenders at precisely the moment they were needed most.[6] By 1939 democratic government had been replaced by dictatorships in such countries as Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. In the 1930s alone, nine states had lost their democratic character. One survivor of the period claimed it was ‘as if someone had picked up the world and shaken it into confusion’.[7] Autarky gained in strength, even in those countries that had not succumbed to dictatorship. Britain’s decision to abandon the gold-standard in 1931 and Fianna Fáil’s victory in the February 1932 Free State general election may both be considered part of the same trend away from economic liberalism towards economic nationalism.  Within eighteen months of de Valera’s victory, Ireland and Britain were locked in the costly ‘Economic War’.  International tension mounted as the financial crisis led countries to look inward rather than outward for solutions.

 Post-War Europe & The European Project

Between the wars, many parts of Europe had experienced the very worst that the polarized politics of the extremes of left and right had to offer. As they looked to rebuild the continent after 1945, Western Europe was quick to abandon the hardened politics of the extremes. Instead, they built new party systems based in the moderate centre. Post-War European politics were, broadly speaking, dominated by the Social Democrat and Christian Democrat parties.[8] Communist prestige was high in the immediate post-war years on account of its resistance to the far right. As such there were communists in the governments of France, Belgium and Italy until 1947. The Cold War put paid to the willingness of centrist forces to cooperate with Communists.  

The two dominant political creeds, Social Democracy and Christian Democracy, had democracy at their heart and saw a regulated form of capitalism as the best means of generating the wealth necessary to address poverty and inequality. Both Christian Democrats and Social Democrats believed that a strong economy was never an end in itself, but a means to an end with government intervention serving to deliver social goals. For Christian Democrats this was the ‘social market’ while Social Democrats saw the state as a custodian of the public interest that was capable of rectifying the flaws of unrestrained capitalism. While differing in emphasis and method, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats believed the market economy should be harnessed to improve living standards. This would become known as the ‘European Model’ and it lay at the heart of the emergence of the European Economic Community and its successor the EU.

In contrast to the Conservative Party in Britain, Christian Democrat parties developed programmes that emphasised community rather than the individual. Reflecting the influence of Catholicism’s social teachings, Christian Democrat parties also subscribed to the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should be made at the lowest appropriate institution. In Europe, Christian Democrats have been associated with federalism (particularly in Germany), and more broadly, the principle of European integration.

Signing of the Treaty of Rome

At the root of the European project was economic integration. The Treaty of Rome, signed in March 1957 and effective from 1 January 1958, laid out a schedule for tariff reductions; the free movement of goods, labour and currency and a European Court of Justice to which national courts would submit cases for adjudication. From the beginning, the British were unenthusiastic and did not wish to see the emergence of a supra-national bloc on the continent. As a result, British voices were absent as an integrated Europe took shape in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, the British were keen on the Common Market and the United Kingdom made applications for membership in 1961 and 1967. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed each of these.[9] When the United Kingdom was eventually permitted to join in 1973, it was accepted as a member of the EEC alongside Denmark and Ireland.

European integration has made the 1930s politics of protectionism and national self-sufficiency redundant. Free trade and economic cooperation has replaced competition and national rivalry. European countries have retained their own distinct national identities while at the same time pooling sovereignty for the greater good. Since 1973 impoverished parts of Britain and Ireland: the West of Ireland; parts of northern England; Cornwall; Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have benefitted enormously from vital European subsidies. Most observers conclude that EU membership has also served to foster better British-Irish relations, offering another forum for formal and informal discussion between representatives of the two governments. In the context of the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland this interaction has been immeasurably important.

 Brexit and Its Implications

While it would be a gross exaggeration to equate the post-‘Great Recession’ political difficulties with the tumultuous inter-war period, there are some striking parallels. The Financial Crisis, and subsequent recession, proved traumatic with the shock-waves evident in the political convulsions of the past decade (Fianna Fáil, dominant in Irish politics since 1932, coming third in the 2011 election being an obvious example). Individuals have lost their savings, banks have been bailed out, businesses have been wiped out, while a whole generation has seen the dream of a stable career shattered as economies and governments adjust to the post-2008 world.

There has been, moreover, an inescapable sense – reflected perhaps in social media outrage and identification of ‘scapegoats’ – that the globalised economy created more losers than winners, with the gap between the very wealthiest (the ‘top 1%’) and the rest apparently widening.  Brexit, and much of the political angst in the world, would appear to be a reaction to some sense of alienation from a system that has left many people behind. Arguably, too many people are facing a precarious existence whether via unemployment or short-term contracts and the dreaded ‘zero-hour’ contracts. The apparent result has been the advance of ‘anti-establishment’ parties and movements. Most worrying of all has been the growth in support for populist, anti-immigration politicians of the far right such as Marine Le Pen in France. As in the 1930s, figures formerly on the fringes have exploited the economic situation to identify scapegoats and gain support.

A friend recently remarked that politics in 2016 had the air of ‘events leading up to ...’ about them. It is clear that western politics finds itself at some sort of crossroads. Closer to home, the aftermath of Brexit will require careful handling, given the sensitivities surrounding the border and the delicate peace sustained in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. If we are at a crossroads, what can we do to ensure we take the right path and what lessons can we take from the past century of European history?

After the Second World War European recovery was greatly facilitated by the support of the United States and the absence of serious economic competition. Today the world is more complex than it was in the 1950s and renewal of the EU will need to take account of those challenges. Still, Europe could do worse than look to its own roots for inspiration and the development of policies that can resonate.[10] What made European politics and the project of European integration a success in the second half of the twentieth-century was the idea, common to Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, that the economy must be a means to an end and never an end in itself. While many would argue the financial crisis deprived us of the financial flexibility to deliver for society, a decade where there has been little evidence of the ‘means to an end’ has had a corrosive effect on politics and society. For a decade, we have lived through near constant crisis, the fragile recovery notwithstanding. Mainstream politics has been about ‘market volatility’; ‘budgetary discipline’; ‘fiscal rectitude’; ‘bond yields’ and ‘deficit to GDP ratios’. Politics has not created the conditions for a cohesive society while a generation has been caught in a drift where they cannot look beyond the short-term. Too many people struggle to make ends meet in today’s economy, and as a consequence struggle to envisage a better future. The ‘lost decade’ has left deep scars while creating the type of climate that has allowed unscrupulous populists prosper.

Voters are angry and if the moderate centre-ground in European politics is to re-assert itself politically, and avert a catastrophe – say the emergence of far-right administrations; increased xenophobia and the possible breakup of the EU – it will need to listen to the message and find a way of responding imaginatively. There has to be a broader purpose to the development of strong economies, and voters will need to see that parties are, at the very least, thinking about society and creating the conditions that foster the sense that individuals have a stake in stability. Voters need to see that governments have a longer-term plan beyond the economic jargon and that working hard and paying one’s taxes contributes to the development of society and not just the tweaking of the economic system. For the centrist parties, the stakes could not be higher. If they fail to reassert themselves in this volatile climate, where will the empty rhetoric of the extremists take us?


I would like to thank Professor Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses for reading over an earlier draft of this piece.

[1] The Guardian, 1 August 2016.

[2] Tim. L. Oliver, ‘Europe Without Britain: Assessing The Impact On The European Union Of A British Withdrawal’, SWP Research Paper, 7 September 2013 available at: [accessed 25 July 2016].

[3] Alan Barrett, Adele Bergin, John FitzGerald, Derek Lambert, Daire McCoy, Edgar Morgenroth, Iulia Siedschlag and Zuzanna Studnicka, ‘Scoping The Possible Economic Implications Of Brexit On Ireland’, Research Series 48, November 2015 available at: [accessed 25 July 2016].

[4] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of The Masses (London, 1932 translated edn.).

[5] Patricia Clavin, The Great Depression in Europe, 1929-1939 (London, 2000), p. 46.

[6] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth-Century p. 106.

[7] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth-Century p. 106.

[8] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London, Vintage, 2010 edn.), p. 7.

[9] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London, Vintage, 2010 edn.), pp. 305-307.

[10] Admittedly, much of the post 1990 enlargement has brought in countries that have little or no experience of the Christian & Social democratic currents common to the original EEC. 

Published: 23 Aug 2016  Categories: History, Politics

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Mel Farrell is a Teaching Fellow in History, St Patrick's Campus, Dublin City University. He is a political Historian specialising in political parties, party organisation and political ideologies, 1870-1945. He is the editor, with Ciara Meehan and Jason Knirck, of A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015) and has published in Éire-Ireland and New Hibernia Review.