Alexander Lukin is Department Head, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, School of International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics; Director, Center for East Asian and SCO Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Resume: The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union—for which the majority of the British people voted in a referendum—has become an international sensation.
The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union—for which the majority of the British people voted in a referendum—has become an international sensation. Experts are talking about Britain having a special relationship with Europe, a people’s revolt against the elite and the powerful influence of the migration crisis. Few, however, are taking note of how the breakup of the European Union is similar in many respects to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EU, like the old Soviet Union, is a geopolitical entity based on an ideology. Both enterprises began rupturing when reality stood at sharp odds with the ideological goals they professed. That is what prompted protesters as soon as they had the opportunity to express their own opinions and to demand that the authorities either fulfill their promises or step down.
A Way Out
Soviet ideology promised equality, justice, a higher living standard, and greater economic development than in the “capitalist world.” In reality, though, Soviet citizens experienced shortages of goods, unfair distribution, rule by a privileged class of political elite, and a significantly lower living standard and level of development than in the West. Characteristically, discontent first arose among those members of the ideologized elite who truly believed in the promises they had made to the people. The movement for a “true Leninism” called for a return to the ideal—to the fulfillment of those promises and the accomplishment of the goals that the ideology proclaimed. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power promising to “restore the Leninist ideals,” but ended up leading the country into collapse. The last of the Soviet leaders, he believed that the government bureaucracy stood in the way of building a utopian socialist society and that the people wanted nothing more than to find a way to achieve those ideals in practice. He therefore appealed to the people for support against the bureaucracy, confident that they would back him. But the Soviet people, who had for the first time in many years had the opportunity to express their opinion through relatively free elections, voted instead for Gorbachev’s opponents—for pro-Western liberals who promised a better future if the country would merge with the “civilized” Western world, and for right-leaning nationalists. The ideology of “the power of the people” came into conflict with the actual aspirations of the masses. As a result, the man who had embarked on a course of democratization lost power. The fact that the people still did not get what they wanted is another subject.
European society has also become more ideological in recent years. The ideology of what might be called “democratism” promised Europeans the highest possible standard of living: freedom for all; a world without borders, war, or conflicts; justice; equal rights; and democracy—that is, the decisive role of the people in political decision-making. In reality, however, EU citizens are experiencing a huge income gap between the poorest segments of society and the wealthiest businesspeople and international bureaucrats, a flood of immigrants taking jobs from locals, war in the name of democracy instead of peace, and—in place of democracy—unelected Brussels bureaucrats unilaterally making many important political decisions.
This stratification is reducing the size of the very middle class that not only provides the primary support for the existing regime and its politicians, but also, according to official theory, should have grown in size and formed the basis of democratic society. In place of traditional values, Europeans now have gay parades, gay marriage, legalized light drug and prostitution in some countries in the name of freedom, and so on. In addition, taxpayers in the most developed European countries have had to foot the bill so that an increasing number of their fellow Europeans in the far less developed countries of Eastern Europe that recently threw off the communist yoke could also experience the benefits of the European utopia.. Similarly, Soviet citizens paid for the privilege of living under communism and for providing a “socialist orientation” to numerous Third World countries—something that they did not particularly like.
Unsurprisingly, Britain’s elite that advocated expanding the European Union as much as possible and even the accession of Turkey. But that same elite forgot that the country is made up of not only university dons, London City bankers, increasingly ideologized youth, and the internationalized residents of major cities, but also the elderly, common laborers, farmers, fishermen, store clerks, patrons of small pubs, and football fans whose views and even language differ substantially from that of the elite. These people have always been dissatisfied with Brussels for very pragmatic reasons: they did not want to pay a portion of their already low salaries to achieve ideological goals—that is, to bring freedom and happiness to the people of Eastern Europe and North Africa in part by giving them their jobs.
They wanted to have a voice in solving the problems of their country, something they have never really had. That is because the British “democratic” election system follows a clever design that permits the elite to vote on certain issues while denying the same right to the people. Referendums are a rarity: Britain has held only three in its entire history. Parliament holds sovereign authority. Its members are elected in constituencies by a first past the post system and hail primarily from three parties whose leaders range from pro-EU to extremely pro-EU. Smaller parties with a skeptical view of the EU have almost no chance in that system.