On June 23rd, the people of the United Kingdom voted to sever their country’s ties with the European Union, ignoring the advice of economists and political figures around the world who had proclaimed the overwhelming benefits of membership in the transnational union.
Since this earthshaking exit, political pundits have indulged in a collective freakout over its implications for the American presidential election in November. For some, the Brexit vote is illustrative of a powerful populist backlash against global elites, one which overlooks common sense and economic realities in its blind rage against the “establishment.” Will Americans frustrated with their own elites elect a populist demagogue who promises change? Could Donald Trump become president?
Liberal journalists certainly think so. A Salon op-ed concluded that “the crucial lesson to draw from the Brexit vote is that a democracy can drive itself off a cliff given the right stew of propaganda, resentment, economic uncertainty, and political corruption.” The New York Times concluded that “support for Mr. Trump and for the British withdrawal […] are just imperfect vehicles through which someone can yell, ‘Stop.’” In other words, both the Brexit and the pro-Trump movement are emotional outbursts, blind and irrational rebellions against the most basic institutions of democracy.
But the link between the philosophy of Brexiters and that of supporters of Mr. Trump is an imperfect one. Establishment pundits on the left and right have critiqued the xenophobia of Brexiters, for example, but also overlook their highly substantive concerns about the U.K.’s membership in the E.U. Occasional appeals to anti-immigrant sentiments aside, the European Union is deeply flawed. It is corrupt, undemocratic, and opaque.
The laws of the European Union are drafted by the E.U. Commission, a body made up entirely of unelected ministers, with the exception of the Commission’s president, who is chosen by the unelected commissioners. Each minister is responsible for a sweeping portfolio of policy areas, with one taking charge of “Research, Innovation, and Science” while another manages “Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union.” These E.U. officials are contractually obligated to act in the general interests of the Union—whatever those interests may be—rather than those of any specific country. And with no constituents to hold them accountable, they may do pretty much whatever they please.
The only check on the Commission is the European Parliament, which votes on the laws which the Commission drafts. But the Parliament, a democratically elected body, is relatively powerless. To amend laws before they are passed, it requires the Commission’s approval, and once Parliament approves a piece of E.U. legislation, only the Commission has the power to change it. This distribution of power is discomfiting to plenty of Europeans, who have expressed their discontent with the undemocratic E.U. government by voting for Eurosceptic MEPs who promise to obstruct the E.U.’s transnational bureaucracy. The Europe of Freedom and Democracy bloc, a coalition of Eurosceptic parties that includes Brexit proponent Nigel Farage, has 48 members. The National Front, France’s far-right nationalist party, has a further 24.
The final body involved in E.U. lawmaking is the European Council, which is comprised of the heads of state from each member country. Despite being arguably the most democratic body in the EU, the Council has no power to create or pass laws. Instead, it decides “conclusions,” essentially suggestions as to what the agenda for the E.U. should be. But beyond their role as mere advisors to the E.U.’s legislative bodies, European heads of state are powerless to influence or change the laws imposed on their countries.
It is unfair to equate pro-Brexit voters with Trump voters. While many who voted to leave the European Union based their decision entirely on keeping immigrants out of the country, plenty had legitimate critiques of the E.U.’s baffling structure and lack of answerability to ordinary Europeans.
Mr. Trump’s supporters cannot say the same. Certainly, Americans complain about Congress, but at least we get to choose who is in it. And as slowly as the wheels of democracy turn in the United States, it is the American people who move them. Like the United Kingdom, the U.S. is a nation of strong democratic institutions, but the E.U. has all the transparency and accountability of FIFA.