The EU has not given the UK what it wanted – which was free access to the Single Market without freedom of movement and the constraints of European Court of Justice rulings. This is because the EU fears that giving into the populist Euroscepticism Brexit represents would trigger a wave of further departures. Horatio Mortimer (LSE) reports on the latest Continental Breakfast seminar, which was held in Madrid on 6 November 2018 under Chatham House rules.

A wave of nationalist populism is sweeping across the western democracies, threatening not only the prospects for European integration, but also economic and political stability right across the continent. ‘Populist’ is a disputed term, but here and in general, it is used to describe anti-system parties that claim to represent ‘the people’ against an elite establishment that is deaf to their concerns.

Source: Dijkstra, Poelman and Rodríguez-Pose (2018)

The EU and the project of integration is an easy target for populist parties – so much so that Euroscepticism can be used as a variable to measure populism across Europe: the more populist a party, the more anti-EU. These parties represent close to 30% of the vote in Denmark, Austria and France. If parties only somewhat opposed to European integration are counted, then they represent 50% of the vote in Italy, Greece and the UK, and even higher in Hungary.

Source: Dijkstra, Poelman and Rodríguez-Pose (2018)

The consensus theory is that the support for these parties comes from globalisation’s losers, people without the skills and education to compete in a global economy, who are undercut or outperformed by imports or immigrants. Older people in particular have been thought to be less adaptable to economic and cultural change, and more reactionary.

Other factors that are also sometimes associated with populist support are unemployment, inequality and lack of geographical mobility.

Rural areas, medium sized towns and small cities have suffered from rising unemployment, relative declining incomes, and are caught in a ‘middle income trap’, where they lack the skill clusters to compete with the high-value added economic regions, and yet are not cheap enough to compete with low-cost industrial regions.

Immigration is often identified as a major driver of the ‘geography of discontent’, and a catalyst of populist politics.

nie wieder 1933

‘Never again 1933’ – an anti-populist protest in Hamburg, September 2018. Phtot: Rasande Tyskar via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

However, new research analyses these various factors, and points to an economic-geographical explanation for populism. The key is found in the so-called ‘places that don’t matter’. It is the formerly prosperous places that have experienced protracted economic decline, brain drain, and a sense that all opportunity is elsewhere. Once long-term decline is taken into account, low income is not a factor. Poorer regions that have not experienced industrial and economic decline show a much lower increase in the populist voting share. In regions with similar levels of economic decline, the richer ones are more populist.

Ageing is also a surprisingly weak factor. Declining areas have older populations, but once that is taken into account, older people are not more likely to vote for populists. Immigration into a constituency seems to slightly increase the vote for very extreme parties, but leads to a small decrease in the total populist anti-European integration vote. The research also finds a very weak link between the distances from national capitals to votes against European integration. Level of education is however confirmed as a strong predictor, with the less educated much more likely to vote for populists.

For the European Union, the long-term solution is to create development policies that create real opportunity in these forgotten places – in other words, something better than the palliative care of transfer payments and low-skill public sector jobs.

In the short term, however, one thing that would not be helpful is to allow the UK to free-ride on the single market, because there is a real danger that that could further invigorate populist movements that would threaten European disintegration and leave Europe with no single market to ride on, free or otherwise.

European governments and the European institutions are keenly aware of the threat from populists, and therefore will make the integrity of the single market their priority, sending a strong message that to leave the EU is to lose access to the single market. For that reason, they will be very unwilling to compromise in the Brexit negotiations.


Dijkstra, L., Poelman, H. and Rodríguez-Pose (2018). The Geography of EU discontent. Forthcoming.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

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