Boris Johnson, former London Lord Mayor, tilter for the next British prime ministership, and all round consummate public player, may not have expected to have Geert Wilders as a political bedfellow.
Wilders, the ultra–nationalist, anti–Islamic Dutch populist, has joined Johnson in harking back to 1940s Europe to make the case for the UK to leave the EU.
Wilders, once banned from entering the UK because of his extremist views is now topping the polls in the Netherlands, reflecting the rise of so many reactionary parties across the EU including Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the Alternative for Deutschland led by Frauke Petry, and the Five Start alliance in Italy.
In an extensive interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Wilders said Britain would unleash a ‘patriotic spring’ if it voted to leave the EU and ‘liberate’ Europe for the second time in a century. 'Like in the 1940s once again Britain could help liberate Europe from another totalitarian monster, this time called Brussels', Wilders opined.
In Austria, on the same day as Wilders’ views were published, a party founded in the 1950s by former Nazis who espoused ‘teutonic nationalism’ saw its leader, Norbert Hofer, narrowly miss out on the presidency. Former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen won in a vote that was 50.3 per cent to 49.7 percent, or 30,000 votes in a country of 8.4 million people. Hofer is no mild centre-right public figure and the contest revealed how utterly the traditional Austrian centre right and centre left parties got whammed.
Wilders' support and the Austrian vote came after Johnson's critics described him as ‘crossing the line’ when he said the past 2000 years of European history had been characterised by repeated attempts to unify Europe under a single government in order to recover the continent’s lost ‘golden age’ under the Romans. In a now infamous interview (also with The Sunday Telegraph), Johnson said: 'Napoleon, Hitler, various other people tried this out and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by other methods'.
It was, to say the least, a jarring comparison but, in this age of Donald Trump and far right voices across Europe, there is stiff competition for such posturing.
Scare tactics from both sides
With less than a month to the Brexit referendum, the economic arguments to remain in the EU seem to have been won. The vision of an independent, fresh and new British innovative powerhouse freed from the shackles of the EU does not seem to have resonated.
This week the UK Treasury warned that in the first two years after leaving the EU, the UK could see GDP drop 3.6% and push the economy into recession. Inflation would rocket and house prices would fall. Some have suggested the Treasury was overly negative but, nevertheless, the economic case for the farewell to Brussels seems less and less convincing.
In response, the Leave campaign is revving up its anti–immigration arguments as well as threats of worse crime, jobs lost and an increased terrorism threat. The other side is also upping the ante.
Britain Prime Minister David Cameron, foremost advocate for the Remain campaign, might not have the flair of Johnson, However there was a nod to the BoJo style when Cameron said Russian President Vladimir Putin and ISIS would welcome the UK leaving the EU.
Dropping any residual niceties, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, set the tone for the final run to the UK referendum saying: 'Deserters (from the EU) will not be welcomed back with open arms'.
Meanwhile as the rhetorical temperature rises and both sides befuddle the issues, polling gives some clue to voting intentions. Since Cameron announced the referendum, the Remain case has been in the majority although the level of support has ebbed and flowed. The latest Financial Times Poll of Polls, however, showed 47% in favour of staying, 40% wanting to leave, and 13% undecided.
But the most recent polling data, released a few days ago, suggests support for the Leave campaign is falling away. This ORB poll suggests 55% want to remain, 42% want to leave.
The Australian-born political strategist, Sir Lynton Crosby, who was given credit for the Conservative Party’s victory last year, reckons the Remain campaign has strengthened its position and the poll shows the Leave campaign has failed to quell economic concerns.
However polls are not infallable. Last year they failed to predict a Tory victory. The rise of anti-establishment feeling suggests the referendum result could be very close, a margin so slim that it leaves the UK politically divided and ripe for further populism.
Perhaps Boris Johnson is counting on that.
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