Euroscepticism’s middle-aged spread isn’t confined to the UK
The EU is acquiring a midlife crisis. Its headache is not, as often observed of Britain’s referendum result in June, about the Euroscepticism of older voters eclipsing the enthusiasm of the young. It is about those in the broad middle of life being lukewarm about institutional , and less likely to offset grassroots populism and oldies turning towards more national instincts and solutions. And the implications of what the demographic question might mean beyond Brexit nagged at me as I prepared a radio documentary.
Alan Johnson, who headed Labour’s yes campaign, told me the remainers had never engaged with the hearts of voters – and he had struggled to bring life to a dry economic message. Iain Duncan Smith, a , spoke of successful “psy ops” – or cold war tactics, used against the dire economic warnings of . Yet a look at attitudes in the main EU countries shows that there is more going on than the portrayal of Britons as an awkward squad of thankless Europeans.
In the 1990s, as a correspondent in Berlin, I watched the rise of the new EU from the rubble of the Berlin Wall; the Franco-German project to lead a stable and prosperous Europe commanded deep support. But a mixture of eurozone tensions, migration worries and decline in esteem for the EU has brought on malaise. France is our closest kin in this regard. According to a by the Pew Research Centre, only a third of mid-lifers there (aged 35-49) viewed the EU favourably – not far behind the over-50s in grumpiness about the institution. Across well-off northern Europe, it is those in mid-career and in their child-rearing years who are most likely to feel lacklustre. In the Netherlands only half of the middle-agers describe themselves as positive about the EU, as opposed to three-fifths of the 18- to 34-year-olds.
too has tilted – not in quite so sulky a direction as France, it is true, but one in which the affinity that both elites and the wider population have for the EU as an ideal looks far more loosely woven than it was.
True, there is still a lot of a “What on earth have you done?’” in the air after June. Checking into a hotel as , the reception lady said with feeling, “I’m so sorry for your week!” The freshly minted team from Downing Street and Brexit ministers find that the first offer of help from Merkel-land is “How can we help sort this out?” followed by “When can you hold another referendum?”.
As for Germans, even while they hope, like many Britons, for an acceptable form of “demi-Brexit”, they no longer brim with the joys of Europe. I remember an exuberant Die Zeit front page about Germany and Europe after unification that read: “There never was such a new beginning!” That is precisely the sense of possibility today’s Europe lacks. Now there is yet another sign of that widespread demographic divorce between young and middle-aged: three-fifths of young Germans in the Pew research are positive about the EU, but barely a half of those in their late 30s and 40s.
If rich Europe is dyspeptic, what about Greece and Spain, the southern “problem children”? The latter, once fiercely pro-EU, now has just under 50% of mid-lifers onside. Austerity-stricken Greece sees no big difference in the overwhelmingly negative views of the mid-lifers and the over-50s. Italy and Sweden would have to be the holiday destination for the European Movement – and they are rarities in having relatively good ratings among the middle generation; while Poles and Hungarians are positive about the EU in all age groups (despite an increasingly chauvinistic Hungarian government that has made handling the migrant crisis much harder by erecting its own . But the EU cannot base a revival only on poorer countries or new entrants clinging to it, often as respite from erratic governance at home.
To draw lessons from the UK referendum requires a cool look at the claims about who voted for what. “Young people voted to remain by a considerable margin, but were outvoted,” the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, told the Guardian. Martin Schulz, the German president of the European parliament, feels for “future generations” who voted to remain. In fact the results for Britain’s midlife group were one of the bigger problems for remain. Its votes – just a – were too scanty a layer of insulation to see off leave. A higher turnout in the youngest demographic would only have fought leave to a score draw.
People will differ about why, but a few thoughts that struck me as key were that the faith in economic arguments began to fall and kept on falling, because . Duncan Smith told us that cabinet discussions on the prime minister’s strategy before the campaign showed him “ready to unleash the beasts of economic uncertainty”. , thinks over-reliance on the economic message was one of the key reasons for defeat: “It’s the fatal mistake often made by commanders – the more you reinforce failure, the more you get failure.”
As the campaign swung towards immigration, both Labour’s Johnson and agreed that there was a problem. Johnson reflects the unease that centre-left politicians have of engaging in immigration – a subject that had caused them difficulty form the Blair years onwards. It might also be telling that Straw, speaking for a younger generation of pro-European campaigners, was keener on arguing about immigration than was the elder statesmen of Labour or the government.
What finally won it for leave? “A coalition of the blue collar and the golf club,” says Ashdown – a statement we can argue about down at the 19th hole, or if you can find workers still in blue collars. But this was a vote in which the predictions, the experts and the big machinery of state backed one outcome and got another. That’s a lesson for Europe that resonates far beyond perfidious Blighty.
• Anne McElvoy‘s is on Radio 4 at (August 23)