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Brexit in the context of democracy under threat

Article by Dr Leila Alieva

October 3, 2019

Brexit in the context of democracy under threat

One of the most profound characteristics of the public debates on Brexit is the substantial lack of attention to its international implications.

The Brexit issue is naturally debated in the context of domestic affairs and is focused on the future of the relationship with the European Union (EU). However, the domination of the domestic and/or regional perspective on Brexit, combined with the absence of a global perspective, reveals the reduced sense of threat to both the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) hard and soft international power, and consequently less concern about the prospects of the West’s resilience. The threats are discussed but mainly in terms of economic competition, asymmetric threats and military conflicts, although the issue of resilience of the Western model is gradually gaining in visibility. Yet, as argued by Ann Applebaum[1], one of the problems of the West is that people have become complacent about their democratic systems and are slow to realise how they can change or deteriorate.

The meaning of Brexit is read in a polarising way by various different political and social groups – from triumph of democracy through isolationism and archaism to a liberation similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author’s concern is for the effect of an exit of one of the major European states from the EU on the outcomes of political competition in the international sphere, with the rise of authoritarian powers, like China and Russia, coinciding with a decline of Europe and the West.

Post- cold war era and ‘invisible enemies’

The unfolding of the post-cold war era brought both predicted and unpredicted consequences. Once the EU opened its doors to the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, the EU enlarged and looked stronger than before. In the 2000s, however, we started to witness both a domestic and international decline of democracy in Eastern Europe and a rise of populism in the West. Most importantly, there was a decline in the commitment to the values of liberal democracy, which previously had been a key achievement and trait of Western and global democracies.

Russia appeared to be well prepared to meet the conditions of globalisation and free competition by mobilising its resources to play the role of a toxic partner, undermining liberalism, and a disrupter of liberal international relations. Unlike the cold war, when the Soviet Union was isolated economically and deterred militarily, post-Soviet Russia has been integrating into international trade and organisations since the early 90s. Russia’s increasingly autocratic rule quickly grasped the substance of pragmatism and engagement principles in the post-cold war world, and began  to manipulate them and to use its resources to split the foreign policy decisions of the EU, and affect the United States (US). For example, Mueller during his Congress testimony declared ‘alleged’ Russian election interference one of the greatest challenges to democracy he had encountered in his career.[2]

The EU in turn was re-shaping and re-formulating the rationale of the union. While in the post-World War II era it was attempting to prevent the domination of one power over Europe and keep Europe peaceful, the confrontation with the Soviet Union led to its new role in the global confrontation and deterrence of the totalitarian regimes. In the post-cold war era, the EU adjusted to the new conditions of peace by playing a role of a motivator of change and reforms in the former socialist bloc, and trying to cooperate and be an attractive model for Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood. Yet, the wave of illiberalism and right populism, accompanied by re-emerging xenophobia represents new challenges for post-cold war Europe.

International establishment, lack of transparency and corruption

However, the worst soft power threat, which is ‘an invisible enemy’ in contemporary international relations, is corruption. This is a channel which appears to be the most convenient way of world competing powers to undermine institutions of the West. A project by the Hudson institute[3] showed how oligarchs, close to the Russian government, are giving support to think tanks and Universities in the West; while Azerbaijani laundromat[4] showed how easy it was to buy off the deputies of the Council of Europe to vote against the objective and critical report on human rights violations in the country in 2013.    

The author’s observations of the few corruption scandals in the UK and the relatively weak reaction from the public suggests that corruption emerges as the most convenient channel for the erosion and weakening of the state fabric. Once the cover pages of the national newspapers reflected the information about dubious practices of the Members of Parliament (MPs), followed by investigations and proceedings that revealed the shortcomings of the institutional appointments.[5] Lack of public reaction also showed that in the public’s perception corruption and sleaze are almost routinely associated with politics and establishment.

Corruption and unethical behaviour has been undermining not only the resilience of the Western states to threats, but also its ability to support and project the values and power of liberalism beyond its borders. Western vulnerability to corruption promotes scepticism regarding the future of democracy and the validity of democratic values.  

International trade and economic relations are usually not under the radar of the national parliaments, media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to the same degree as the domestic decisions and relations are. This eventually leads to the creation of an ‘international establishment’, special circles of officials and politicians making deals with dictators and developing cosy and friendly personal relations with them. This is especially true in the case of oil rich states, when interstate relations are reduced to the inter-elite ones, closed to scrutiny by public institutions, and eventually making external sources of legitimacy to replace the domestic ones.  For example Azerbaijan’s leader, President Ilham Aliyev has not been too concerned with the revelations contained in the Panama Papers,[6] but he does get concerned if and when Europe or the US do follow up, investigate and prosecute those involved.

Usurping power – undermining institutions of ‘checks and balances’

Contemporary politics shows that there is a thin borderline between preserving the democratic institutions and gradual usurping their power.

Reliance on institutions of representative power is natural for citizens of the states with an old and mature democracy. But it may turn into being overly reliant, which would diminish the societal activity and personal form of activism. On the other hand, lack of influence of the public protests on the decision making is also contributing to this – especially frequently quoted reactions of the British public to the Iraq war, when large rallies did not affect the decision to join the coalition, consequently leading to apathy and the sense that it’s hard to reverse or simply influence the official decision. The other factors were stressed also. Political psychologist Shawn Rosenberg[7] considers the trend of fewer people taking ‘elites’ seriously, while simultaneously increased access to social networks facilitates the proliferation of fake news. He correctly stresses that ‘democracy is hard work’, but gives a deterministic perspective of the inevitability of democratic decline due to the nature of human brains to simplify things.

Coupled with society’s participation fatigue, withdrawal from politics, along with anti-establishment trends leaves institutions unprotected from the threat of being usurped, or monopolised, or penetrated by nepotism. The experiences in post-Soviet states showed this clearly. But traits which were usually associated with states in transition, have been expressing themselves in states with mature democracies – in the governance style of Trump, or the most recent shutting down of parliament in the UK, as examples.

Media and politicians

What seems to be a problem with the current media and politicians, is a failure to resolve the seeming contradiction between local and global. The role of the media and politicians is to bring the full picture, including the deep interconnections between the local and global. However, people and constituencies are often ‘protected’ by being fenced off from the responsibility for the global affairs’ consequences affected by the populism of their politicians. This is enabled by national leaders telling only partial stories, or partial truths.

Populists often reinforce a partial picture of the world, one limited by the ‘interests’ of the constituency. But the interests and motivations are an interactive process, when media and politicians can extend the borders of knowledge and understanding of the events, first of all by showing deep inter-connections between their own decisions and events happening in other parts of the world. For example, linking many years of energy trade that empowered autocrats in the Middle East to the resulting crises in the region, producing hunger, conflict and refugees. The migrants and refugees thus would look like the natural and inevitable price for the hot water and lights on in every house.


The political sphere nowadays is dominated by manipulation more than ever. The populist and right wing media points to the threats coming from migrants, portraying them as people who bring in high rates of crime, who steal jobs and social benefits, and consequently portrays the EU as the external vehicle promoting it. The political discourse, pointing to these ‘external enemies’, or reasons of the problems, is becoming even more mythological by simplifying the relations and securitising issues, which in actuality cannot be reduced to the simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

The reality is that the threat is not coming from migrants or from the EU, it comes from within the country as a weak response to the challenges characterising the current stage of politics and international relations. The new generation of politicians and media, who are adjusting to these challenges by resorting to populism, are balancing a tightrope of risks and dangers of moving farther away from what so far has constituted the identity and core of the democratic states; stable institutions resistant to absolutism, autocratism and illiberalism. It is then obvious that under current conditions of global soft power competition surviving individually is rather a luxury, which even such a global power as the US cannot afford anymore.

[1] Mathew Kupfer, The West lost faith in its values, but Ukriane should not, says columnist Applebaum, Kyiv Post, September 2019,

[2] Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Michael Balsamo, ‘It is not a witch hunt’, Mueller says of his investigation, Boston Globe, July 2019,

[3] Ilya Zaslavsky, How non-state actors export kleptocratic norms to the West, Hudson Institute, September 2017, 

[4] OCCRP, The  Azerbaijani Laundromat, September 2017,

[5] A series of issues including the 2009 Expenses scandal that saw a number of former MPs convicted of crimes, concerns over party donors being offered peerages (becoming members of the House of Lords) and lobbying scandals where MPs were receiving pay for political influence.

[6] John Doe Manifesto, Panama Papers source offers documents to governments, hints at more to come, ICIJ, May 2016,

[7] Rick Shenkman, The shocking paper predicting the end of democracy. Human Brains aren’t built for self-rule, says Shawn Rosenberg, Politico Magazine, September 2019,

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