Shortly after the Soviet Union was established, many Western figures openly admired and praised the first-ever Marxist state as a brave experiment. The American muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens envisioned the Soviet Union as a bright future for mankind. Steffens and his comrades soon began to excuse Soviet atrocities even as it became clear that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state where the vast majority of the population lived in poverty. Intellectuals and artists like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Bernard Shaw excused Stalinist crimes and journalists like Walter Duranty covered up the massive (and deliberate) 1930s famine in Ukraine. An American ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davies, even praised the absurd show trials that Stalin used to eliminate any potential rivals as part of his massive and bloody purges. Leftist Westerners gradually became disillusioned with the Soviet Union after events such as the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, when the Soviet military brutally crushed the new reformist regime in their Hungarian satellite state. It simply became too logically ridiculous to deny that the Soviet Union was a brutally repressive dictatorship with imperial ambitions. Nevertheless, the early sympathizers of the Soviets have been permanently and rightly labeled as “useful idiots.”
Often incorrectly attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the term “useful idiot” has become a label attached to foreign sympathizers of brutal regimes who try to excuse away the regimes crimes. The term has most often been used to describe the Western leftists described above who defended the Soviet Union. However, the term is still useful in describing the motley collection of individuals in the West who currently sympathize with and praise Vladimir Putin and his regime in Russia. European political parties on both the far Right and far Left look up to Putin as a role model in combating Western liberal values. In France, Marine Le Pen of the xenophobic right-wing National Front speaks highly of Putin while at the same time the National Front receives loans from Russian banks. The hard-Left Syriza government in Greece flaunts its links with Putin and his regime. Even in the UK, the leftist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has appeared on Russian propaganda news networks and slams the West for being too confrontational with Putin. While Corbyn, Le Pen, Syriza and other European extremists have never met an anti-American figure that they didn’t like, Putin’s fan club has spread to the United States despite Putin’s role as America’s main geopolitical threat. And Putin’s most famous useful idiot is now the Republican nominee for President of the United States: one Donald J. Trump.
Trump has had nothing but praise for Putin going back for a decade. Putin was responsible for “rebuilding Russia” according to Trump in 2007. Trump praised a 2013 op-ed by Putin in the New York Times as a “masterpiece.” This was the op-ed where Putin justified his support of the war criminal Bashar Al-Assad and criticized American actions around the globe. For Trump, Putin is a strong leader who provides order. This order consists of launching brutal wars in Chechnya, eliminating any rule of law in Russia, stealing massive amounts of wealth and enriching cronies, making Russia a socially regressive country where homophobic laws are carried out to please a religious organization stuck in the 19th century, attacking the neighboring states of Georgia and Ukraine, destroying independent media and murdering or imprisoning your opponents. Putin runs nothing less than a gangster state. On the world stage, Putin has made clear that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest political disaster of the 20th century and that the United States is a global menace. Putin snarls that the US is an imperial power that interferes around the world. Of course, Putin at the same time threatens and bullies Russia’s neighbors. As stated before, extremist anti-American figures in Europe and around the globe have looked to Putin as a figure of admiration. Most disturbingly, the possible next leader of the free world admires Putin.
While it is usually difficult to assess whether Trump has any coherent foreign policy plans beyond a Twitter post, Trump’s ideas are certainly pleasing to the Kremlin. Trump has had nothing but contempt for the most successful military/political alliance in history, NATO. Trump blasts NATO allies as useless states who don’t pay their fair share. The truth is, however, Poland and the Baltic States are the nations that are most threatened by Russia and are currently doing the most to boost their own security. Trump, who probably couldn’t tell Lithuania from Louisiana, never acknowledges this inconvenient fact. Trump’s surrogate Newt Gingrich nonsensically dismissed Estonia as a suburb of St. Petersburg. These states are some of the most pro-American on the globe as well, and consistently support American foreign policy. Putin, who has bullied these states for years, (such as ordering a massive hacking of Estonian government offices in 2007) could not be more pleased. Trump also has repeatedly spouted Russian propaganda about Ukraine. Trump has said he would be open to recognizing the illegal Russian takeover of Crimea and removing sanctions on Russian officials involved, reversing an American policy widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump also bizarrely said that Putin is “not in Ukraine” despite Russian soldiers fighting over the past two years in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas. If we give Trump the benefit of a doubt that he is not spouting off Russian propaganda nonsense, he must therefore simply be astonishingly ignorant.
It can come as no surprise that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has spent years working for the pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. The corrupt and thuggish Yanukovych, before fleeing Ukraine (with the help of Russian special forces) following the 2014 Maidan Uprising, used Manafort as an important political consultant. Manafort, who also advised the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, is alleged to have received millions of dollars in illegal payments from Yanukovych. Following the 2004 Ukrainian elections, which Yanukovych unsuccessfully tried to rig in his favor, Manafort was hired to help Yanukovych appear as a somewhat respectable figure (as opposed to a gangster who worked for the Kremlin.) To repeat, Trump’s campaign manager has advised a kleptocratic ally of Putin’s in exchange for significant compensation (no doubt screwing over Ukrainian citizens in the process.)
Putin has made it clear which Presidential candidate he favors. I’ll give you a hint; it’s not Hillary Clinton. Putin has made it clear that he detests Clinton, bizarrely accusing her of managing the 2011 protests against his regime in several Russian cities. Just like a Russian tsar or a Communist Secretary-General, Putin is incapable of believing that people can think and organize for themselves independently without taking orders from some distant authority.
To damage Clinton, Russia has actively interfered in the American election. American intelligence agencies have determined that Russian intelligence linked figures have hacked into Democratic National Committee accounts as well as a number of accounts associated with Democratic Party organizations and Democratic lawmakers. Working with Wikileaks (whose founder Julian Assange also apparently has a vendetta against Clinton,) embarrassing DNC messages were leaked that clearly sought to sow discord at the Democratic National Convention. Trump has been downright gleeful at this disturbing turn of events, later encouraging Russia to hack into Clinton’s account (although he later claimed to be joking.) Clinton was no doubt “extremely careless” with her accounts, as FBI Director James Comey has stated. I am in no way defending Clinton’s poor judgment and paranoid habits. However, the truth remains that Russia has clearly been favoring Trump. Putin knows that a President Trump would quite possibly destroy NATO and undermine the entire American-led world order that has been in place since the end of the Second World War. Putin knows that this would be catastrophic for the West and therefore a huge gain for his regime. Putin most likely does not have any real personal regard for the buffoonish Trump. Instead, Trump is just another useful idiot for the Kremlin.
In 1989, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an article that received widespread attention and acclaim. Titled “The End of History?” Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy was being established as the final form of government for humans. As expanded upon in Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, the political evolutions of previous centuries would come to a halt when liberal democracy as practiced in Western nations such as the United States would be seen as the pinnacle of political, sociological and cultural development. This argument was drawn from the international political situation of the late 1980s and early 1990s as communism collapsed along with the Soviet Union while the United States became the only remaining superpower. To a Westerner, liberal democracy looked to be the only really viable system for the future.
Western liberal democracy was broadly defined as a political system that required competitive, free and fair elections to form a government that would be responsive to voters and maintain a strong system of rule by law. The government would regulate a market economy while promoting free trade and maintain political and economic links with foreign states, including entering into political alliances such as the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and economic alliances such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Nations would enter into multilateral alliances that could successfully stop conflicts from spiraling out of control.
Fukuyama’s arguments were quickly challenged during the 1990s. Western nations failed to respond effectively to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and took several years to mount an effective intervention to halt the Bosnian Civil War that erupted following the disintegration of Yugoslavia. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Fukuyama’s theory came to be seen as naïve. Western nations, led by the United States, entered into long and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that were marred by significant blunders and misjudgments. The international recession of 2008 caused many in both the US and Europe to cast doubt on the model of a free market economy.
In 2015 and 2016, events in several of the leading Western nations have caused observers to question whether liberal democracy is in serious danger of failure. In the United States, Donald Trump has become the nominee of the Republican Party. Trump has used bombastic xenophobia (as well as open racism at times) to great success. He has harshly criticized free trade pacts and has questioned the relevance of NATO. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the rule of law and opts for a might makes right ideology in the tradition of a Banana Republic strongman. In fact, the only ideology that Trump espouses seems to be that only he is able to “make America great again” due to his sheer brilliance. The US has had many narcissistic politicians, but few could compare to Trump’s jaw-dropping levels. Many Republican office holders are horrified by Trump and refuse to endorse him, causing some to predict a split in one of America’s two major political parties. In the race for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton faced a strong challenge from the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. The Democratic Party has moved well to the left of when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, or even when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. Questioning the entire market economy, along with embracing an increasingly militant form of identity politics, is becoming standard within the modern Democratic Party.
Besides the US, Europe has been the other major center of liberal democracy in the world. In recent years, however, Europe has been veering towards catastrophe. After the 2008 economic crisis, Southern European nations such as Greece, Italy and Spain have experienced brutal economic conditions. The introduction of the Euro has been a terrible misjudgment, forcing weak nations such as Greece into a currency union with economically powerful nations such as Germany. The EU has become an increasingly unpopular organization that suffers from a lack of democratic credibility. Many Europeans view the EU as an unelected technocracy that arrogantly ignores the will of the people. Thus, anti-EU politicians from both the far right and the far left have become increasingly popular. In France, the far-right Marine Le Pen looks likely to reach the second round of the 2017 Presidential election. The weak Socialist government of Francois Hollande has presided over economic stagnation and multiple terror attacks, leading the nationalist Le Pen and her National Front party to gain ever more popularity.
Far-right parties have also surged in wealthy liberal democracies such as Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. A far-left government has been governing Greece since 2015, where an openly Neo-Nazi party has also entered Parliament. Leaders that have weakened democratic institutions and encouraged xenophobia now govern the newer EU nations of Central Europe in Hungary and Poland. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban praises Vladimir Putin’s Russia and calls for an “illiberal democracy.” Angela Merkel, widely considered to be the most powerful person in Europe, has come under increasing political fire since opening German borders to a wave of refugees in 2015. The most successful far-right German political party in decades looks likely to enter the German parliament (the Bundestag) next year. An aggressive Russia under the authoritarian and gangster-like Vladimir Putin has sent soldiers into Eastern Ukraine and makes aggressive moves on the world stage that contradict Western interests. Finally, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in June 2016, presenting the EU with probably the biggest challenge it has ever faced. British voters rewarded a xenophobic campaign that made vague promises to “take back control” of Britain from the supposedly autocratic EU. Radical fringe leftists who openly despise modern Western values now lead Britain’s largest center-left party, the Labour Party. Europe is now more divided and conflicted than any time since the end of the Second World War.
Few observers in 2016 will try to repeat Fukuyama’s argument about an “end of history.” The fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of the Liberal West over the Soviet Union is now a distant memory. Instead, liberal democracy looks to be possibly mortally threatened by a dangerous wave of populism. Movements on both the Right and the Left disparage free market economic liberalism and favor statism. The Right is embracing a xenophobic nationalism, while the Left pursues a highly illiberal form of identity politics. The path that the West has taken since the end of the Cold War now seems to have reached the edge of a perilous cliff. Frankly, I cannot say whether we will be wise enough to back away from this cliff and build a new path. If we ultimately plunge over the cliff, however, I do not doubt that the landing will be brutal.
Tomorrow is Primary Day in New York. The winner of the NY Republican Presidential primary will almost certainly by Donald Trump. The most likely Republican nominee after the convention in Cleveland this summer will be Trump. There are also no circumstances under which I would vote for Mr. Trump.
Trump began his campaign in 2015 with his vicious attacks on Mexican immigrants, and he has only gotten worse since then. He has run the most openly racist campaign since the segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s and 1970s. He has embraced conspiracy theories ranging from President Barack Obama’s supposedly false birth certificate to Justice Antonin Scalia being murdered to linking vaccines to autism. Trump has shown a complete disregard for the rule of law, openly endorsing torture and murdering the families of terrorists. He has disgracefully encouraged hatred of Muslims by pledging to ban them from entering the United States and essentially treating Muslim Americans as second-class citizens to be kept under surveillance. His policies are usually incoherent and have little depth, from pledging to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” to his signature promise of somehow making Mexico pay for a “big, beautiful” wall along the Southern border. He shows little understanding of the international economy in the 21st Century and instead endorses a crude form of mercantilism.
Trump has said he would ramp up defense spending while implementing unaffordable tax cuts and maintaining entitlements while at the same time rapidly reducing the deficit. There is no doubt that this is all mathematically impossible, but who needs facts when the fantasy sounds great? He has been revealed to have a stunningly weak grasp of crucial issues related to national security. He promises to overthrow the entire national security strategy that has been in place since Harry Truman was President and destroy important American alliances with powers like Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the European Union and pretty much all of Latin America.
As awful as Trumps policies have been (frankly, calling them policies is a big generous) his character has been even worse. Over the course of his career, Trump has been more than happy to use illegal labor to build his tacky buildings. His casinos have files for bankruptcy several times, and Trump’s business empire almost completely collapsed in the 1990s. He became more of a celebrity businessman in the 2000s with his reality show The Apprentice. Perhaps there is no greater condemnation of current American society than the fact that a reality TV show host now stands a good chance of becoming the leader of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has shown all the character of a 10 year old playground bully. Instead of debating issues, he calls his opponents names and threatens them. He openly contemplates changing libel laws to make it easier to silence reporters that dare to call him out on his nonsense. He surrounds himself with thugs who are happy to intimidate anyone who gets in his way and encourages a brutal, Munich beer hall atmosphere at his rallies that can quickly turn violent. Trump revels in hatred and seems happy to bring out the worst in many Americans. When he loses, he throws tantrums and rages that the election is being stolen from him, even though the truth is that his campaign is often just too incompetent to understand how the process works (so much for being a great boss who hires only the best.) He is more than willing to mutter dark warnings about riots and violence if he does not win the nomination. He openly praises tyrannical regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s gangster kleptocracy regime in Russia and the Chinese government for massacring protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. For Trump, might makes right and laws can be trampled on. Trump seems to think that democracy is for “losers” only.
Trump is, frankly, un-American. His candidacy has been the most repugnant phenomenon in American politics in quite a long time. Trump defines everything in terms of “winning and losing.” He is a “winner” because he is big and strong and smart and able to bully people into doing what he wants. “Losers” do things like follow the law and carefully think about what is best for the country after studying the issues. But being smart, reasonable and open-minded is apparently “stupid” according to Trump. He does not care in the slightest for American values and institutions that go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and that have made the United States such a unique nation. This strain of anti-intellectualism never ends well in any society, and it remains to be seen how much damage Trump has really had on America. But he is certainly damaging our country. Tomorrow, in the remaining primaries, and on Election Day in November, I beg Americans to say enough. We are better than this
When recommending what path Britain should take, I admit to being torn. I find my heart in agreement with the pro-Brexit calls for greater sovereignty for British institutions instead of European bureaucracies. But at the same time I am skeptical of whether leaving the European Union is really a risk that Britain should take. Ultimately, I have to go with my head and recommend that Britain should remain in the EU.
What kind of nation would Britain be if the British people ultimately decide to vote to exit the EU? The pro-Brexit campaign is largely made up of two schools of thought. The British Justice Minister Michael Gove, a Conservative who is possibly the most capable reformer in the current British government, exemplifies one school. Gove and his allies argue that British sovereignty is being unacceptably trampled on by undemocratic European institutions that rarely take into account the views of British citizens. They argue that Britain is certainly strong enough to stand on its own outside of the EU and position itself as a great trading nation. This view is generally pro-free market, and believes that Britain is held back by more statist continental European nations (looking at you, France.) Advocates like Gove argue that Britain should be free to conduct its own free trade deals with nations like China, India and the United States instead of having to go along with 27 other European nations and their choices. If Britain exits the EU, a deal should be negotiated where Britain should be able to take advantage of the EU Single Market, which does benefit Britain as well as other European states.
The other pro-Brexit school of thought overlaps to some extent with the one described above, but generally has a different emphasis. This school of thought, as exemplified by Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP,) put a much greater focus on immigration. According to Farage and his allies, Britain has been swamped with immigrants who take advantage of the British welfare state, draining money away from resources that should be devoted to British citizens. A London-based elite in thrall to the idea of multiculturalism and political correctness are happy to be bossed around by European bureaucrats and fail to stand up for the British people. Popular tabloids like The Sun or the Daily Mail are full of (often factually dubious) stories of lazy Eastern European immigrants lounging on welfare paid for by hard-working British taxpayers. This school of thought is also much more prevalent in England than in the other parts of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,) and goes along with the greater emphasis on English nationalism in recent years. There is also a small far-left element in Britain that supports Brexit because of fears that the EU is some sort of great capitalist conspiracy trying to crush workers. However, this view is largely confined to marginal fringes of the British left and has little resonance. Thus, both pro-Brexit views are generally on the right side of the British political spectrum.
I personally find the first school of though to be much more persuasive than the second. Britain as a global nation that truly has its own sovereignty is a much more attractive vision than of a Britain as a xenophobic fortress keeping out the bloody foreigners from destroying good old England. Contrary to Farage and his allies, immigrants to Britain are generally hard working and productive and aren’t a drain on British public services. The xenophobia often comes from the least diverse parts of England, where locals have very little interaction with immigrants. It is also, as I said, a largely English phenomenon. Scotland and Wales are generally quite left leaning and hostile to these arguments (highly sectarian Northern Ireland is largely its own case due to its complex history.) Farage and his sort can’t help but remind me of Donald Trump with his anti-Mexican rants.
Besides, Britain is able to control its borders effectively. Britain is one of two EU nations (the other being Ireland) that is exempt from the Schengen Agreement instituting a borderless Europe. The decision to take in a large number of Eastern European immigrants was actually made solely by the elected British government, not by Brussels bureaucrats (indeed, other European nations such as France and Germany chose to close off their countries to immigration from the new EU members from the East.) British sovereignty over its legal system has also hardly been destroyed, despite institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights being set up. Britain is also a member of the International Criminal Court and the United Nations, neither of which causes any real controversy despite taking away some sovereignty from the British state.
Economically, euroskeptics argue that the Euro has been a complete debacle, especially for nations such as Greece that have collapsed economically. I completely agree. But, from a British perspective, so what? Britain is one of two EU nations that is exempt from adopting the Euro (along with Denmark.) Britain does get to take part in the EU Single Market at the same time, which benefits British trade. It also has helped in making London one of the financial capitals of the world, benefiting the British economy greatly. British business is generally strongly in favor of remaining in the EU. Indeed, being a EU member has hardly damaged Britain in recent years economically. Britain has outperformed the Eurozone both before and after the worldwide economic crisis of 2008-2009.
Britain is also still able to maintain a robust foreign policy. Britain is one of the strongest members of NATO and one of the only EU members with a strong military that can be effectively deployed (France being the other nation, along with Poland to a much smaller extent.) Britain has strong economic, political and cultural links with the United States, and is the strongest and most significant ally of America in Europe. From an American perspective a Brexit would make Britain a much less valuable ally. Britain also has the ability to forge stronger economic links with rising powers such as China and India, and generally has more to offer these nations as a member of a large economic group (the EU.) The only nation that would really celebrate a Brexit would be Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s regime would love to split the EU to benefit an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Some of the free-market Brexit campaigners point to the wealthy nations of Norway and Switzerland as economic models for Britain to follow. Both nations are not EU members but still get to take advantage of EU trade with the European Single Market as members of the European Economic Area. However, both countries are still required to adopt EU regulations (and also the Schengen Agreement.) Unlike Britain, they have no say in how these regulations are developed and implemented. While free-market Brexit supporters often complain of excessive EU regulation (a legitimate complaint,) it is certainly better to be a part of the EU influencing and hopefully stopping these regulations than being outside of the EU and being forced to adopt the regulations in order to keep your trade agreements. As the conservative Norwegian politician Nikolai Astrup has warned his British friends “If you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway in the European Economic Area.” British voters would be wise to follow this advice from Mr. Astrup.
While my heart is with some of the calls for greater British sovereignty and for a free-market Britain establishing itself as a global trading powerhouse, my head must accept the argument in favor of EU membership. Britain is able to take advantage of the economic benefits of the EU while generally staying away from the greater political integration of European nations that Britain has never been really comfortable joining. British membership in the EU does benefit the EU as a whole, as Britain remains as a powerful free-market voice within Europe. European nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark understand this and are strongly in favor of Britain remaining in the EU. Eastern European nations such as Poland see Britain as a powerful ally against a hostile Russia and would certainly not benefit from a Brexit. Within Britain, a Brexit would almost certainly lead to Scotland holding a second referendum on Scottish independence, after the 2014 referendum narrowly failed. Pro-Europe Scotland would probably vote for independence if Britain decides to stand outside of the EU, leading to a breakup of the United Kingdom. A Brexit could also damage the ever-fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, as the Irish government has warned. Overall, British voters should vote to remain in the European Union.
On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain in or to leave the European Union. A British exit, or Brexit, is now a very real possibility. The fundamental question is whether or not Britain will be better off as a country outside of the EU. In this post, I will explain the complex relationship of Britain with the EU. Forgive me for giving you a history lesson, but it is necessary to really understand how this debate started. My next posting will feature more of an analysis as to whether Britain should leave the EU.
Britain has always had an ambivalent relationship with the EU. The predecessor of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1957 but Britain only joined in 1973. It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the concept of a “United States of Europe” after the Second World War. However, Churchill also spoke of Britain’s role in Europe as being “with Europe, but not of it.” The EEC was started by the continental European nations of France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations. The goals of the EEC were largely economic, but many continental European leaders also saw the EEC as a way of preventing another devastating European war. Over time, Britain lost the remnants of its Empire and started falling behind the rest of Europe economically. British voters voted by a large margin to join the EEC in 1975, and Britain seemed to become “of Europe.”
However, the EEC became ever more federalized during the 1980s with a bureaucracy growing in Brussels. More states, such as in Southern Europe and Scandinavia, joined the EEC. The two great rivals of the first half of the 20th century, France and Germany, were at the heart of European integration. France saw itself as the political leader of Europe, fulfilling Charles de Gaulle’s goal of France leading a European counterweight to the United States. Germany would become the economic powerhouse of Europe. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been pro-Europe in the 1970s, grew alarmed over the 1980s as European integration meant more sovereignty would be sacrificed by the nations of Europe, eventually leading to powerful European institutions and a European currency and the Schengen Agreement, meant to abolish borders in Europe. Thatcher became vehemently euroskeptic, leading to divisions in her Conservative Party and partly leading to her political downfall in 1990. Her successor, John Major, inherited an increasingly divided Conservative Party with regards to Europe.
The EEC became the European Union in 1993 with the Treaty of Maastricht, which was signed by the Major government over the objections of Thatcher and her allies. Greater sovereignty was taken away from European states and the Euro was adopted as the currency of the EU by the end of the decade. Britain obtained opt-outs from the Euro and the Schengen Agreement, but major divisions tore apart the Conservative Party during the 1990s, leading to the Labour Party being elected in 1997. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was a strong Europhile who wanted to adopt the Euro but was prevented by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. European expansion continued, with much of Eastern Europe joining the EU in 2004. This led to a significant migration of workers from poorer countries like Poland to economically booming Britain. Concerns within Britain, and especially the Conservative Party, over immigration rose. In 2010, the Conservatives won the general election and David Cameron became British Prime Minister.
Since the 1990s, the Conservatives have become increasingly euroskeptic, with a significant percentage of the party wanting to leave the EU. Also, the new UK Independence Party gained prominence by positioning itself to the right of the Conservatives and calling for a Brexit. Cameron is generally considered a moderate center-right Conservative, but even he is generally skeptical of European integration. Facing pressure from the right, Cameron promised in 2013 to hold a referendum on EU membership. Cameron argued that renegotiation of British membership in the EU had become necessary as the EU had changed significantly since Britain last voted on membership in 1975. However, the Conservatives were in government with the Europhile Liberal Democrats who prevented any referendum from taking place.
During this time, the EU faced increasing troubles. The Euro crisis erupted in Southern European states (as well as Ireland), leading to economic disaster in states such as Spain and Greece. Germany and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, increasingly came to dominate the EU as the European economic powerhouse. The euro was increasingly seen as an economic disaster, despite European leaders endlessly calling for “more Europe.” Europe soon faced even more challenges from Russia, where Vladimir Putin has become more aggressive and threatening EU states in the Baltic and Eastern Europe. The migration crisis erupted in 2015, where once again Germany took an increasingly unpopular role in leading a European welcome of millions of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
In the middle of these tumultuous events, Brexit rose to the top of the European agenda. In May 2015, the Conservatives won the British general election with a majority, able to rule without their Europhile Liberal Democrat partners. Cameron had promised a referendum on EU membership in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, and set out to renegotiate British membership. In early 2016, the renegotiation was completed and Cameron called for a referendum in June.