Brexit, the emergence of anti-system movements, and Mexico


British newspapers the day after the Brexit vote. (Photo by threefishsleeping.)

By Nain Martínez

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU), better known as “Brexit,” has shaken up an international system that has been almost unchallenged since 1990. Undoubtedly, the breakdown of the EU has a strong economic and political impact; however, the greatest impact of Brexit may be that it exposes the wear and tear of globalization and the free market in a nation that was one of its main promoters.

Moreover, it holds up signs of exhaustion of this model to other countries. This creates uncertainty about the depth of the rupture and the new direction that the international system might take, which sooner or later will have a political impact in Mexico.

De aquellos polvos, estos lodos. Since the economic crisis that began in 2008, which mired much of the developed world in a recession, there have been a variety of anti-system movements that have increased in strength. In the early years, social movements like “Occupy Wall Street” or the “Indignant Movement” (el Movimiento de los Indignados) emerged, which arose mainly among young people and segments of the population that suffered the harshest consequences of the recession. However, because of the inability of institutions and traditional political parties to generate an answer to social unrest, anti-system political parties – of the left or the right – were revitalized.

A specter is haunting the world. In France, the “National Front,” the nationalist and extreme right party of Marine Le Pen, has been gaining momentum, and is likely to achieve power in the near future. Greece experienced the emergence of “Syriza,” a nationalist left party which also promoted the separation of their country from the EU. In Spain, the people saw the birth of “Podemos,” which in just two years of existence has grown to become one of the main political forces and holds the balance of governability in the country. In the United States, the anti-system agenda was taken up by Bernie Sanders (from the left) and Donald Trump (from the right). Other examples are the growth of the extreme-right political views in Finland, Austria, Denmark, and Germany.

In all cases, the core argument is the same: the cosmopolitan elites from both left and right are corrupt because they are not representing the people or the nation; by contrast, they are representing the interest of a system that degrades the quality of life of the population. The difference between them lies in who and what is perceived as responsible.

For peripheral nations like Greece and Spain, those responsible are the politicians and the elite, the international economic system, and inequality; therefore the prescription of anti-system party is “social justice.” For the central nations such as UK, France, and Germany, responsibility lies with transnational elites, immigration, and unfair economic competition. Hence, the prescription is to recover the identity of their people and the greatness of their nations. In all cases, these parties and movements are calling for a radical change in the system.


Greek anti-austerity protests. (Photo by yannis porfyropoulos.)

And we wake up with a hangover. Although there was already a precedent with Grexit – the unsuccessful attempt to exit Greece from the EU – it was believed that the international system could resist outbreaks of dissent. Brexit has shown that these anti-system movements and parties can succeed, and they can do it in the central nations. This is not about Greece or Spain, but about the UK, which has been one of the main promoters of globalization and the market economy, occupying a central position in the international economic system. Brexit opens the possibility that anti-system politics could spread and succeed elsewhere, and most concerningly in the United States.

Links with Mexico. Globalization and free trade have generated economic growth and benefits to some regions and productive sectors. However, in recent decades increased inequality has meant that those benefits have not translated into better living conditions for large segments of the population that continue to live in poverty. There is a disenchantment with politics and institutions, and traditional political parties are decaying. Moreover, certain sectors of the population feel threatened by the anti-Mexican rhetoric of Donald Trump. In this context, some analysts perceive the possibility of the emergence of a powerful anti-system movement. Certainly, internal factors play an important role in the political arena, but what happens in Europe and the United States could have a pedagogical effect (by showing that systemic change is possible), as well as generating economic and political effects that will encourage alternative politics.

Brexit seems to signal the emergence of a new political cycle. The direction taken by partner nations, and their effects on domestic politics, could determine the position of Mexico in the new international landscape.



Nain Martínez (nain.martinez(at) is a graduate student in Environmental Science, Policy & Management at UC Berkeley. He is doing research in Mexico supported by a 2016 Tinker Research Grant.

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