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The Rise of Demotic Democracy in Europe

LONDON – The shock of the British vote to leave the European Union has yet to sink in. Yet European leaders must steel themselves for what is to come. In fact, Brexit might be the initial tremor that triggers a tsunami of referenda in Europe in the coming years.

Across Europe, there are 47 insurgent parties turning politics on its head. They are gaining control of the political agenda, shaping it according to their interests – and winning power in the process. In one-third of EU member states, such parties are members of coalition governments, and their success has driven mainstream parties to adopt some of their positions.

Though these parties have very different roots, they all have one thing in common: all are trying to upend the foreign-policy consensus that has defined Europe for several decades. They are Euroskeptic; they spurn NATO; they want to close their borders and stop free trade. They are changing the face of politics, replacing traditional left-right battles with clashes pitting their own angry nativism against the cosmopolitanism of the elites they disdain.

These parties’ weapon of choice is the referendum, with which they can whip up popular support for their pet issues. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, 32 referenda are being demanded in 18 countries across the EU. Some, such as the Danish People’s Party, want to follow the United Kingdom’s lead and hold a vote on EU membership. Others want to escape from the eurozone, block the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States, or restrict labor mobility.