With seven weeks to go, Britain’s democracy is spinning up a gear.
At a dinner with friends a few weeks ago, the discussion turned to Brexit, as it so often does here in London these days.
Someone at the table asked me a very simple question. I was surprised at my answer.
She asked: “So what do we have in common?” She meant all the nations that are currently members of the European Union.
I paused for a moment. After a short deduction process, I was left with one thing: democracy.
“Democracy,” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t anyone say that before?”
She wasn’t being facetious, and I certainly wasn’t joking.
In all the debate around Brexit, she asked, why didn’t former Prime Minister David Cameron mention democracy in the referendum campaign?
I agreed. It seems obvious, when you think about it.
The answer is simple: the ability to argue every detail without fear of arrest — or worse. The single thing we all have in common is that we live in democracies. We needn’t look far to see how lucky we are.
This weekend, France goes to the polls to select the two candidates who will face each other next month in a runoff for the presidency. Chances are at least one of them — and maybe both — will advocate following Britain out of the EU.
They will cite differences over currency. They will demand sovereign rights back. They will want control of their own borders. It’ll all sound very familiar.
It is an odd conundrum that northwestern Europe is experiencing. It is so surrounded by its commonality it doesn’t see it.
So many trees, the wood is invisible. Democracy is flourishing, but its fragrance is drifting over most heads.
Yet on the fringes of Europe, in the south and the east, the scent is sharp. Authoritarianism is on the rise, and the whiff of dictatorship is in the air.
Last weekend, by the slenderest of margins — and the sleight of hand only media manipulation can manage — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took control of his country out of the hands of the people.
His referendum on 18 constitutional changes removes the prime minister and gives him sweeping power over government and legislation.
Erdogan has turned his back on the model democracy that is enjoyed in Europe, yet when he isn’t railing against its leaders and calling them racists or Nazis — as he did a few weeks ago — he is saying how much he wants to have access to the EU’s single market.
The odds of Turkey being allowed to join the EU were always long. But after last week’s tight — and heavily questioned — vote, any bet had better be transferable to one’s children. Turkey is unlikely to be allowed in to the democratic club in the near future.
In Eastern Europe, the fulcrum between democracy and dictatorship runs through Ukraine.
The see-saw is unbalanced, as Russian President Vladimir Putin takes Ukraine’s desire to tip towards democracy and do away with cronyism as a slap in the face.
Putin may wrap up his rhetoric in flourishes and describe an overreaching NATO that encroaches on regions of historic Russian interest, but the truth is that many Ukrainians despise his malignant manipulation of economy and media.
What they want — and have worked towards for more than a decade — is a more stable and dependable European-style democratic business model than one where a president can take all.
Next month, US President Donald Trump will attend two summits in Europe: one at NATO in Brussels, and one in Sicily, where the G7 world powers will gather.
At both events, Russia and Turkey — and the different challenges they pose — are sure to come up. At NATO, Erdogan will represent Turkey and sit side by side with leaders who demand that he respect the 49% of his country that didn’t vote to have him grip the country tighter than ever.
In Sicily, leaders will follow up on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments at the foreign ministers’ G7 last week in Italy, where the topic of how to handle Russia’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has raised the specter how to handle Putin in the long run.
We may even hear Trump express again not just his profound about-face on NATO or his other 180-degree turn on the value of European unity but the importance of democracy and how it binds us together.
Regardless of the fact that it is not Trump but his scriptwriters who are managing to create these new narratives that even he is unable to mangle, one should applaud the sentiment if it is expressed.
One should applaud because on Europe’s borders, the anti-democratic forces are converging. If they sense weakness, they will exploit it.
Erdogan treats every EU negotiation as a bazaar. Take the refugee deal: What started off as €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in aid quickly became €6 billion ($6.4 billion) and a few extras.
Putin’s aim with Europe seems to be pulling off the weak nations one by one. Divide and conquer. Not by force, of course, but by breaking our unity and resolve to punish his land grabs and violations of international law.
Neither Erdogan nor Putin gives a fig for our North Atlantic values. Nevertheless, their proximity and appetite for power shines a light on what we have in common: a democratic process whereby leaders like Theresa May can hold a snap election knowing the outcome is unquestionably free and fair.
In France, no one will be voting for an end to democracy: It’s not on the ballot, and after all, what kind of turkey votes for Christmas?
But worryingly, that may not be enough to stop democracy from being shoved to the backseat while nationalism takes the wheel.