After the Brexit: First the cowards flee, then the break-up of the UK?

EU without the United Kingdom
The European Union – soon minus one?

On 23 June 2016 the British chose to leave the EU. Both the UK and the EU are pondering the future, markets are troubled and the pound has dramatically lost in value. British Prime Minister David Cameron has stepped down and Theresa May has taken over, Farage has disappeared, Johnson has assumed a new and unlikely role, and Westminster appears in no hurry to leave the EU. Possible consequences include a break-up of the UK and hard negotiations driven by the EU. By Nicolas Walton

The Brexit referendum vote was UK PM David Cameron’s idea, intended to strengthen his position as the leader of a government with only a small parliamentary majority and settle the continuous debate within the Conservative party regarding Britain’s membership in the EU once and for all. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had similar ideas. They were disastrous ideas. As Roger Cohen writes of the result, “It’s not just the stupidity of the decision. It’s not merely the lies of the charlatans who led the ‘Leave’ campaign. It’s not only the absence, now so evident, of any ‘Nextit’. It’s not even the betrayal of British youth. It’s far more: a personal loss. Europa, however flawed, was the dream of my generation. The European Union was an entity, a bloodless noun, yet it had a beating heart.”

The transition: times changed, resentments multiplied

EU-scepticism has always existed in the UK, but never before has it risen to the level of anti-EU sentiment recently witnessed. The contrast is particularly strong when comparing the level existent in the UK to that in, for example, Germany or France. At least partly responsible for this is the fact that different EU member states have different perspectives on what the EU means to them. For a start, the historical context was not the same throughout the EU, which quickly becomes obvious when comparing the starting positions of the UK and Germany: Germany was liberated from Nazism after the horrors of the Second World War, was rebuilt and then became a founder member of the European Economic Community and later the European Union. In comparison, the UK had already been a democracy and a great trading power (but lost its empire as a result of WW2) and was therefore receptive to the idea of a single common market but not keen on any form of political integration. As an old democracy and great contributor to democratic processes, the UK did not require integration into a European political entity in the same way as Germany.

But at this point the British were merely sceptics; the real problems came much later, when the economic ‘rich’ years after the end of the Cold War ended, the French-German balance in continental Europe was replaced by the new economic engine Germany, the euro was introduced as a single currency and ended up being not as well thought through as it ought to have been, and EU expansion in Eastern Europe created migrant work forces seeking better livelihoods and thereby also feeding racist perceptions in the West, thus heralding the ‘leaner’ years. In addition, as Roger Cohen notes, “technology accelerated globalization, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in Asia but also offshoring millions of European jobs. Societies disaggregated. For each City honcho getting a daily Christmas delivery from Amazon Prime there was some poor sod out there in Nowheresville working a precarious warehouse night shift packaging stuff”

Conduct of the Remain and Leave campaigns

Coinciding with the increasingly visible negative effects of the mounting stresses, among them low or no economic growth and widening income disparities as well as other negative effects associated with globalization and global economic downturn, came the rebirth of far-right populism. The referendum on 23 June took place not after a fact-based but after a highly emotional and populist campaign. Numerous attempts by Remain campaigners to dispel myths such as the UK transferring billions to Brussels and receiving nothing in return could not prevail in the face of daring, but blatantly incorrect, populist anti-EU and anti-immigration propaganda.

Particularly memorable was the Leave campaign’s bus, painted red and bearing the slogan “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”. In fact, and as stated in a previous E-Politik article, “because of the annual British rebate of £5m from the EU, the approximately £4b paid to subsidise UK farming, and payments to poorer UK regions, private sector companies and university research funds, the weekly figure is nearer £136m”. So, even though the Leave campaign’s slogan was a complete lie, it nevertheless seemed to help sway public opinion towards Leave.

In addition, both of the key pro-Brexit leaders, the UKIP party’s Nigel Farage and former mayor of London Boris Johnson, used the “let us take back control of our country” theme to rally EU-sceptics to their cause. Also, and rather absurdly, both also spoke of making June 23 not just the day on which the UK voted on whether to leave or remain in the EU, but also to make it Britain’s “independence day”. This would be comical if it were not for the following two facts: firstly, the UK was already an independent and sovereign state and had not relinquished control of its sovereignty to Brussels in any significant form; and secondly, the dependency relationship tended to be the other way around, with the UK a country that, historically, other states sought, and today celebrate, independence from. This renders the entire ‘independence’ theme coming from Farage and Johnson fairly misplaced and awkward.

In comparison to such levels of enthusiasm, however, the Remain campaigners seemed tired and also a little uncommitted, either because they did not know how to defuse the obvious lies told by Leave or because they genuinely believed that, despite the worrisome poll results, the people simply would not vote to leave when it came to it.

What happens next
What happens next?

After the referendum: first a backing down from pre-referendum statements…

But, Leave won, with a slim majority but a majority nevertheless. As a next step, the British government will have to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, but David Cameron stated in his resignation speech that he did not want to be the one to trigger it, instead now leaving it to the new PM Theresa May and thus contradicting earlier statements that he would live up to this challenge should it come to it. Cameron is probably relieved that Theresa May has taken over and that it will not be him who ends up facing the immense challenge of negotiating with the EU the UK’s departure whilst at the same sifting through thousands of EU Treaty documents in order to identify what to keep, what to opt out of, and what to re-negotiate. This process will affect the vast majority of currently valid treaties, ranging from issues such as trade to immigration, and thus making it an immensely difficult task. And until this process has been completed, people’s livelihoods and futures will be at risk.

Not the only one to suddenly not seem too keen to stick around much longer now that the UK has voted to leave the EU, Boris Johnson has also begun to back down from certain statements he had previously made, as indeed have his fellow Leave campaigners. One of the main themes during the run-up to the referendum was immigration, allegedly out of control, with the Leave campaign vowing to restrict immigration severely. However, Boris Johnson has now gone on record stating that the “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down. As the German equivalent of the CBI – the BDI – has very sensibly reminded us, there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market”. In order to continue to enjoy access to the EU single market, however, the UK would have to continue to allow EU workers unrestricted access, effectively negating in terms of immigration what the Leave campaign had wished to achieve. In another statement made just prior to the referendum, Johnson had claimed that the UK economy was resilient enough to withstand the stresses of a Brexit. In reality, however, the value of the British pound has fallen dramatically since the referendum, damaging the now sensitive British economy.

… then the disappearance of the Brexit leaders

It does not end at the backing down from statements made in the run-up to the referendum, however, and there have been further unexpected turns of events. Both Farage and Johnson, the key Leave campaign leaders, who unleashed the forces of xenophobia and hatred in the run-up to the referendum, had voiced their lack of interest in assuming a prominent role in UK politics in the disastrous aftermath. The reason for this decision had possibly been the fact that both Farage and Johnson may genuinely never have believed that they stood a chance of securing a victory for Leave, instead gambling that a close defeat would boost their careers and strengthen their standing among the EU-sceptic opposition. And perhaps, now that the country lies in ruins politically, it was the fear that the revolution would now devour its children, to quote French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan a couple of years after the Bastille was stormed, which has driven Farage and Johnson to avoid taking responsibility for what has happened and attempt to succeed Cameron as PM. Instead, Farage has disappeared and Johnson has now been appointed the new Foreign Minister – a popular position and, significantly, far away from domestic politics. This avoidance of taking responsibility for their actions now also reveals their cowardice and lack of personal integrity.

Conclusions to be drawn, internal and external pressure, and a break-up of the UK?
Several conclusions can be drawn relating to the overall situation. Internally, the UK is in a crisis: it was predominantly older people who voted on a future which the majority of younger people do not want (there is room for criticism here as well: although 81% voter turnout is high and a recent poll suggests that 64% of 18-24 year-olds voted, many more young people ought to have cared about making their votes count); the north-south divide once again became highly visible, with England voting to leave but Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain; Wales voted to leave despite being a net recipient of EU funding, making the Welsh appear particularly misguided; and Westminster will now have to prevent Scotland from conducting a re-run of their independence-referendum, which would this time probably succeed and see them separate from the UK. Outside its borders, the UK is equally under pressure: although Cameron has stated that he will step down as PM, he is clearly unwilling to be the person triggering Article 50 and wants his successor to do this in approximately three months’ time. Meanwhile the markets are in chaos, the pound is at a historic low, and livelihoods are at stake; companies and businesses may withdraw equity and services from the UK and re-locate to other EU countries, leading to unemployment rates rising; and the EU may choose to make an example of the UK to deter other would-be exiters and assume a hard stance in treaty re-negotiations, which could hurt the UK no end.

One of the most important factors to now bear in mind is that the referendum is not binding. It is pre-legislative and parliament and Theresa May may choose not to invoke Article 50 should considerations regarding the need to retain access to the European single market, the preservation of a comparatively free transition of workforces, the prevention of high taxes on imported and exported goods, the ability to project power and influence into the EU or any number of factors trump the ‘need to get out’. It would likely cause tumultuous scenes, however, if the results of the referendum were ignored flagrantly, so an alternative scenario might see parliament trigger Article 50, but with reservations. In this scenario, the UK would opt out of the EU but retain the majority of agreements signed with the EU, rendering the referendum pretty much pointless, with the net result being that the UK simply voted to no longer have a say in the European Union.

Bild 1: „EU minus one“. Bild von Lizenz: No Copyright – Public Domain CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0).
Bild 2: „Brexit – What happens next?“. Bildrechte liegen bei threefishsleeping. Lizenz: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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