The British referendum’s result has produced nothing less than a shockwave that has travelled beyond the UK’s boundaries to shake the European Union (EU) to its core, and the rest of the world in its pocket.
After 43 years of being part of the EU, the British vote saw a high 72 percent turnout, with a final 52 to 48 percent decision to leave. The outcome is not only a blow to the dream of a united Europe, it runs counter to the contemporary trend towards globalisation.
The ‘Leave’ vote exposed the fissures in British society, with older people who felt left behind by globalisation and blamed EU immigration for low wages turning their backs on Europe, while the young, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain.
The Scottish Nationalists, having lost an independence referendum in 2014, reasserted the need for a fresh independence referendum given their overwhelming two-thirds majority in favour of staying in the EU.
The irony is that the Scots seem to want to stay in a 43-year-old union with Europe from which they say they are being parted against their wishes, while seeking to break away from a hundreds of years old union within the UK.
Northern Ireland’s case, despite a majority vote in favour of staying, is complicated as far as any notion of breaking away and joining the Irish Republic to the south is concerned, because of the opposition to the idea of the pro-UK Protestant majority in the territory.
British Prime Minister David Cameron clearly miscalculated, failing to effectively counter the Leave campaign’s rhetoric stoking xenophobic fears, atavistic hatreds and scapegoating immigration.
In the best British democratic tradition though, Cameron has announced he will step down in October in deference to the expressed will of the British electorate.
His likely successor may or may not be former London mayor Boris Johnson, who lent a late but credible voice to the Leave campaign. Britain, a latecomer (1973) to the EU, is the first major power to leave it. This has inevitably given rise to questions about the future of the EU.
The reaction of EU leaders ranged from shock and introspection about the need to ‘invent’ another Europe (French Prime Minister Manuel Valls) to more considered responses and thoughtfulness regarding what is being considered a watershed for European unification (Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany).
A flurry of European leaders’ meetings is to follow the shock development in the next few days to consider the vexed question of the difficult negotiations ahead regarding the UK’s withdrawal terms. The EU rules specify a two-year period for this process, which can only be extended by EU members’ consensus.
Given the discernible underlying anger throughout the EU leadership over the referendum result, it seems that Britain will have its work cut out for it in these difficult negotiations. Naturally, London would prefer to retain some if not all of the advantages of EU membership (market access, London’s role as financial capital, etc.) while shedding political control from the EU capital Brussels.
One model being touted as a possible solution is the Switzerland one, in which access to the EU single market and labour mobility is available but permanent settlement or acquiring citizenship by ‘guest workers’ is not. EU leaders’ sentiment in the aftermath of the referendum seems to be a hard line on Britain now speeding up if possible the ‘irreversible’ exit process.
The predictions about the fallout of an exit vote have already started to kick in, with both Britain’s and the world’s markets, finance community and investors showing signs of skittishness, panic and gloom. The British pound has fallen precipitously, and some experts think the UK may well tip into recession within a year.
While the vote has strengthened far right leaders and parties across Europe, it has also emboldened them and many Eurosceptics to demand similar referenda in their own countries. These ‘unraveling’ threats are going to be on top of EU leaders’ consultations, as well as a smooth divorce from Britain.
The political and economic architecture of the contemporary world will likely have to be revisited, bilaterally by Britain, and collectively by the rest of the developed world.
While EU leaders are seized of the need to ensure that the idea of a unified Europe as a guarantee of European peace that can avoid a repetition of the destructiveness of the two World Wars of the twentieth century survives this jolt, it may also have to reckon with the widespread sense of disillusionment with the EU that afflicts many countries in Europe and on which the far right feeds.
What needs to be avoided is a return to the system of competing rival nation-states in Europe that provided in the past the fuel for devastating wars and conflict. The EU may have its flaws, but as an antidote to the nation-states’ proclivity for mutual conflict, it has yet to be superseded by a better idea.