Despite the Leave victory in the British referendum asking to remain or to leave the European Union last Thursday, things might not be so straightforward for an actual process of British separation from Europe.
By PHILIPPE ROV
The outcome of the British referendum regarding the EU last Thursday showed one thing clearly: there is huge political and social chaos in the United Kingdom and it has been bubbling over the past several years. The Leave supporters won with a considerable advantage of 1.3 million votes – a surprise even for the most publicly vocal political figure behind the Leave campaign, the former mayor of London Boris Johnson. British PM David Cameron has been officially campaigning to remain, although not many believed his sincerity given his previous alliance with the fervent independence and separatist UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In fact, if there is one politician for whom this referendum result is an indisputable victory, it is indeed Mr. Farage. His rise to power was always associated with right wing nationalism, suspicion and open rejection of the European Union (despite being a Member of the European Parliament since 1999) and its values for united Europe, anti-immigration plans and propaganda against movement of eastern European people towards the UK. Mr. Farage has managed to progressively slip his views into David Cameron’s two consecutive governments and shift the political and public opinion towards right, sometimes extreme right, discussions, with Cameron criticizing in 2011 the failure of ‘state multiculturalism’, during his first speech as PM and public discussions over the right of eastern Europeans, mainly Romanians and Bulgarians, to claim social benefits while living in UK. In months before the EU referendum, Mr. Farage produced a documentary, ‘Brexit – The Movie,’ where he highly criticized the EU institutions and made many, sometimes difficult to find logic in, claims that Britain will be way better without EU membership, sometimes wrongfully and partially citing the example of Switzerland. The NHS financing crisis was more than convenient for Mr. Farage who used it to declare that the weekly contribution UK sends to Brussels (£350 million) would be redirected towards funding NHS. The reason why so many people voted for UKIP in the past two elections was because UKIP was the only party to offer the referendum; the Tories were divided over it. With such strong campaigning against European adherence, it is not surprising that in 2015 PM Cameron announced that a referendum would take place by 2017 as a way to hear the public opinion on the matter.
The case is curious for another face of the Leave campaign, former mayor of London Boris Johnson. Despite being an open Leave proponent, he has also been recorded stating that he is “not an outer”, and his own family has always been Remain proponents. BoJo, as he is better known in the media, was harshly greeted by the public in the first hours after the results came, but managed to keep some stiff-upper-lip posture despite the many boos and grim faces. He is still the only politician trying to fervently convince the public that the choice was right and holding on to his promises for a more prosperous and free UK, once they have ‘taken back control’ from Brussels.
So, what will happen now? As things unravel slowly, the best answer is that nobody really knows as there are too many factors to consider. However, for the rest of this article, I will argue that there is quite higher probability for the UK to remain in the EU than to actually leave.
Putting aside the British political class, what was the post referendum reaction? Hysterical, many would argue, however un-British this might be. Immediately after the results were announced on Friday, the stock markets reacted with a 31-year low drop of the pound sterling and decrease in stock options related one way or another to the British and European economy. Many banks and hedge funds announced that they would either close or move their London City offices to Paris, Frankfurt or elsewhere; Sweden offered them the city of Stockholm as a replacement centre. Ironically, in one day UK lost so much money that one of the Europe’s founding countries, France replaced it as the 5th largest economy in the world. Car manufacturers from Asia announced they will leave the UK – the now Indian Jaguar-Land-Rover group wasn’t too late to consider similar plans too. In one day, the UK has lost more money than their entire contribution to the EU for the past 43 years.
There were few celebrations among the Leave group – in fact, apart from the hard voters who still hold on to their position, there is a significant number of voters who have been largely disappointed with the outcome, stating that they have been misled and misinformed by the Out campaign, seeing the two main promises – restricting immigration and putting money back to the NHS – being dismissed by Mr. Farage and Boris Johnson the morning after results came in. Many public demonstrations are planned, including London, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. Current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, used the Sunday Gay Pride event to announce that all Europeans will always be welcome to London. 70% of the voters age 17-35 voted for remain and most young people fear for their future in an isolated island, with no prospects for future European studies, exchange programs, and travelling limited by visas and incumbent paperwork. Detailed statistics show that people with higher education voted to remain. Overall, one can say that the UK’s Leave or remain referendum has pitted Young Great Britain versus Little Old Britain, who voted leave in a desperate and naïve way to ‘take back control’.
In the same time, things have moved within the Great Britain’s own Union: Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced early Friday morning that Scotland doesn’t want to remain in the UK if the latter is no more an EU member. For this purpose, if an actual Brexit was planned to happen, a second referendum on Scotland membership in the UK was about to be held, as her country feels more attached to the EU than to Great Britain. Northern Ireland has expressed similar opinions, which is understandable as in both UK members, the Remain voted has largely outnumbered the Leave.
The EU leadership has been quick and clear to announce that it wants the ‘UK out quickly’ and that ‘there will be no more negotiations or concessions’ before the UK triggers Article 50. Angela Merkel was the most understanding of all EU politicians stating that she is keen on giving the UK more time to decide how to make the leaving process happen. Her reaction is interesting for two reasons: it was mainly because of Chancellor’s Merkel greeting attitude towards the Syrian refugees crisis that Westminster, as well as some other EU member governments, have been largely discontent over the past year. Secondly, because it is in slight opposition to the mainstream EU leadership who wants to have the UK leave as soon as possible in order to not have other members hesitate and have time for similar desires – the Netherlands and Denmark also have extreme right leaders opposing the EU and pledging for national referendums on EU membership. Uncertainty is the opposite of stability and not what Europe needs right now.
The facts are, once Article 50 is triggered, it will be no more to the UK to decide its own fate but to the EU to rule what type of relationship it wants to have with the UK in the future, as this article specifically excludes the member state representatives from participating in the discussion. PM Cameron stated Monday that he doesn’t want the EU to pressure him to file for Article 50. He is stating the summer holidays, his resignation and the need for a new leader who can “lead the ship” during the Brexit as excuses not to start immediate procedures now. The truth is somehow nuanced: the UK’s political class doesn’t have a plan what to do. The referendum was very much triggered by elements outside the Tory leadership (UKIP’s Farage) and conservatives are divided. The newly elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, never managed to gain his party’s confidence and the public distrusts him because of many controversial statements as well as his obvious weakness as opposition leader: 2/3 of his party’s MP’s resigned the Monday after the referendum. UKIP’s Farage is almost nowhere to be seen since his national-socialist-Hitler-to-Mussolini type of salutes of independence immediately after the results came out.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is in chaos, almost anarchy one could say. Over the first weekend the police has recorded an unprecedented increase in racial and immigrant related incidents in many parts of UK, many posted via social media. The political class is taken by surprise and weakened by internal affairs and discordance. The public opinion is more than divided with many realising that with their vote they might have brought bigger problems on their heads and country. PM David Cameron will do his best to delay everything for after the summer but he might be unsuccessful: the EU bureaucrats have all the reasons to pressure him and keep the 27 aligned and tight. One important factor to keep in mind is that the referendum result is not legally binding: Brexit doesn’t follow automatically. Although Cameron rejects the possibility for a second referendum – a practice quite common in other countries is to do referendums until you get the ‘right’ answer – he may decide to either ignore the result of the first, drown it among other problems in the autumn or just propose it to the Parliament (House of Commons) for a vote. This last option will also most certainly reject the Leave result, as most of the Tories are for Remain. The two names Mr. Cameron might propose for next Prime Minister’s position are Boris Johnson and Theresa May who now serves as Home Secretary. She is known mainly for supporting the anti-Romanian-Bulgarian campaign in 2010 and staying behind the curtains while doing her job diligently – quite different than Boris Johnson’s clownish attitude. Whoever comes next will have the difficult task to take the UK back to normality and save it from its own demons, created by the narcissistic egocentric political class.
Given the facts stated above, it is a little difficult to understand how the UK will manage to free itself from the European Union – long negotiations, precise demands, strong economy and clear goals are the main prerequisites to do so, while Britain seems to be the opposite of every one of them now. The myth for the English uniqueness helped them have many concessions and preferential treatments while they were part of Europe – if they officially announce Brexit, things will be decided for them by Brussels. Leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland behind are quite harsh losses too. Financially, it will take years if not decades for the country to stabilise, even more for it to become as prosperous as the Leave leaders have been promising, given that 85% of the GDP comes from the financial sector.