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News & Analysis

UK faces its “now what” moment after Brexit

Umar Shahid

The referendum result in Britain on whether to stay or leave the European Union (EU) was not supposed to go the way it did. The expectation was that people would opt to stay. The result stunned everyone including those cynically leading the Leave campaign. Britain and the EU are now stuck with an oucome that is fraught with great risks.

In the 1972 movie, The Candidate, Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) was not supposed to win against incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) but he unexpectedly pulls it off. His campaign manager Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) had told McKay during the election campaign that he had no chance of winning so he was free to say what he wanted. When McKay wins, he pulls his campaign manager into the hotel room and asks, “What do we do now?”

Something similar has happened in the June 23 Brexit vote in Britain but in a perverse way. Nobody had expected it would go the way it did, not even those leading the Leave campaign in Britain. Politicians being what they are — cynical liars and manipulative — the Leave campaign was led by the likes of former London mayor Boris Johnson and former education secretary Michael Gove but neither expected or wanted victory. After the vote, instead of popping champagne, Johnson looked as if he had been run over by a bus!

When the referendum date was announced, Johnson was prevaricating about which side to join: Leave or Remain? When he decided to join the Leave camp, it was on the assumption that it would fail but he would ride the wave of popular discontent against Eurocrats meddling in domestic British politics to pave his way to 10 Downing Street. He wanted to be seen as standing up to Europe to defend British interests without having to do anything practical. There was no price to pay, or so he thought. The promises the Leave camp made cannot be fulfilled; they were not expecting to fulfill them since they were not expecting to win.

Cynicism was the dominant theme on the other side as well. Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to use the referendum to wring further concessions from the EU assuming that ultimately a majority would vote to stay. Nobody had expected the level of anger among working class people in Britain. The bulk of the Leave vote came from Britain’s industrial base where workers felt their livelihood was being undermined by the arrival of cheap labor from other parts of Europe. Wages had declined and essential services were being cut. They voted to leave believing the promises made by Johnson, Gove, and company to fix these problems, and quickly.

When voters decided to opt for leaving, they did not think there would be such a steep price to pay. Cameron has already announced he would be resigning in October when a new leader takes over the Conservative Party. The British pound has lost about 30% of its value vis-à-vis the US dollar and there is absolute panic in financial circles in London as well as elsewhere.

Cameron said he would leave the decision to the new prime minister to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the process of separation. EU leaders made clear they would have none of this. They insisted that Britain must move swiftly to negotiate leaving the organization, saying any delay would prolong uncertainty. European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker stressed the “Union of the remaining 27 members will continue.”

The day after the vote, Juncker held crisis talks with European parliament president Martin Schulz, president of the European Council Donald Tusk and Dutch PM Mark Rutte. A statement issued after the meeting said they regretted Britain leaving the EU but respected its decision. Then setting aside niceties, they demanded Britain must take immediate steps to start the process of separation to avoid further damage to the EU. They signaled that London no longer had the luxury of deciding when it wanted to start the process of separation. The EU statement said, “We stand ready to launch negotiations swiftly with the United Kingdom regarding the terms and conditions of its withdrawal from the European Union.”

Reflecting anger at Britain’s decision, the EU leaders said that the deal agreed with Cameron last February to protect London’s financial markets, curb immigration and opt out of closer union “ceases to exist” and “there will be no renegotiation.” European leaders are worried, and rightly, about the union breaking up completely. They would like to avoid that if possible, by getting rid of Britain as soon as possible.

It may be too late, and too late for Britain to continue to remain a “united” kingdom. The Brexit referendum vote has provided clues to the future course of developments. Scotland and Northern Ireland (both part of Britain) voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying. Last year, the Scots had held a referendum to separate from Britain. The independence campaign narrowly lost. The Brexit vote opens an opportunity for another vote in Scotland and it is almost certain that they would go their own way since they have already signaled to the EU that they would like to continue their association. This would not be possible by remaining within Britain. Northern Ireland is also likely to join with the Irish Republic. Thus, “great” Britain — it was never really great — would become not-so-great. It will be reduced to a rump with Wales perhaps tagging along.

The Brexit vote has also opened a can of worms for Europe. A number of right-wing parties in France, the Netherlands, Hungary and elsewhere are demanding their own referendums. Whether they will get their wish, or succeed in their plans are altogether different issues. What the British vote has done is create much turmoil in Europe and elsewhere. Many countries are wondering what would happen to the numerous trade agreements they have entered into with the EU.

Britain has always been problematic and manipulative. While maintaining its separate identity, London has tried to manipulate European policy by pitting one power against the other. The EU was meant to overcome this manipulation for the common good. Despite this, EU leaders were willing to offer numerous concessions to Britain not available to others, but London always wanted more. The hangover of empire had never left Britain even if there is no empire to lord over.

When the European Economic Community was first established in 1957 through the Treaty of Rome, Britain refused to join. Six countries — France, West Germany (East Germany was still part of the Communist Warsaw Pact camp at the time and the Cold War was hot), Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg — became founding members. In 1963, and again in 1967, Britain wanted to join but French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed its membership. It was only on the third attempt in 1969 that Britain was allowed entry and became a full member in 1973.

No sooner had the Brits joined, then they started making demands for special privileges. Other EU members accepted these to maintain unity but London’s demands kept growing. In 1991, when the Maastricht Treaty formally established the European Union as a political body, Britain opted out of the Social Chapter that governs employment rights. Again, when a single European currency was adopted by 11 member states in 1999, Britain did not join. It wanted to be in and out at the same time. British politicians thought they could play the game forever and wring more concessions from Europe. It thought of itself as the “indispensable” European power but played its hand once too often with Brexit.

At the heart of the problem is the issue of the free movement of capital and people. The richer states want the poorer ones to open their borders for financial exploitation but do not want their poor people flooding into the rich countries. Nor do the rich countries want to pay their fair share. For instance, one of the points constantly mentioned by the Leave campaign was that Britain was subsidizing the EU to the tune of £350 million/week and they wanted to end this subsidy! This was not true but it did not matter as long as everyone believed the Remain vote would win. After June 23 it is a different world altogether, and a more turbulent one at that.

The Brits have always been global troublemakers. They can hardly be expected to act any differently but now they will face the consequences of their misconduct at home as well. And one can hardly blame the EU bureaucrats in Brussels to make life as difficult for them as possible on the way out.

Our correspondent in London writes, “No one, not even the leaders of the Brexit campaign, thought this could happen. They were playing politics, and the 52% of voters called their bluff. For 20 years Conservative politicians have been attacking Europe for populist political reasons domestically, and using domestic skepticism about Europe as a bargaining counter in European politics, all the while confident that neither the British people or European institutions would let Britain’s place in Europe be jeopardized. But this time they walked too close to the edge, misread the mood of the British people, and toppled into the abyss.”

The official leaders of the Brexit campaign were Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. After their victory, they looked like they had been defeated. Why? Because they never wanted or expected to win and now are stuck with this result.

That is why the leader in victory yesterday was Nigel Farage, a joke figure who has been campaigning for Great Britain to leave the EU for 20 years without ever winning a seat in parliament in seven attempts. Indeed, he was not even part of the official Leave campaign. But the media could not find anyone else to present as the happy victor.

Now Johnson knows that he will be blamed for this. He was making a classic populist Euro-skeptic play for power within the Conservative party, but did not expect to be facing this situation. Remember, even after the referendum date was announced, he was vacillating on whether to join the Leave campaign or the Remain one. This was not a matter of principle for him. It was political expediency — which campaign would offer him the best route to 10 Downing Street. Back then he would have thought that a strong showing from Leave would be a 45–55 defeat, which would be enough to weaken Cameron and give him credibility as a populist leader who could stand up for Britain in Europe.

What no one on either side, or in Europe, or among the political commentariat, expected was that the referendum would become the focus for accumulated social and economics grievances, many contradictory, leading a slight majority of people — largely in marginalized and usually disregarded parts of the country and sectors of the population — to mobilize, creating a momentum that has made the unthinkable a reality. What they all forgot was that it is much easier to unite against something than for something.

Democratic politics consists largely of elites manipulating and exploiting popular opinion. This time they got it very wrong. The result is going to be very damaging indeed for two broad reasons. First, those who were manipulated into voting for Leave will expect to get everything they were promised, which their leaders never expected to have to deliver on. And second, Europe is going to punish Britain, make an example of it, so no one else in Europe is tempted to do the same.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 5

Ramadan 26, 14372016-07-01

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