Waiting for Brexit: A European Drama in Several Acts

tl;dr: Britain after the Brexit referendum needs care from its European partners, not harshness – and hopefully Brexit will never really come.

On 23 June 2016 a narrow majority in Britain voted to leave the European Union, a transnational association of sovereign countries with common institutions that the UK joined over 40 years ago. As I am writing these lines, the UK is still a member of the EU and looks likely to remain for a while. What happened on that June day and why, what might happen next, and what implications will that have for the EU? I have to admit that I am biased here, being highly sympathetic to the British in general and for keeping them in the EU in particular. Also, I am writing this from a German perspective, which does play a role when thinking about the EU without Britain. It is Germany’s role on which I will reflect in the closing paragraphs of this article. My firm belief is this however: in these times of despair for the 16 million Brits who voted to remain and with the increasing doubts among the 17 million who voted to leave, the good people of Great Britain do not need harshness but care from their fellow Europeans. With that off my chest, lets get into the heart of the matter.

What happened

In the wee hours of Friday, 23 June, the results solidified and gave way to the feeling of despair felt by so many: the British have voted to leave by 52% (17,410,742) to 48% (16,141,241) with a turnout of 72%. There were at least three divides. The first one was geographical. For a starter, all Scottish constituencies have voted to remain in the EU, Glasgow with over 66%, Edinburgh with more than 74%. Scotland as a whole voted 62% for remain. Almost immediately this sparked discussions of a second independence referendum to separate from a leaving UK in order to stay within the EU. Furthermore, the capital, London, voted Remain with 59.9%. Together with the Scottish results this prompted Michael Shaw to create the artificial country of ScotLond on Twitter. What increases the political heat is surely the result in Northern Ireland. The Ulstermen and –women voted 55.8% for remain, reflecting the insecurity about the future of the Good Friday agreement and the peace process. Most metropolitan areas and university towns in England voted remain e.g. Oxford with more than 70% and Manchester with over 60%. It was »Middle England«, the mythical socio-demographic place of the white working English middle-class who rejected the EU in troves. England as a whole wanted to leave by 57%. G.K. Chesterton’s »secret people«, the English, finally found their voice – and they raised it to leave the European Union. The second division is of age. People between 18 and 24 voted by a margin of 75% to remain whereas people over 65 voted to leave by 61%. If you are British and 50 or older you most likely voted to leave. This election, so the perception strengthens, was an attack by the insecurities of the older generations on the opportunities of the younger generations. In other words: if this vote would be repeated in a few years, Remain would demographically win over Leave. The third division was about education and income. Both are highly connected in social research when it comes to cluster different groups of people. If in your constituency more than 35% of the population have some form of higher education, Remain was most definitely in front. If the median income in your constituency was higher than 25,000 GBP per year, Remain won. If it was below these numbers, Leave prevailed. In this referendum, the UK showed a great political fragmentation that built up over many years and that won’t go away over night. In addition, the British press was clearly in favor of Brexit. A study found out that around 45% of the press coverage was dedicated to Leave while only 27% was in favor of staying, with around 19% undecided and 9% with no clear dispositions.

Why it most likely happened

It is often tempting to go far back into history and talk about Henry VIII and his famous claim that this realm of England is an empire or the plucky Brits who defied the Nazis. But in reality, these are just narrative instruments legitimizing contemporary politics. Two major (and one minor) political divides changed Great Britain. The first one was Margaret Thatcher and the introduction of neoliberal policies in Britain. When Thatcher came to power, the UK was the »sick man« of Europe with high inflation and high unemployment. The deregulation of former state-controlled industries and the roll-back of trade union powers were the hallmarks of Thatcherism as a political-economic ideology. As Britain’s heavy industry along with parts of the manufacturing industry was already in decline, Thatcher put a strong emphasis on the development of the service sector, especially the financial sector. London’s ascension to become the world’s leading financial center is unthinkable without Margaret Thatcher and her legacy. The result was a radically changed British work society in which the traditional working class moved from manufacturing to services (if not into unemployment or some form of transfer payments): one part into lower paid service sectors, the other into higher paid service sectors. This caused an erosion of the traditional Labour party voters. The second division came with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war. This changed the nature of the then European Community, accelerated ascension of Eastern Europe into what was to become the European Union, and caused the formation of the monetary union with the Euro. Moreover, the new wave of globalization started with the end of the system conflict between the West and the Soviet world. For Britain this meant, on the one hand increasing wealth in some parts of the service industry, while other parts remained stuck with low paying jobs. Inequality in the UK increased throughout the last 25 years and this was another crucial ingredient in the Brexit referendum. A minor division was the creation of the Scottish parliament as part of Tony Blair’s devolution strategy. Instead of putting out the flame of Scottish nationalism, in 2011 the devolved Scottish legislature produced a nationalist majority at Holyrood that lead to the Independence referendum in 2014. Although this was lost, the entire success story of Scotland as a more and more autonomous part of the UK magnified the so-called West Lothian question: that England has no parliament, the English no voice. Structural economic change away from well-paid jobs for low-trained labor, rising inequality especially in the relation between urban centers and countryside, and a looming feeling of being forgotten paved the way for a nativist populist insurgence that captured the public mood in England. It might be an ironic twist of political history that it was the Conservatives who at first were pro-Europe in the 1970s while Labour was against joining the EEC. In the aftermath of German re-unification, the enlargement of the EU and the introduction of the Euro, the Conservatives became the home for Euroskepticism in Britain and Labour never managed to make the positive case for the EU. Even Blair, who was the most pro-European British PM ever, failed to turn public opinion around. Taken all of this together and keeping in mind how biased the British press was, the result might not come as such a surprise.

What probably comes next

Nobody really knows at this time what will happen next. David Cameron back paddled on his initial statement that Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, describing the withdrawal of a country from the union, will be invoked immediately after a Leave vote. Now he wants to leave this decision to his successor after his resignation. How long it will take to elect a new Prime Minister is unclear as the »Tory Civil War« is far from over. At the same time, Labour MPs are arguing for killing off Brexit by a vote in parliament. The referendum, they argue, is not legally binding, which is true. The British constitutional traditions do not know a referendum as a regular mechanism of deciding national matters. Sovereignty in Britain resides within the parliament in Westminster, given to it by the Crown. Additionally, a petition to that parliament for a second referendum has now surged past the 3,000,000 mark – only 100,000 would be necessary to force a parliamentary debate. And back from the (political) dead, the Liberal Democrats are planning for an election platform for the next national elections that places the return of the UK into the EU upfront. Speaking of national elections in the UK, it might well be the case that in order to give the UK government a strong enough mandate for engaging the EU with Article 50, an early election might be called later this year. Finally, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is threatening Westminster that the Scottish parliament might withhold its consensus for invoking Article 50, although it is unclear if this has constitutional implications. What does have implications is the increase support of Scottish independence from the UK since 23 June. All of this leaves the UK in a state of highly nervous stasis. In other words: everything is unclear. It could well be that Article 50 will never be called by the UK and the referendum will stand as it is: a folly in time, a snapshot of a broken and polarized country.

The EU itself presses on, however. The president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the head of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, are demanding a quick resolution and urge the UK government to start the withdrawal process as soon as possible. Similar calls can be heard from the French government. What is motivating these urgent demands is the fear of a domino effect on other EU-skeptic countries and governments. If we waver in the face of Brexit, this reasoning goes, others in the EU will be invited to threaten to leave and pick their favorite cherries from the EU pie. A quick look, however, in those countries with EU-skeptic governments, most notably Poland and Hungary, shows that there is no majority for leaving the EU in sight. And none of these governments intends to push that matter. Reform and re-nationalization of EU policies yes, but certainly not abandoning the EU. It would be an interesting undertaking to analyze the psychological factors at work in some EU and national officials. The only one so far speaking out for calmness and allowing the British more time in their ultimate decision, is German chancellor Angela Merkel. The desire voiced by some to move on with the EU is unclear itself, according to Merkel, as there is no univocal understanding of where to the EU should move on. To decide that, more time is needed. And it would be rather funny, in a British comedic sense, if the UK was forced to draw on Article 50, then have national elections later this year with a new government e.g. Labor and Liberal Democrats, that wants to re-join the EU or abort the withdrawal process altogether. What then? And what if in the coming year Scotland votes for independence and wants to join the EU – or actually remain, as it is part of the EU for 40 years as a constituent country of the UK. All these half-baked and highly emotional calls for a quick EU withdrawal are missing the one thing that is crucial now: calm common sense in order to deliver a viable solution of David Cameron’s mess for the entire EU. Whatever the case ultimately may be, there will most likely be a longer period of uncertainty as some of the actors are hoping for. But remember how the Greek voted against austerity measures in their 2015 bailout referendum, thus paving the way for a Greek exit of the Euro? It just didn’t happen as Greek PM Alex Tsipras pushed a parliamentary bill with exactly the measures the Greek public voted down. If this was acceptable from a EU perspective in relation to Greece, what exactly is the difference with Britain?

What the future holds for the EU

The future of the EU depends on many things but it probably comes down to this: will there be a Brexit in the near future or not? In either case, all eyes will rest on the dominant EU member, the »indispensable nation« of Europe: Germany. I know this sounds a bit arrogant from a German, but if you read the news in Europe and North America, everyone is expecting something from Germany. At the same time, the old worries what kind of something Germany will deliver are lurking in the background. Will German leadership without British restraints pivot EU foreign policy back to a concordance with Russia? This is the fear of Eastern European EU members. Will Germany revive the Franco-German axis, this time with Germany in the lead and France as junior partner? A vision most certainly inducing great unease with the political elite of the Grande Nation. Or will German leadership provoke a dramatic backlash from smaller EU countries and the European south? There are some who demand a greater integration of national policies, especially fiscal policies in order to make the Euro currency union work. But here the questions start: what kind of overarching idea about sound fiscal policy should be employed? The German/northern perspective of fiscal discipline, labor market reforms and competitiveness? Or the southern perspective on ending so-called austerity, more public spending including debts and a transfer union between Euro member countries? And what about the non-Euro EU members? The Poles, the Hungarians, the Danes, the Swedes? Probably they have very different ideas about integration; in fact most likely a conflict between »integrationist« and »subsidiarists« will break out. In a true EU fashion this will then be settled with some integration e.g. in dealing with refugees, and some nationalization. In the coming years, the EU and its members will be bound by these discussions – and the withdrawal negotiations with the UK, if Brexit should arrive finally.

Coming back to Germany, all of this holds great dangers. German leadership will be necessary but it will immediately be contested. It only takes one misstep – and there will be many as this situation is unprecedented in EU history – to turn the public and political opinion in the EU against the German government. As a German I do fear a new surge in anti-German sentiments that bears the risk of a hostile reaction within the German public against the EU. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland would rejoice given such an opportunity. This seems far-fetched from today’s perspective but I do believe we have no past evidence to guide us into the future. The only way Germany can avoid this is by reverting to a diplomatic approach it employed quite successfully before re-unification. Germany used to be known in the old European Community for being a trustable friend of the small member countries; for making their concerns its own in relation to e.g. France or Italy (or Britain for that matter). Whatever the future truly holds – Brexit or not, further integration or not –, Germany’s approach has to be one of humbleness and of standing up for »the little guys« in the EU. Reverting to old »Core Europe« ideas of the founding six members or a too strong emphasis on the Franco-German axis or, heaven forbid, a Germany-first approach will lay the axe on what remains of the union. But I still hold out for this one straw of hope that Brexit will, just as Godot, never come around.

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