BY SHASHI P.B.B. MALLA
Why did the UK decide to leave?:
The U.K. has voted to leave the European Union (EU) following an historic referendum on its membership with 52 percent voting for leaving or ‘Brexit” and 48 percent for remaining. The die is now cast, but how and why did it come about?The BBC, “The Economist” and “The Guardian” have various theories regarding this unprecedented development. First, the massive economic warnings and dire consequences of leaving the EU weren’t convincing and if so, most believed that it was a price worth paying. The general public was ready to reject the advice of experts and respected institutions because in the five decades of EU membership, the common people felt left behind and their economic condition had not basically improved. They did not believe that Brexit would affect their finances drastically. Thus, the county of Cornwall in south-west England voted for Brexit although it receives substantial EU funding.
Second, the Brexit campaigners cleverly hit upon a telling political slogan – that the U.K. was paying 350 million Pounds Sterling a week (!) for membership and support of the EU (conveniently withholding the fact that it also received benefits). This was completely misleading, but did not reduce its effectiveness. People were convinced that this huge amount could better be utilized within the U.K., for instance in the National Health Service. It was an easy but cheap catchphrase to understand that Britain was better off outside the E.U. The slogan was irresistible to all – people of different age groups and political groupings, whether Conservative, Labour, Independents, or the far-right wing UK Independent Party (UKIP).
Third, the ‘Leave’ campaign made immigration the main issue and the ‘Remain’ camp could not find an effective remedy. It became clear that people were very agitated about the levels of migration into the UK and their impact on society. Thus, the nexus between immigration and national and cultural identity came into the picture and influenced above all people with less education and lower incomes. The key argument was that the UK itself could not control immigration into the country while remaining a member of the EU, which itself allowed the free movement of people within its borders. This was borne out by the fact that the EU itself was not coping effectively with the hundreds of thousands of refugeesfrom the Middle East, West Asia (including Afghanistan and Pakistan) and North Africa seeking asylum in the EU. The fear of importing ‘Islamic terrorism’ simultaneously was an additional motive. Raw feelings won over basic facts on immigration.
Fourth, the British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to convince. He may have won two leadership contests within his Conservative Party, one convincing general election in 2015 and two referendums, but this time he did not succeed. Of course, his party was sorely divided. According to those who opposed him in the party – the Eurosceptics – he had not achieved any substantial concessions from the EU to make it worthwhile to remain. He was also not suited to head the ‘Remain’ camp, because he was unable to develop a working relationship with the Labour leadership, nor could he win over Labour supporters or independent voters. He failed to enlighten the voting public about the many positives and benefits of staying on (instead harping on the negatives of leaving). It has turned out that many who voted for ‘Brexit” do not even know what the EU is!
Fifth, it was also a dire failure of the Labour leadership. It was clear from the outset that in order to win the referendum, the ‘Remain’ camp needed the wholehearted support of Labour voters. Unfortunately, the leaders failed to read the mood of the rank and file whose angst of immigration and their own economic condition was the very same as that of the lower rungs of the general population. Above all, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to motivate his general membership. His own lukewarm support for the EU, which he summed up as 7 out of ten (!) was a major factor in the lackluster Labour contribution. Prominent members are now challenging his leadership.
Sixth, the Brexit camp had three major guns working relentlessly, two from the Conservative Party – the colourful former mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and the underestimated right-wing leader of the UKIP, Nigel Farage.A handful of cabinet ministers supported the campaign, but it was Gove who provided the intellectual background and political strategy. Johnson was the star and appealed right across the party spectrum. The two men complimented each other. Nigel Farage was the main figure of Euroscepticism in the UK, but was not part of the Conservative dominated official campaign.However, his role was vital in motivating his supporters and others to actually vote. After winning, the ‘Brexit’ camp is now reneging on its promises. A former cabinet minister now had the audacity to declare: “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again” (!).
Seventh, there was an inter-generational divide in the voting patterns, particularly in the south, south-west, Midlands and the north-east of England. There was predominant support for Brexit from those aged 55 and above. The young were by and large for remaining, but didn’t turn out in large numbers as the older people. The younger generation will now lose the right to live and work in 27 other countries. Regional disparities were also evident. The above areas of England and Wales were targeted particularly by the Brexit campaign (and largely ignored by Labour) opted predominantly for Brexit, whereas metropolitan areas like London, and Scotland and Northern Ireland favoured the ‘Remain’ camp.
Eighth, the UK’s relationship with Europe has never been easy. It took years for the country to join what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). In the referendum of 1975, many were for staying only grudgingly. Among politicians and the media there has always been the perception that the organization was dysfunctional, and the commitment to the European project was largely missing, as with Labour leader Corbyn.
What happens next?
According to “The Guardian” (UK), the historic decision to end the 43-year ‘love-hate’ relationship with the EU represents a turning point in contemporary politics. It will now have to live with the political, constitutional, diplomatic and economic consequences for a decade or more. PM Cameron’s political authority and spirit have been destroyed. He remains as a caretaker PM until a new leader is elected in the autumn, but with little power to influence events. He cannot even trigger Article 50 of the EU-Lisbon Treaty that sets in motion a two-year process whereby a member state can notify the EU Council of its decision to leave.
However, the leaders of the EU have already indicated that they may not be willing to take the slow road, as the continent is in full crisis and immediate damage control is the need of the hour. Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament has already indicated that EU lawyers were studying whether it was possible to speed up the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty – the as yet untested procedure for leaving the EU. He added that it was difficult to accept that “a whole continent is taken hostage because of an internal fight in the Tory party” (Cameron had originally promised a referendum to placate his opponents and Eurosceptics in the Conservative party).With anti-EU sentiment on the rise in many member states, national governments sought urgently to prevent the rot from spreading and urging swift reforms to the 60-year-old union. Sigmar Gabriel, Social Democratic Vice Chancellor in Christian Democrat Angela Merkel’s grand coalition government, said the British vote was a “shrill wake-up call” for European politicians: “whoever fails to heed it or take refuge in the usual rituals, will drive Europe against the wall.”
The deputy prime minister of Turkey (which has applied for full EU membership and was a prominent bogey in the Brexit campaign) painted a very dismal picture: “The European Union’s disintegration has started, Britain was the first to jump ship.” However, EU-leaders don’t exactly see it that way. No doubt, the quality of leadership within the EU will be tested as never before, but it is presumptive and too early to underestimate the political will to keep things together when catastrophe strikes – this has been seen time and again in recent history. The way forward, as the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash has said, is for the EU to deliver practical answers: “to economic growth inside the Eurozone; to managing the flow of refugees and migrants; and to addressing the fears of populations which lead them to vote for Eurosceptic and nationalist parties.”
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org