Brexit - a spiralling crisis begins

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Dr. Kirsty Hughes
Dr. Kirsty Hughes

Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

In the end, it was the Little Englanders who determined the outcome – believing in Brexit as a route to ‘take back their country’. Yet if they were worried about the UK’s lack of influence in the EU and the wider world, the impact within three short days on global stock markets, currencies and risk indicators should already tell them they were wrong.

UK politics is in turmoil. The only political leader prepared for a Brexit outcome appeared to be Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, who, on Friday morning, made a well-prepared, sharp speech, moving rapidly to take the advantage, arguing for a potential second independence referendum.

As the Tories and Labour descend into desperate in-fighting and recrimination, the UK public – or rather the English and Welsh public – is split like never before.

There are many stories to tell on which social group voted which way – the most pro-EU, but with the lowest turn-out by far, being the 18-25 year olds. Yet despite the valid recriminations against Jeremy Corbyn for his half-hearted and almost invisible presence in the campaign, in the end it was the Tories that determined the outcome.

The UK has voted to put its own existence as a state at risk

Tory voters, according to a post-referendum poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft, split 58% to 42% for Brexit. Apart from UKIP, all the other parties – Labour, the Liberal-Democrats, Greens and Scottish National Party – had close to two-thirds to three-quarter majorities for remaining in the EU.

David Cameron, a Tory Prime Minister, called a referendum he didn’t have to call, and failed to persuade his own Tory voters to back him. His resignation was a foregone conclusion.

What comes next is unclear. The UK has voted to put its own existence as a state at risk. It has chosen to undermine its economy, its domestic politics and its influence in Europe and the world. It has also damaged the EU, and impacted negatively on the wider world. It is historic folly on an unimaginable level.

The economic impacts will unfold in the days, weeks and months ahead – the immediate falls in the pound, the euro and other currencies, and in stock markets, were predictable. Already, reports are coming in of financial players – banks, hedge funds and others – looking to move staff and operations out of the UK. Foreign direct investment into the UK is bound to fall.

The political outcomes will reverberate in unpredictable ways in the months and years ahead. Much attention now is on Scotland – a poll on Sunday suggested a big shift to 59% support for independence. Also on Sunday, Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Parliament might block any legislative consent needed as part of the UK’s Brexit process.

This is just the beginning of a major political, constitutional and economic crisis in the UK. Within hours of the result, in the early hours of Friday morning, Sinn Fein had called for a vote on reunifying Ireland, Spain called for joint control of Gibraltar – while, predictably, far-right leaders in France and the Netherlands called for their own referendums on leaving the EU.

The Tory Brexit side – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are in disarray. While Johnson could be the UK’s Prime Minister by early autumn, unless stopped by an alternative candidate such as Theresa May, the Brexit leaders never had a clear story as to what voters would get instead of the EU.

With the scaremongering over immigration pushing Brexit over the finishing line in the referendum, it is hard to see any deal that keeps full access to the Single Market – the EEA option always looked like a hard sell after a ‘Leave’ vote. Yet Westminster has a majority of MPs who support staying in the EU – what sort of deal they might vote for is quite unclear.

Scotland – a poll on Sunday suggested a big shift to 59% support for independence

The EU now has to deal with the Brexit mess, along with its other huge challenges – both in the eurozone and the refugee crisis. The EU’s leaders are right to push for a rapid move on Article 50, allowing at least some sense of control and attempts at reducing uncertainty to begin. But the political disarray in the UK means that this may take a few months rather than days.

Scotland will want some clear answers from the EU as to the basis on which, if it became an independent state, it could remain in the EU, negotiating its status as a new member state. Unlike the scaremongering at the time of the 2014 independence referendum, the EU owes Scotland some clear answers – without taking a position on the desirability of Scottish independence or not.

In the end, Cameron was hoist by his own petard. He called the Brexit side ‘Little Englanders’ but he had presided for six years over a eurosceptic government that had seen the UK’s influence in the EU slide, and that had led the UK’s wider foreign policy to be almost invisible. That, and the UK’s failure to play a major, constructive role in any of the EU’s current challenges during his premiership, meant Cameron could not make a strategic and broad case for EU membership, arguing the benefits of solidarity, stability, rights and values.

As the EU struggles to find its own way forward now, it should heed this lesson. The EU’s ‘Fortress Europe’ approach to the refugee crisis, its abandoning of the values underpinning its enlargement process in its EU-Turkey deal, and its lack of urgency or weight in dealing with the levels of youth unemployment across the EU, point to an EU that has lost its sense of solidarity, and has no idea how to tackle the disaffection of much of the EU public.

The EU in its own way is also at risk of becoming a ‘Little Europe’. The UK currently lacks – outside of Scotland – any strategic, high-level political leadership. The EU has to show it can provide strategic, high-level and creative leadership at this critical time. Business as usual will not do.

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