So. The unthinkable has happened. As we glumly watch the markets plummet, the hate speech blossom and the political leaders trip over themselves trying to flee the havoc, it’s difficult to resist the urge to collectively grab half of the British population and shake them while screaming that one line from Planet of the Apes:
Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this article for some time now, but every day there is some new dramatic revelation to deal with.
Shall we start from the beginning? Actually I ought to start this piece with a disclaimer – I’m not British, nor am I living in the UK. In fact I’m the only writer on this blog who isn’t, at the moment, but I believe my fellow authors are still attempting to rebuild their lives in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of #Brexit.
It’s been a week since the Brits took to the polls to vote on a question that has been contentious and divisive from pretty much the birth of the European Union: should the UK be part of the EU, or not? Back in February The Economist gave a pretty good overview of the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but in essence it boils down to a few major points.
The first is that the UK, although not a founding member of the EU, has played a crucial role in its development since even before it joined in 1973, with Winston Churchill named as one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the EU. Perhaps the most quintessential example of Britain’s early relations with the Union is Margaret Thatcher, who spent the mid to late 1970s campaigning vigorously for the UK to be part of a closer European Union, only to turn around once in office as Prime Minister in the 1980s and decry the political and economic disadvantages the UK was suffering as a result of the EU. Her resistance to EU governance precipitated the end of her leadership, and her views on Europe became progressively more critical as the decades passed. Thatcher’s legacy in Britain, while hugely divisive, is undeniable – and many are citing it as a direct influence on the outcome of this referendum. The irony, of course, is that the working class – the demographic that hated Thatcher most passionately – has ended up championing the same side of the debate.
There’s rather a lot of irony in this whole situation, to be honest.
The second major point is that the UK has been perhaps the most reluctant major player in the EU for some time. Thatcher played a huge role in the development of the single market (primarily in securing Britain rebates in said market), but the UK opted out of two of the most crucial tenets of the Union: the Schengen Agreement, which we’ve discussed before, and the common currency or ‘Eurozone’. All Member States of the EU are obliged to be part of the common currency (eventually) and the free movement agreement, although Denmark also opted out of the currency and Ireland joined the UK in rejecting Schengen in the interests of maintaining their pre-existing free movement agreements. Basically the UK is the kid who’ll come to your birthday party, but he’ll sit in the corner and refuse to play musical chairs or wear a party hat, and then will insist on deciding how the cake should be cut.In the wake of the financial crisis that shook the Eurozone and sent corresponding waves through the UK (who helped bail out Portugal and Ireland, but not – contrary to popular belief – Greece), an already shaky faith in the EU was further damaged by the ascension of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, who are part of a larger pantheon of exceptionally awful hard-right political parties on the rise across Europe.
It was in this political climate that British Prime Minister David Cameron pressed the big red button that will end the world. Struggling with divisions within his own Conservative party, Cameron took a gamble that won him the election last year: he promised the Eurosceptics of the UK that there would be a referendum on British membership of the EU if he was re-elected Prime Minister.
He was giving a decision that would normally be left to Parliament, advised by experts and lobby groups and whoever else, to the population itself. The problem, of course, is that the European Union and particularly the UK’s membership of it are extremely complex topics that a large percentage of the population don’t understand. It’s the problem that has led to so much frustration and anger about the EU in the first place, and it’s also the problem that led to so many people voting Leave without understanding what they were voting for or what the consequences would be.
To be fair, anyone who tells you they know for sure what the consequences of the referendum will be at this stage is straight up lying. There are no certainties. This is uncharted land, and we of Europe are stumbling through it with a compass made of twigs, leaves and a depressing combination of cynicism and naivety.
Here’s what did happen, though, in the immediate aftermath. Cameron jumped ship faster than a rat leaving the Titanic, if that rat had somehow also steered the ship directly into the iceberg. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and key campaigner for the pro-Brexit camp, backpedalled just as hard as he could on some of the key pledges that were made to the British people during the campaign, along with a number of Tory MPs. The British pound plummeted, dragging several European markets with it, and international financial markets freaked all the freaking way out, shedding 2 trillion USD worldwide. Scotland, which had based its decision NOT to leave the UK two years ago in no small part on its desire to stay part of the EU, and voted strongly for Remain, deployed Nicola Sturgeon to start kicking ass and taking names. And Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, delivered ice-cold shade directly to Nigel Farage’s face:
So for the moment, chaos reigns. It is perhaps the biggest crisis the UK has faced for many decades, and nobody wants to take responsibility for it. Will Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Will England be left alone as Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales decide they’d rather be part of the other Union, actually? Can the UK ever be friends with Europe again?European policymakers are now left with an unenviable choice. Britain’s exit from the EU comes only one short year after the same debate in Greece threatened to destabilise the entire bloc. They will have to act decisively in order to prevent the fallout from ripping the European Union into very small angry pieces in the coming months and years. Do they extend a hand to help mitigate the damage the referendum result is likely to do to the British economy and society, and particularly to the most vulnerable people in the country? Or do they demonstrate exactly why leaving the EU is a very bad idea, and make an example of Britain’s impending misery?
It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are already taking as much advantage of the situation as possible in order to further the far-right Eurosceptic movement in their own countries. These movements are vehemently xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic, and they expose Europe to the dangers of division and isolationism that lead to conflict.
Meanwhile, racist and xenophobic outbursts have been reported all over the UK in the wake of the referendum as the dregs of society are emboldened by what they see as a validation of their hatred. Economic recession will hit the poorest in society hardest, and it’s a very real possibility at this stage. What’s more, the burden of repairing the longer-lasting consequences will fall to the youth, who above all other demographics overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.
It’s also not clear what the UK’s role on the world stage will be in the future. When the UK joined the European Union, the British Empire was still a thing. Thanks to its colonial past, England has been a hub for international exchange of goods, finance, business and culture for centuries.
Uh, thanks, colonialism?
But now it’s facing the possibility of being entirely alone, without advantage or unity. What does the future hold for an isolated UK? For an isolated England?
The future probably doesn’t hold a second referendum, despite that petition going around (which, hilariously, was actually set up by a pessimistic Leave voter before the results were announced). Perhaps Scotland will try and block the UK’s exit, but to be frank, the dangers of going against the outcome of the referendum at this stage really need to be considered. Commitments were made, and the democratic process yielded this result, even if it is an extremely terrible decision made by an under-informed public and influenced by a line-up of people who will not be treated well by the history books. If the UK government decides to renege on its commitment, there will be a lot of extremely angry extremely hard-right people across the country, fuelled by self-righteous fury. We are only five years distant from the riots in 2011 that swept through the country like a rabid feral cat – they were driven by rage against inequality, and in the end a lot of the rage behind the Leave campaign stems from a similar, though disastrously misdirected, place.
It’s also not clear how the rest of the world is going to be affected, once the rush of tweets and think-pieces (including mine) dies down. Many are looking westward in abject fear of the US election in November and the prospect of Trump riding the rising wave of right-wing populist into the White House. But I’m done prophesying doom for today, so I’ll let Samantha Bee explore that one:
[Header image source: https://pixabay.com/en/brexit-exit-united-kingdom-england-1481024/]