Brexit Basics

By Alex Moore

In one of the most shocking electoral outcomes in recent memory, the United Kingdom voted by a slim margin to leave the European Union on June 23rd. The “Brexit” campaign, as it was hailed, shocked many who follow international affairs closely. The referendum started off as a random campaign promise from British Prime Minister David Cameron (who resigned after betting his political career as the face of the remain campaign) in order to appease the fringe right wing of his party. However, following a nasty campaign of blatant lies and demagogic tactics from both the leave and remain campaigns, we will now see Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty invoked for the first time as the UK (which could be without Scotland and Northern Ireland in the near future) will begin the process of leaving the EU.

Quick background, since many Americans are a bit unfamiliar with British politics and where the parties stood on the issue.

Conservative Party: Prime Minister David Cameron’s party. Holds majority in House of Commons (parliament). Party is badly fractured over the remain/stay debate with half of the party being pro-EU (David Cameron was the face of the remain campaign) and the further right wing segment supporting the leave campaign.

Labour Party: Generally pro-EU, with the further left wing of the party being somewhat Eurosceptic and anti-globalization protectionists (think Bernie Sanders). The majority of the labour party supported the stay campaign. However, as we will discuss, they did a terrible job at this.

UK Independence Party: 100000% anti-Europe fringe right wing party. Led by Nigel Farage, one of the biggest faces of the leave campaign (and a first ballot punchable face hall of famer). Have long relied on Brussels bashing and nativism to gain popularity. Donald Trump’s long lost English cousins.

First things first, it is worth noting just how toxic and demagogic this campaign was. The leave campaign, in particular, relied on blatant lies and xenophobic tactics. One of the 2 or 3 biggest faces of the leave campaign was Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP, a party that has long tip toed the line of racism and nativism. The remain campaign will unquestionably go down as one of the worst run campaigns we will ever witness. Prime Minister Cameron offered passionate and substantiated reasons why he supported stay. However, he was plagued by past quotes of his where he bashed Brussels for its occasional overregulation and bureaucratic deficiencies. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a long-time left wing Eurosceptic himself, said leading up to the referendum that he was 70% behind remain. Are. You. Serious. Labour Party leadership was so bad at expressing their support behind remain that nearly 5/10 labour party supporters didn’t know if their party supported remain or leave. In the end, the remain campaign lost despite having the backing of unions, big business, the leadership of the two major political parties in England, and the government of every single English ally (oh, and J.K Rowling and David Beckham).

Make no mistake about it, my friends; the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is a historic act of self-harm. “Brexit” will end up dealing substantial blows to the UK’s economy, strategic interests, and international prestige. This may be the beginning of the end of the European project as well, but we will get to that later.

In the days following the referendum, we witnessed firsthand the short term economic uncertainty that the vote caused, as stock markets around the world reacted and the value of the British pound plummeted. In the long run, things could get even more uncertain and drastic. The leave campaign was essentially built on blatant lies promising economic paradise following Brexit. Now, they are facing substantial tariffs and trade barriers to the market that is the recipient of nearly half of British exports. The UK could, in theory, negotiate similar deals to Norway and Switzerland, both of whom are not in the EU but are allowed EU market access as if they were. However this is unlikely, because both of these countries pay EU dues, follow EU regulations, and allow free movement of labor (everything the leave campaign is against). Moreover, the United States is knee deep in negotiating a massive free trade deal with the EU, known as TTIP (transatlantic trade and investment partnership). England now finds itself missing out on all of the fruit this massive deal is going to reap.

Along with the economic malaise that has/will continue to hit the UK, the very concept of the UK is now in question. First and foremost, within England itself, generational and demographic ruptures are evident. Old folks and those in the country’s northern territory voted overwhelmingly to leave, while young folks and those in and around London voted overwhelmingly to stay. More importantly, however, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted convincingly to stay and both leaders in both countries have already outlined their plans to seek independence from the UK and pursue EU accession. Ironically, we could see Northern Ireland and Ireland united due to this idiotic leave decision. Funny how after decades of “The Troubles” coming to a close with the UK victorious over the Provisional IRA, a decision made by primarily Englishmen could result in the thing the IRA sought the most: a unified Ireland. Scotland, who held a referendum over UK independence in 2014 (voting to stay), will most likely end up holding another one, this time the results likely being different. The global economic and military prestige of a once great power has now been relegated to this.

Lastly, I want to touch on what I feel has the potential to be far and away the most consequential outcome of the Brexit vote. The continent of Europe had been plagued by interstate wars, trade protectionism, and misunderstanding for centuries, culminating in the deadliest conflict in human history: World War II. Following the war, continent leaders had the bright idea that, hey, maybe we should integrate ourselves economically, politically, and culturally so that we can bring this confrontation to a close once and for all. The result was the European Steel and Coal Community, then the European Economic Community, and eventually what we now know today as the European Union. It is hard for me to overstate just how brilliant the creation of this supranational governmental organization was and still is. I engage in no hyperbole when I say that the European Union was the greatest world accomplishment of the 20th century.

The EU now faces an existential threat unlike anything it has experienced. Across Europe, fringe right wing parties have gained substantial backing in numerous countries, utilizing fears about the refugee flow into Europe and the economic/monetary breakdown to advocate for leaving the EU and retreating behind closed borders and trade protectionism (AKA recreating Europe in the 1930’s). The Brexit vote has now emboldened these parties to seek to recreate their own Brexit. France, for example, has a presidential election coming up in 2017, as does Germany (where Angela Merkel’s brave stance on refugees has seen her popularity plummet). If the National Front makes substantial gains in France (where the EU is just as unpopular as it was in England at the time of the vote) we could see a Frexit referendum in play. The EU can survive Brexit, but Frexit would most assuredly be the death sentence for the world’s greatest political accomplishment of the 20th century.

What a time for me to move to Brussels (where the EU is) and pursue a career in international affairs, huh?

Photo Credit: Lee Champan