The day has come and gone, the votes are in and the results are out: of the 33.5 million votes expressed on Thursday last, accounting for 72% of eligible voters, 52% voted in favor of the UK putting an end to its 40+ year relationship with the EU. This is a shocking, embarrassing, even dangerous development for the UK especially, as we’ll see below, when one looks at the consequences.
Before I dive into the details, allow me to get one thing out of the way: my own personal opinion, which I’m afraid I can hardly keep entirely out of this text. Though a relative outsider, I was and remain (see what I did there?) strongly on the Remain side of the debate. The EU is not perfect, but is perfectible and it’s clear to me in so many ways that the benefits of EU membership far outweigh the benefits of leaving, and the risks of leaving are not worth the potential benefits of leaving or their likelihood.
However, this does not mean that I am trying to push my agenda here. Feel free to have and maintain your own point of view on the issue. This piece is merely intended as a commentary of the background, events, consequences of this event, and some conclusions that can be drawn from it.
The EU for Dummies, in a Nutshell
The European Economic Community was born on May 9th, 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome. This treaty bound together Belgium, France, the German Federal Republic, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in an economic area aiming to encourage free trade of goods across these countries’ borders. At time of writing, this space has since expanded 8 times in 1973, 1981, 1986, 1990 (with the German reunification), 1995, 2004, 2007 and 2013, all the way to the 28 current members.
The advantages of EU membership are enormous:
- free access to a 500+ million person market for a country’s resources, goods and services and access to more competitive resources, goods and services from a wider market (both with no import / export duties attached)
- a common currency to hold it all together and minimize extra expenses through exchange commissions (to a degree) and facilitate cross-border transactions
- freedom for citizens to travel, live, study, work and even to a degree vote and run for office in any of the 28 member countries
- common citizenship allowing citizens to use the services of any member country’s embassy abroad if necessary
- a much easier mixing of complementary skill sets across borders, allowing for greater education quality, innovation, research, development etc.
True, the costs of maintaining this big a structure are significant: bureaucracy, infrastructure, legislation, regulations, and yes, the necessary sacrifice of some degree of sovereignty in order to ensure the smooth running of the whole thing. Membership alone has a cost, like a club’s fee, but the benefits reaped from membership far outweigh this. One can compare this to Rousseau’s Social Contract: in any single country, there is a tacit social contract whereby the population willingly sacrifices some of its liberty and freedom, in exchange for guarantees of basic rights, security and a stable environment in which to live. The European Union is intended as a “democracy of countries”, whereby each one has a say in the running of the whole thing, and sacrifices part of its freedom (or, in this case, sovereignty) in exchange for certain rights and guarantees.
Building the Roof before the Walls
Ever since the very beginning, the EEC/EU has come across certain hurdles in its evolution. In fact, from the start, and all the way until a more definite, standardized (I’m sorry, Brits, you can’t lecture me about my spelling any more) framework was set up in 1993, there were fewer default conditions for membership. It is sad to say that as a result, idealism and hubris tended to win out, and exceptions were made everywhere for various member states. Half-measures were taken everywhere. This went from measures that only applied to part of the member states to measures that were built from the roof down, with shaky or nonexistent (yet still load-bearing) walls.
Two examples come to mind here: First, the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy). This was intended to help European agriculture stay competitive by subsidizing selling prices. This backfired because no thought was given to how the EU would liquidate the surplus when nobody was willing to sell below the guaranteed price. Also, it led to certain exceptions, like in the UK where, because a more industrial economy, the country was contributing significantly more than it was receiving, and got a special “rebate” to compensate for it.
The other example is the euro. A single currency was implemented across 19 countries today (12 initially), with the obvious objective of facilitating cross-border transactions and reducing exchange rate variations and commissions. But though the currency was successfully implemented, key measures that should have been taken weren’t. This eventually brought about the recent PIIGS crises, where the lack of sufficient integration of accounting rules, let alone economic or fiscal policies, led to ‘creative accounting’ on the part of several countries. This in turn culminated in debt defaults, credit crunches, massive job losses and ultimately, unpopular austerity policies to help things get back on track.
It’s looking more and more like the Union was built in the wrong order, allowing for the wrong measures and the wrong exceptions at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. Continuing enlargement, of course, didn’t help much, though to be fair the most finicky member countries are undoubtedly the large well-established powers who have been there the longest. And this trend isn’t over. Member states have gotten so complacent about scoring exceptions and deals that they’re often unwilling to even consider submitting further.
One positive trend does exist: every time the EU has faced such a crisis in the past, they have usually managed to deal with it within 4 or 5 years through an extra step furthering integration. But this is bound to have its limitations, as unless they elect more rational leaders, the picky French or the finicky Britons or the frustrated Germans are likely to reach the end of what they consider an ‘acceptable’ sacrifice of sovereignty.
The Ins and Outs of UK Membership
The UK gained its place in the EEC, after years of being blocked by then French President Charles de Gaulle, after his resignation. They officially became a member in 1973. Already questions arose about whether the country should stay, and merely two years later the first membership referendum was held. With 67% voting in favor of staying, the answer was clear-cut and obvious.
Over the following decades, however, pro-EU feeling in the UK faded. One of the main feelings about this was related to the fact that staying in the EU was putting obstacles in the country’s free dealings with the USA and the Commonwealth (the UK-run ‘club of ex-colonies’ all claiming HM Elizabeth II as head of state, essentially a personal union of virtually independent countries)
In the 1990s, a new thorn dug into the side of the EU-UK relations: the proposal of the single currency, the euro. Benefiting from a strong, stable, reliable and widely respected currency of their own, Britain was reluctant to abandon this in favor of a new currency they would not have complete control of and which would depend too much on the performance of countries with very different approaches to economics (France, Italy, Germany etc.). So they chose to opt out of the euro and keep the pound.
Since the turn of the millennium, other feelings started cropping up regarding immigration. Government policy around and following the 2004 enlargement (the single biggest enlargement in EU history, with 10 Central and Eastern European countries joining in) was in favor of opening the borders to immigrants from those new countries along the same lines as was already done for people from older members. This actually worked out quite well, with Britain boasting a notable economic boom as a counterpoint to the status quo of countries like France, who in their paranoia about “Polish plumbers” had decided to limit immigration in the wake of this enlargement.
However, the perception after a few years was that immigration was becoming too much of a trend, and that the immigrants were leeches feeding off Welfare State benefits. I stress the word perception here, because it has been well established that immigrants are actually much less likely than Britons to claim, let alone live off of, such benefits. Furthermore, this concerns not only intra-EU migrants, but also external migrants who take advantage of less strict controls at some southern entry points, then the open and free borders between EU countries, to make it all the way into Britain.
This last element took a dramatic turn with the worsening of the Syrian insurrection and the refugee crisis that cropped up last year. Fears of extra Muslim immigration, possibly connected with ISIS militants and terrorism, made this prospect that much more worrisome. However, on that point, it is rather hard to relate to a country whose lax integration policies have allowed one of the world’s most vocal radical Islamist leaders to thrive mostly unchecked within its own borders…
The 2015 General election in Britain was unusual in that neither of the two major parties looked set to win an outright majority in Parliament. As such, both parties worked toward securing a majority with various coalitions. UKIP (the UK Independence Party, most in favor of a Brexit) offered to support the Tories in the event of a minority victory, in exchange for a promise of a EU referendum. David Cameron complied and so won the election. And even though it didn’t take place within the time allotted by UKIP, the referendum was indeed held last Thursday.
Though the referendum was really about whether the UK should choose to enact article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, only a few of the issues involved actually dominated the campaigns and, it seems, the decision. The main one seemed to be concern over immigration: the increased immigration from EU and non-EU countries, especially with the recent Syrian migrants crisis. The migration wave is also perceived to put unfavorable pressure on jobs, wages and security in the UK, and the lack of a really coordinated EU-wide response to the Syrian wave in particular is perceived as another failing allowing thousands of migrants right through the porous EU borders into the UK.
The other major issue at hand was concern over the UK’s contribution to the EU budget and how little the country got back from it (according to widely publicized figures, £350m/week – true net figures point to only £160m/week at most, or merely 1% of GDP), mostly compared with what it gets back materially from the EU. Any advantages linked to the Single Market were downplayed because of the perceived weight of regulations imposed on goods and services.
Other issues include:
- economic rules over VAT and economic regulations (which the UK will still have to comply with anyway if they wish to maintain their trade with the EU) and access to the Single Market (loss of which would cost much more than is gained by maintaining it)
- sovereignty and security and law enforcement (loss of access to cooperation with Europol and other intelligence services / police border control (which, though likely able to curb the flow of undesirable migrants, will increase significantly as a cost center in the national budget)
- the TTIP negotiations (this treaty posing a possible threat to cherished public services such as the NHS but also holding governments unreasonably liable to corporations)
- science and research (16% of whose funding comes from EU programs)
- and the impact of further European enlargement (mostly on immigration).
Polls & results
Polling on this issue was very close right up to the very end. At no point in the entire process did polls clearly point to one side unquestionably in the lead: the highest leads attained by either side, at up to 19% difference, could always be made up for or reversed by the undecided, or floating, vote. Even the latest opinion polls before actual voting started on Thursday pointed to a Remain victory, largely in the wake of the murder of Pro-Remain MP Jo Cox by a crazed far-right pro-Leave fanatic.
On polling day proper, the very first results to come out seemed to indicate a Remain victory, and the financial and foreign exchange markets at first reacted very positively to this. However, during the night as more results came in, this trend was quickly reversed and the final result was 51.9% in favor of Leave and 48.1% in favor of Remain, with a 72% turnout rate.
Even the referendum results themselves, taken in the wider context of the polls during the campaign, seem almost inconclusive, like just another zag in the back-and-forth trends since January. But because it was obtained through the actual ballot boxes rather than by asking random people what they thought, it is the one that matters, and the first impressions are that the UK has just announced that it is breaking up with the EU and is only planning arrangements to move out.
Not so fast, buddy boy…
But things are far from actually decided at this point. Most people appear to think that now that the vote said Leave, it’s a done deal. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the referendum was NOT BINDING. This means that Parliament and the Cabinet are under no obligation to act on the result. Considering the Cabinet’s and Parliament’s general stance on the issue, therefore, one should not be so hasty as to consider that a Brexit will indeed occur.
For another, the referendum and its implications are having several unintended consequences on the British population. In fact, considering 1) how volatile the poll results were all the way until the very end and 2) the whole Bregret phenomenon (more on that later), it seems as if the British voters weren’t done making up their minds yet about this, and in fact, the narrow victory only supports this theory. But most telling, however, are the popular reactions following the vote.
I will start this part by recounting another past referendum: the one about the proposed European Constitution back in 2005 in France. On site, one of the principal defenders of the constitution treaty was Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose ratings had considerably slid because of his insistence on right-wing reforms, and many people voted more against his government (because of certain controversial and unpopular measures taken by decree).
Here too, we’re seeing a distinct tendency toward what I would have to call a misvote. Starting on the very next day after voting, close to four million voters (accounting for over 10% of expressed votes) claimed to “regret” their choice on voting day. Most of the Leave turncoats said they had intended their vote as a protest vote, not expecting the Leave option to win. Only when they saw the implications of their votes the following morning did they realize what they’d done and what it meant for the country.
Another significant fact: In the hours after the official vote results were announced, it appeared that Britons hardly even knew what it was they were voting about, with Google noting a sharp uptick in UK users looking up the European Union, what it is and what leaving it implies. Information straight from the search engine’s mouth indicates the following trends in searches for the words “remain”, “leave”, “European Union”, “immigration” and as a control sample, “football” over the past 12 months and the past week:
As if this weren’t bad enough, it seems Britons’ real concerns regarding Brexit were all too mundane. A quick look at the image below should give a clearer idea of this: only 3 (at best) of these concerns are in any way relevant to the implications of this vote.
As I mentioned above, it’s looking more and more like British voters considered last Thursday to be just another poll, or worse still, a practice run, in the run-up to the real deal, instead of actually BEING the real deal. When one follows the trends, it is painfully clear that the population was not prepared or informed enough to make a clear decision on this topic: for one thing, it seems the voters’ perception of the actual issue at hand was drastically incomplete, incorrect, even irrelevant. For another thing, it seems they weren’t taking the referendum itself seriously, and because of the lack of accurate, relevant information, voted rather randomly on completely different issues.
In the few short days following the actual vote, things have been looking fairly bad for the UK. Political in-fighting, with the instigation of what has been called a coup within the Labour party, the resignation of David Cameron, a petition with nearly 4m signatures requesting a second referendum. Faced with the prospect of delivering on a promise he had made that he no longer agreed with (Cameron had indeed promised to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on the EU immediately after a Leave vote), Cameron chose instead to resign and leave the task to his successor.
On the Leave side, already the walls are cracking and the major leaders of the campaign are pulling back on their promises: Nigel Farage, head of the UKIP, could not guarantee that the alleged £350m/week would indeed, as promised, be spent on the NHS, calling this a “campaign mistake”. Boris Johnson himself suddenly appears wary of actually carrying out the Brexit. It’s increasingly looking like whoever decides to actually do this will be committing political suicide.
This is, to a degree, hardly surprising. Reasons against carrying out the Brexit seem to be piling up ever since the poll itself: for one thing, the emergence of Bregret, those votes for Leave that were cast so merely because the voters in question didn’t expect Leave to win and merely wanted to cast a protest vote. For another thing, a minor scandal has erupted regarding voters living abroad, many of whom never received their postal ballots and were met with indifference when they reported this and asked for their ballots. On the financial markets, the FTSE 100 (London Stock Exchange) lost over £50bn in market capitalization since the publication of the results (which would have been £175bn without a late rise on Friday afternoon). The Pound sterling, proud currency still “resisting” the euro invasion, lost 20% of its value on Friday alone, its biggest dip in over 30 years.
But possibly the biggest, most emotional threat to the UK following this vote is the reaction of the Scots and Northern Irish. Both these countries voted Remain with a very large margin, even as England and Wales chose Leave. Even London voted massively in favor of Remain. In fact, separatist sentiment has been reignited not only in Scotland, where a new referendum for independence has been promised in case of an actual Brexit, with favorable intentions expected to reach 60% this time. Separatist sentiment has also stirred in Northern Ireland, who is now making noises about finally reunifying with the Republic of Ireland.
Even in London, a significant petition was submitted to Mayor Sadiq Khan asking him to declare London’s independence. As a city-state, the city would be able to hold its own as an EU member country. Its population is larger than that of Austria, its area is more than half of that of Luxembourg, and its GDP, as 20% of the UK total, is also comparable to that of Austria. Gibraltar has also started talking about remaining in the EU despite a Leave vote, because of its connection with Spain, but hasn’t yet spoken of breaking away from the UK itself. Unfortunately this kind of special status is as yet untested and remains unlikely.
It’s difficult to predict the exact consequences of this break-up, of course. Quite aside from the emotional aspect of the connection with Scotland, the northern country boasts the UK’s largest fossil-fuel resources in Britain in its North Sea oil fields, a boon that London would certainly hate to lose. London itself is the core and center of not only the Kingdom, but also of the entire Establishment, the Royal Family, as well as the City and its banks, stock exchange and insurance companies. Not to mention “Londependence” would deprive the UK of 20% of its GDP and force the UK to completely move its capital and government institutions, at great cost.
Northern Ireland, the part of Ireland that the UK has managed to hold on to for 85 years longer than the Republic, is admittedly more of religious and emotional significance than of economic significance. But pride after 85 years can still play a part. Gibraltar, which the UK insists on keeping despite constant Spanish pressure, also poses more of an emotional threat. The fact is, the 300-year-strong Union is likely to be significantly reshaped if the Tories actually go through with this, a massive blow to national pride.
So… To leave or not to leave? That is the question
What with all these elements, it’s looking less and less likely that the UK will actually one day invoke Article 50. The leading Leave campaigners are already backing down on many of their promises, realizing no doubt that given the situation and the risks (of which the current situation is but a foretaste), carrying this through to completion would likely lead to political suicide. The risk of British Balkanization, the implications of the loss of access to the Single Market, the narrow victory combined with the Bregret phenomenon, and ultimately the fact that this referendum was never intended as binding anyway all point to the fact that there is a distinct chance the UK Parliament will choose to remain after all.
One more reason for this: Leave campaigners called voters’ bluff on this issue during the campaign, and were probably right up to a point, but recent developments will probably soon change the situation somewhat: Other exit movements started to voice their positions in countries like Czechia, France, Greece and the Netherlands. Faced with the threat of further exits, and despite the large contribution the EU stands to lose from UK’s departure from the Single Market, Brussels will doubtless play hardball in any Article 50 negotiations, as an incentive to other countries not to push it. Which means the UK would have a much harder time scoring a deal that will work for them, and this in turn will only worsen the UK’s economic situation following an actual Brexit.
The Shocking Failure of Democracy
True, I have not been entirely neutral in the entire debate, in seeing the results or even here in commenting them. However, in this final part, I will branch off on a separate point, and return to the immediate reactions of the voters following the referendum. I have mentioned above that all the evidence points to the fact that voters didn’t understand or even try to understand what they’d voted for until the day after the actual vote. Many voted for completely irrelevant reasons, intending a “protest vote” and not expecting their vote to make a difference.
This is, to me, frankly shocking. The intent of democracy is to give people a say in the running of their country. This intent is perfectly legitimate and normal. But one must admit that sounds rather hollow when the people don’t even bother to find out what it is they’re having a say in and cast random ballots on random other issues instead… This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened, and will not be the last.
I believe this trend is representative of a few critical phenomena: Individual voters need proper information and education regarding political issues they are concerned with, and access to the necessary information. But this alone won’t help them make more informed decisions: they also need to develop a true critical sense and the ability to rationally measure arguments one way and the other against one another, taking bias and secondary interests into consideration. Voting in a democracy is not something to be taken lightly: it is a right given and guaranteed to citizens by the state, but it comes with a duty to understand what they are having a say in.
What has really shocked me in this vote isn’t the result itself: after all, it was a referendum, and the results are in. What really bothers me is the after-the-fact interest in what they were actually supposed to have voted on 24 hours earlier. What really irritates me is how over 30 million people appeared to consider the actual final vote as just another poll before the final referendum. What really shocks me is how lightly people took this issue, seeming to consider that changing their minds after the vote is perfectly normal and justifies an extra vote. It may, in some cases, yes, but in this case, the immediate damage is done. Britain chose to tread lightly down this path, but will find it immensely hard to backtrack on.
This may seem harsh, but in the light of events like the US Presidential election in 2000, the French 2002 Presidential election, the French 2005 vote on the European Constitution, and now this, it seems even the most democratic countries have gotten complacent about their systems and now take democratic participation for granted. The lessons I, for one, draw from this event are as follows:
- Never consider that “just your vote” won’t count: look how many people came to rue this fact last week
- Severe fallacies in civic knowledge and political awareness lead to citizens with little understanding of the issues they vote on
- Between those with little understanding of the issue at hand and those who just want to cast a protest vote, there is significant danger of misvoting
All in all, and it’s sad to say, but if as democratic populations we have indeed become this complacent about our voice and our say in government, and are able to completely ignore the issue and the facts to the point of voting on only part of the issue, or even a completely separate issue, maybe we’re not ready to live in democracy yet. Maybe we were once, but we’re not ready any more. And maybe, just maybe, we just don’t deserve democracy yet…