In the early hours of the morning today a majority of British voters responded to the question that has been at the forefront of much discussion both in Europe and the UK for many months now. Over 17 million people have decided that the United Kingdom should no longer be part of the European Union.
Despite predictions leading up to the vote this result comes as a shock to many, including some who voted in favour of leaving, and is being framed, understandably by many of the 16 million or so in the Remain camp as an utter catastrophe. Realistically, the sky is still blue, the sun still shines (more or less), and, for the moment at least, the UK is still part of the EU. It’s not quite time to panic just yet. A number of other pressing questions must be answered before those disappointed and outraged by the outcome begin packing their suitcases.
First, will the government actually undertake the legal steps necessary for the UK to leave the EU? Last year after the Greek bailout referendum the people’s vote turned out to be nothing more than a cruelly patronizing exercise in futility. This comparison is not intended to suggest that the two situations are identical, but in no way is the result of this referendum legally binding. To actually begin the process the British government must first formally invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty after which, according to EU regulation, they will have a period of two years during which they may negotiate the new terms of the nation’s relationship with the EU and withdraw before being automatically given the boot and left subject to general international terms of trade set by the World Trade Organisation. If the British do invoke Article 50, then the next question is just how severe and vindictive will and can the EU be in the subsequent negotiations?
The current situation and sentiment are reminiscent of that in Switzerland a little over two years ago when the majority (though excruciatingly slight, 50.34%) of the Swiss voted in favour of a law proposed by the zealously xenophobic right-wing Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC) – otherwise known as the Swiss People’s Party – to limit immigration from the EU by imposing quotas. Interestingly, and illogically, analysis of the voting patterns showed that it was mostly older Swiss nationals, and more generally citizens in rural areas or other parts of the country least affected by immigration – in some cases not affected by immigration at all – that were most terrified of and opposed to it. Looking at today’s results a similar paradoxical pattern seems to have been replicated in the UK.
Within a week or two of the result the EU decided to punish those segments of society the overwhelming majority of which had voted against this law; students were excluded from the Erasmus student exchange program and Swiss research facilities were cut off from EU funding and excluded from research programs. Today, Swiss students are once again allowed to reap the benefits of the Erasmus program (Switzerland is a “silent” partner) but research facilities and other academic institutions have limited access to EU funds despite the existence of bilateral agreements on the subject and their participation in European research programs has declined drastically. Will the British be able to negotiate a better deal? Just how much weight can the UK still throw around?
During President Obama’s visit to London in April this year he urged the British public to remain a part of the EU at the risk of finding themselves at the “back of the queue” for trade negotiations with the US. Will the Americans now make good on this threat? Will the 5th largest economy in the world, one of the five United Nations Security Council permanent members, and relatedly one of the US’s closest military allies really be jostled, unceremoniously to the back of the US’s trade deal “line”?
Then again, will the UK still be a united kingdom if it actually leaves the EU? Although a majority of the English and Welsh voted to leave, in both Scotland and Northern Ireland the votes were preponderantly in favour of remaining. How likely is it that the latter two will simply roll over and accept a result they in fact rejected? First minister Nicola Sturgeon has already stated that the prospect of Scotland being dragged out of the EU unwillingly is “democratically unacceptable.” Scottish independence or at the very least a second referendum on independence no longer appear to be a distant dream for those disappointed by the 2014 results. What about Northern Ireland? Sinn Féin national party chairperson Declan Kearney’s stated that the party would call for a border poll regarding the reunification of Ireland. Meanwhile Google reported a large increase in searches in the country from people inquiring about applying for an Irish passport.
Going beyond the borders of the UK, is this the beginning of the end for the EU? If the UK does leave and perhaps later down the line decides to come back, will there even be an EU for it to rejoin? With the increasing rise of eurosceptic right-wing parties such as France’s Front National (FN), the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and others throughout the continent – and abroad lest we forget the waking night terror that is Donald Trump – jubilant and bolstered by today’s result, one can hardly blame the doom-mongers. Might France and Germany decide to leave as well? If they do what would be left of the EU and would it really be so dramatic that the UK is no longer part of it?
What would this new, transformed Europe resemble and what role will the UK play in it? The British Empire may certainly be a shadow of its former self, however in no way is it an immaterial shade. It would be naive to assume that what remains in its place is an impotent and insignificant relic in a wholly metamorphosed, modern world. Today, the world certainly has changed, but how much so, we’ll have to wait and see.