BERLIN, 25 JUNE 2016: What will the Brexit earthquake bring? I think it depends on how far you are from the epicentre, and whether you are a victim.
Shockwaves in Europe
Let’s start farther from the epicentre, across the channel. To what extent has the quake destabilised the EU institutions? Will we too, on the Continent, enter a situation where populism upends the unity of the European project? There are a lot of open questions, but there are, in fact, a few reasons to believe that Europe is, for now, relatively safe.
First, it could be argued from middle-left position that Britain leaving the EU might actually be good for it. Wasn’t Britain, after all, a ‘Trojan Horse’ of neoliberalism and euroscepticism, now left outside the gates? The EU can now move forward without British objections, on more progressive legislation in fields reaching from free-trade agreements (such as the loathed TTIP), social protections, to––coming up––data security and internet privacy. There may be in Brexit the possibility of an ‘ever-closer’ union after all, with EU institutions now forced to reform.
One should also consider that the combination of forces in the UK that brought about the Brexit referendum in the first place was quite extraordinary. It’s unusual (and I think perhaps a first in British parliamentary history) for a ruling government to put forward a referendum that was not in its own political interest. During the 2015 election campaign, Cameron promised the referendum (thinking it would fail) to steal UKIP’s Eurosceptic electorate from under its feet, so that the Conservatives could obtain their majority. The British public is now paying the price for that moment of opportunism, and they will pay for generations (especially those young people who came out in force to ‘remain’). Here, we have a classic example of how dangerous it is for a mainstream political party to flirt with far-right populism for political gain.
The next question is whether the leadership of the other European member states are willing to play that populist game? One needs then to look at where Eurosceptic governments are in power in Europe, and where Eurosceptic public opinion is vigorous enough to attract the attention of mainstream parties who would instrumentalise it for their party platforms.
On the first point, we should be wary but not terrified, no matter how much the press likes to capitalise on fear. I don’t think one can conceive of a European Union without France and Germany at its core. Both––at least this week––seem set to stay in. Of the two, the one that causes worry is France, and Marine Le Pen has revelled in the Brexit victory; in recent polls she has 30% of the vote. But while this might bring her to the second ballot of a Presidential vote, these numbers are unlikely to give her control of the country.
Meanwhile, in Germany––despite recent successes in regional government elections––the Eurosceptic and far-right Alternative for Germany is polling nationally only around 14% (63% of them would like to leave the EU). But 79% of Germans this week were polled saying they wished to stay in the EU. Germany is at this time Europe’s anchor, and in Angela Merkel it has its strongest (albeit embattled) leader. It will be interesting to observe whether Merkel’s response to the Brexit challenge is a demand for more, not less, Europe.
The far-right is in power in a number of smaller countries, such as Hungary and Poland. In the latter, Brexit was unpopular, however, because of the close to a million Poles living in the UK who risk expulsion. In terms of public opinion, Eurobarometer (the EU Commission’s survey arm) provides more than forty years of data on Euroscepticism. When citizens were asked whether it would be easier to face a future outside the EU (December 2015), only in four countries did more than 40% reply in the affirmative: Cyprus (55%, where the far-right has made in-roads in government), the UK (47%, this number is close to the 52% who voted out), Slovenia (48%) and Austria (45%, where in April the far-right narrowly missed a victory). On the other hand, more than 60% of citizens in countries such as the Netherlands (76%), Ireland (65%), Spain (62%), Sweden (61%), say life is better in the EU. It is disquieting, however, to note that in Denmark (where 71% were pro-European last year), the nationalist Danish People’s Party holds up the government.
I think we have cause to be reassured and not petrified. One is not yet in the situation when Eurosceptics control most governments or, where, in many cases, other governments are willing to represent them. Of course, public opinion (and resulting opportunism) is changing quickly since the Brexit; this uncertainty is troubling, and it is possible we will see a smaller closer Europe. A lot will depend on how well Britain fares outside the EU initially, whether other Europeans are convinced that their livelihoods have not been sufficiently damaged by their exit.
The Epicentre in Britain
The negotiators on the EU side know too that how Britain fares is being closely eyed by neighbours. EU leaders have made clear that any trade deal with Britain will be a game of hardball so that the Brexit remains a cautionary tale to those other countries thinking of leaving. A Norway-style deal (which in any case is a raw deal, because one most of the obligations of EU membership without a place at the table) seems out of the question for Britain, as even this would be seen as Britain having its cake and eating it too. Meanwhile, the initial, predicted sell off on the FTSE, and plummet of the pound, don’t really give us yet a sense of just how bad things could get in Britain: as interest rates rise and affect people’s mortgages, as recession hits, as the City of London’s banking center gets on with plans to relocate if it has no access to the common market (to Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin?).
This discussion brings us to the epicentre: the referendum has exposed a Britain that is, in fact, very fragile. One of the saddest aspects of the successful referendum is that those motivated to ‘vote leave’ were in most cases the poorest, geographically remote members of the citizenry. It is so regrettable that ‘remain’ and ‘stay’ became a debate between the ‘haves’ in the area around London and the ‘have nots’ in the provinces. The outlying areas were easily manipulated by falsehoods propagated by a populist campaign, and by the tabloid press, suggesting a lack of political exposure and acumen. This failure of critical thinking asks questions about the provision for good public education–– for questioning the sensationalism of the press––that should be the foundation of democratic life. But just making this observation––however true it might be––smacks of the elitism against which many in those places were reacting. Perhaps theirs was just a cry for help. Nonetheless, blaming immigrants and the EU were facile but effective rallying calls, turning people away from the problem closer to home: the staggering income inequality along class lines. The saddest thing, with poor people from former industrial towns in the Midlands voting to leave, is that their choice will make them even worse off. Meanwhile, the ugliness of racism in England–– perhaps the biggest source of support for this referendum––makes one stop and think of frightening and familiar historical parallels where fear of difference is whipped up for political gain, giving one pause about the future of multiculturalism in Britain.
One need only look at the demographics of the polls to see how more than 60% voted to leave in certain groups: those regionally located in England outside of London and the Southeast, those over 65 years old, those on a state pension, those living in council flats or housing associations, and those who are ‘skilled working class’, ‘working class’ and unemployed (according to the NRS social grade scale). 58% of those who voted to ‘leave’ said they normally never follow the news. Those most likely to vote to stay were (more than 60%): those with a higher university degree, those still at university, those describing themselves as Asian or Black, those who are Muslim, and 57% of those from AB social grades (‘upper middle class’ and ‘middle class’).
In the meanwhile, this quake almost certainly means a series of coming more localised tectonic shifts: Northern Ireland and Scotland are the next fault lines. Scotland will almost certainly leave the UK now, unless the EU becomes so dis-unified no one will wish to join it. If one looks at the last referendum, Scots voted to remain because they were not convinced that EU membership would be automatic (Spain, for example, would have vetoed Scotland, out of concern for their own separatist regions). Now the Scots have the argument on their side that it is not they who are leaving Europe, but rather England and Wales.
There is some chatter online about how long the British government––who never wanted this result––will take with the procedural next steps to disassociate Britain from the EU under Article 50. Are they obliged to pull up the drawbridge if it’s not in Britain’s interest (that’s assuming that the hinges are on Britain’s side at this stage in the game)? But if you are looking for civil unrest in Britain, you will get it if the public will––expressed by the referendum––is not respected and Parliament turns its back on democracy, however populist and pigheaded. Parliament meanwhile has plenty else on its mind: the nightmare of catching up and writing laws for all the legislation that was outsourced to the EU, since 1973. The EU leaders, for their part, will do their best to get the UK out as quickly as possible.
All this is concern on the macro level. All these changes will upend lives. Most of my friends will do OK. A close friend, a Brit living in Brussels, told me, ‘I am going to stay here, but it breaks my heart because England is my homeland’; he suddenly feels like an expat, not a European, despite working for European institutions all his professional life. But I’m sure he will find another job, and many like him will eventually see themselves as world citizens. I know a German-British couple in the UK whose child drew a German flag in class, and brought it home only for her parents to burst into tears. But they are educated resourceful people. My partner works at a UK university, but we live in Berlin: somehow we thought we weren’t really living between countries––but rather commuting within the same world. Overnight, it doesn’t feel like that anymore, but this is a matter of perception and not a practical change––yet––in our lives. I am more worried about my British artist friends in Berlin, whose incomes might not be regular enough to satisfy the future demands of German immigration authorities.
Meanwhile, British universities are sending reassuring emails to their EU students, saying their funding won’t be cut. EU Commission officials are assuring their British bureaucrats they can keep their jobs (just not advance in them). Meanwhile plenty of people in the EU Parliament are in tears and thinking about work. But this list hardly seems representative of the 3.3 million EU citizens in Britain (2.2 in employment) and 1.2 million British citizens in Europe, many of whom are not nearly so well off. 1/3 of these Brits abroad are pensioners, and most of them live in Spain. It’s hard to imagine a strapped UK economy continuing to pump money abroad for benefits, the annual £580 million provided to the EEA for pensioners and the £1.4 billion for state pension payments. Perhaps arrangements will be made, but on the other side a cash-strapped Spain is already questioning whether they want non-EU members relying on their health care system.
Despite assurances, at the centre of this problem is the question of reciprocity. The referendum was buoyed by the sentiment that Britain should regain control of its borders. It follows that if EU members are forced out of Britain because they cannot justify their presence (prove when they arrived, and that they are highly-skilled or making enough money), the same will happen on the Continent to British nationals. We will go back to a system of visas and permits. It does not mean that those who have the acquired the right to stay will immediately lose it (they should be protected by the 1969 Vienna Convention), but they are likely to have a hard time retaining it. For those Brits still planning to move to Europe, or Europeans planning a move to Britain, the window of opportunity is quickly closing, and it will mostly shut when Britain leaves. It might prove easier, after all, to move from Britain to a country such as Canada, with its established immigration tradition and procedures (such as Express Entry) to attract skilled workers.
Meanwhile, the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexit campaign is likely to harden the stances of even mainstream parties on the Continent, to close borders to war refugees and restrict newcomers––they will wish to limit the number of points on which Eurosceptics might criticise them.
I have followed the earthquake analogy throughout this discussion––but it leaves mostly open questions. Metaphors are seductive when trying to analyse what happens now. But they can be too axiomatic and too reductive.
One could say instead that the Brexit has been a disaster at a nuclear plant: for some reason David Cameron’s gave Farage and Johnson the key to the control plant, and they went pressing all the buttons. We know Britain will get most of the fallout, but people on the Continent are watching the radiation cloud with concern on radar, wondering whether it will blow across the channels or off to sea. But the problem with the metaphor is that a nuclear accident is, usually, a one-time event that occurs only on the surface.
The oft-used earthquake metaphor suggests instead an ongoing, unstable, and complicated system of damage in flux––and because it is a subterranean event not all of its workings are yet visible. Britain has for a long time been a seismic zone––politically that is––they never really did think of themselves as Europeans––but I was nonetheless surprised by the tectonic political earthquake on Thursday night/Wednesday morning. I still don’t know where we are on the Richter scale. The fall of the Berlin Wall was probably a IX––I don’t think the Brexit is anywhere near that magnitude––and I wonder if the press isn’t just making a big deal out of a III? How much worse is there to come, especially for the markets and the pound and euro? Has the shockwave affected the very foundations of the European Union: to my eyes, it looks like it will remain standing, but might it still come down overnight? How far does the rupture zone reach: only as far as Scotland? or as far as Turkey? Or will this shake the international system? Will there be aftershocks, or an ‘earthquake swarm’ that ravages a local area repeatedly?
The main problem of any day-after analysis of Brexit––such as this blog post––is that we need to question the seismographs themselves. Perhaps the tremor has even broken them and we don’t even know anymore how to measure the intensity of the quake.
*This is the second of three articles in a series on the Brexit, the others are:
-Post-Referendum: A Love Letter to my Brexit Lover
-Pre-Referendum: Would a Brexit be Good for Europe?