June 28, 2016
“Brexit earthquake”, “catastrophe”, “independence”, “chaos” – the headlines have been dramatic, frightening and ominous. They reveal a country in turmoil: Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned within hours of the referendum result giving victory to the Leave campaign. On Sunday 11 members of the Labour shadow cabinet resigned, calling on Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader to step down accusing him of showing no leadership in a referendum that was disastrous for his party. And in Scotland, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has promised a new referendum on Scottish independence, saying that Scots, who voted by a large majority to remain in Europe, were determined to remain in the EU and would break away from the United Kingdom if that wish was thwarted.
Britain in turmoil
Britain is in a state of angry uncertainty. No political party foresaw the consequences of the Leave vote and all of them now face recriminations, divisions and the challenge of healing a country that has been split down the middle by the vote. The young are angry with the older generation, which largely voted to leave the EU. The workers in northern industrial cities are angry with the dominance of London and the richer south of England. The Scots and the Northern Irish are angry with the Westminster parliament. The big cities, which largely voted to remain, are angry with voters in the countryside who largely voted to leave. The two million foreigners living in Britain are deeply worried about their future. And everyone is blaming the political establishment for being out of touch and ignoring the anger in much of the country over high levels of immigration, austerity and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
What is clear is that the referendum has left everyone floundering. The victorious Leave campaign leaders have been strangely silent, saying nothing about how they now propose to deal with the immediate fall-out – the collapse in the value of the pound, the fury of Britain’s partners within the EU and the negotiations needed to make the divorce from Brussels less painful. The bitter atmosphere of the referendum campaign has become even more bitter, with each side accusing the other of telling lies. And it is unclear what now needs to be done to pull the country together and make it governable again. Many people are already saying that the vote will change the whole future of the country. Some suggest that Britain will soon no longer exist as a United Kingdom.
How to negotiate with Brussels?
Several issues need to be tackled immediately. The first is how Britain should begin negotiations with its former EU partners. The mood in Brussels is angry, and there is no wish to be helpful to Britain. Many EU governments fear that the vote to leave may trigger similar protests across the EU, where nationalism and the rise of right-wing parties has shown that dissatisfaction with the EU is just as strong as it is in Britain: in France, more than 60 per cent of voters have a negative view of the EU. Sweden, Spain, Hungary, Poland may also face calls for a referendum in their countries. Some EU leaders want to punish Britain to discourage others from trying to leave.
Is there a timeline?
All this makes it impossible to know how or when talks will begin on agreeing a new relationship between Britain and its former partners. European leaders want talks to start as soon as possible, to end the uncertainty which is affecting business confidence and the economies across Europe. Britain wants to delay the formal start to talks, by not invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the article that lays down the procedure for a country to leave the EU – for as long as possible. It will take at least two months to elect a new prime minister in London, and David Cameron, now discredited at home and abroad, could not possibly lead any talks himself.
Britain needs to find a new place in the world
The next big question is how Britain’s standing in the world will be affected. Clearly, the turmoil in Britain is deeply troubling for the United States, Britain’s most important overseas ally. President Obama warned Britons before the referendum that if they voted to leave, this would negatively affect the country’s relations with the US. An isolated Britain, economically weaker and with no voice inside Europe, is far less useful as an ally. The President has since tried to reassure London that in many areas, especially the co-operation in defence and intelligence, the “special relationship” between the two countries will continue. But Donald Trump, who by chance arrived in Scotland to open a golf course the day after the referendum, has praised the vote to leave – though that does not promise a steady relationship should he win the Republican nomination and then be elected president.
Britain and NATO
Britain has promised also to remain a loyal member of NATO. But it is difficult to see how it can have a smooth relationship with its European NATO allies on defence matters while locked in acrimonious talks with them over Brexit. And other NATO allies fear that Britain, which normally plays a big role in influencing NATO policy on such matters as relations with Russia, will now be so distracted by its own internal problems that it will no longer seem a reliable partner in international security questions.
Role in the UN Security Council?
Finally, there is the question of Britain’s membership of the United Nations Security Council. This has been called into question already in the past, when many larger countries such as India, Japan and Brazil demanded that they should also be permanent members of the Security Council. They may now renew their demands, saying that Britain in its weakened state no longer deserves to have a permanent seat at the top table.
Is there a post-EU future for the UK?
Some politicians who supported the Leave campaign say that Britain now has a chance to develop its relations with the Commonwealth, which shares a historic past of close relations with Britain. They also say that London can still be an attractive place to do business and that Japan, China and other rapidly developing Asian economies will find it easier to do business with a country no longer limited by EU regulations. But most business organisations and international experts in London say this is unrealistic.
Few countries will want to invest in Britain if it no longer is to have access to the single market in Europe. And if Scotland votes in two years’ time to leave the United Kingdom, then the political instability in Britain will make it a far less attractive to investors. China has expressed fears over this. Only President Putin has welcomed the referendum vote, suggesting that Britain will in future take a less hostile attitude to Russia. Most commentators say that his real pleasure is simply seeing the weakening of the European Union as a political force because of the Brexit vote.
Need to recreate stability
Until political stability has been restored in Britain, little can be decided. The top civil service and industrial leaders are now trying to restore calm and confidence. The governor of the Bank of England (who is actually a Canadian) has promised that the Bank will make up to £250 billion available to stop a run on the pound. The Stock Market has regained some of the losses it suffered the morning after the vote. But it is clear that Britain’s previously healthy economy has suffered a severe blow – and unless an arrangement can be negotiated with Brussels allowing Britain to continue to have tariff-free access to the huge single European market, British trade will suffer considerably.
The losing Remain side is trying to fight back
Those who voted to remain in the EU are so angry that a petition has already been drawn up for a second referendum, which more than two million people have signed. They argue that a step so important as leaving the EU, which involves a constitutional change, should not be valid unless it is agreed by two-thirds of the voters. It is unlikely to succeed – and in any case, would probably not be taken seriously by Brussels.
Since Britain does not have a written constitution, no one knows how the Brexit vote will be translated into law by Parliament, which is the only body able to make law and where more than 75 per cent of its members want to remain in the EU.
Uncertain way forward
It would be unthinkable to defy the will of the people and refuse to pass legislation allowing Britain to withdraw from the EU. But how this is to be achieved is completely unclear – to Britain’s divided population, to its 27 partners in the EU and to its friends and allies around the world.
Michael Binyon has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.
He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.