The day after Britain exits: Severe withdrawal pangs

Boris Johnson, the leader of the Vote Leave and now the expected successor of Prime Minister David Cameron, tried to clamp down on the anti-Europe jubilation that he had vociferously egged on till Thursday.

Written by Vijay Rana | London | Updated: June 26, 2016 5:41 am
brexit, EU referendum, britain referendum, UK referendum, european union referendum, Boris Johnson, nigel farage, world news A protester wrapped in the European Union flag in London on Saturday. AP

SATURDAY DAWNED with a bright and warm sun. It helped slightly to ease the referendum hangover in a divided nation that has been suffering from kahin khushi, kahin gham.

The people are asking now that we are out of Europe, what next? Who will be the new prime minister? Will there be a general election? Will another crippling recession hit the economy? Will thousands of European immigrants be sent back to their homes? Will Scotland break away from the United Kingdom?

These are complex questions, and no one seems to have the answers. One could also sense the slight feeling of repentance.

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Meanwhile, both sides, the leavers and remainers, have been struggling to grasp the new realities. The Leave camp tried to bring the sky-high expectations they fueled during the campaign to the ground. And the Remain camp continued to insist that despite the adverse vote, Britain cannot cut and run from the European Union (EU).

Boris Johnson, the leader of the Vote Leave and now the expected successor of Prime Minister David Cameron, tried to clamp down on the anti-Europe jubilation that he had vociferously egged on till Thursday. In his victory speech, he said, “We cannot turn our backs on Europe; we are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans.” In a quick change of heart, Europe that was cursed till Thursday was now being so lovingly embraced.

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Now that the rhetoric needed to be reclaimed by reality, the leavers seemed to backtrack from three of their major campaign promises. During the campaign, they promised an extra £350 million for the NHS, a clampdown on immigration and a quick withdrawal from the EU.

After the results, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said it was a mistake for the Leave campaign to claim that they would be able to stop the UK’s £350 million weekly contribution to the EU and invest it in the fund-starved NHS.

Farage also made an important comment on immigration. “If people watching think that there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed. Of course, there is still going to be immigration. There are still going to be people coming here to work,” he said.

During the campaign, the Leave leaders promised they would immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would trigger a speedy break-up from the EU. But after the results, a prominent Leave leader, Dr Liam Fox, called for “a period of calm”. He said, “I think that it doesn’t make any sense to trigger Article 50 without having a period of reflection first, for the Cabinet to determine exactly what it is that we’re going to be seeking and in what timescale.

While this post-result backtracking disappointed many, the Leave leaders became the target of social media anger as well as ridicule. They were mocked on Twitter as the three speediest u-turns in British politics, before most people had their breakfast on Friday morning.

Another rude shock came from across the English Channel. In an EU statement, European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called on the UK to start Brexit ­immediately. “We now expect the government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however, painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty,” said the statement.

The Mirror, a supporter of Remain, rather frustratingly headlined the statement, “EU bosses order Britain to pack your bags and get out now.”

Meanwhile, European Parliament president Martin Shultz said the EU lawyers have begun to study whether it was possible to speed up the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. He rejected Cameron’s October deadline, calling it a “unilateral declaration”, and said “that must not be the last word”.

The EU bosses would like it to be a quick and amicable divorce. But the British, rather irritatingly, seem to be in no hurry. The British have already set a timetable of two years to carry out new trade negotiations. Many believe prolonged negotiations would be economically crippling.

Ratings agency Moody’s on Friday changed the UK’s sovereign rating from “stable” to “negative” due to the uncertainty caused by the result of the EU referendum. It put the blame on the unpredictability of UK decision-making and the consequent likelihood of lower economic growth. “During the several years in which the UK will have to renegotiate its trade relations with the EU, Moody’s expects heightened uncertainty, diminished confidence and lower spending and investment to result in weaker growth,” it said.

Meanwhile, tremors of Friday’s seismic shift have angered Scotland, where 62 per cent of people voted to remain in the EU. There is also talk of Scotland alone remaining within the EU. That would create more complications.

Scotland may have to leave EU with the UK, and then re-apply as a new member. But then Scotland may be forced to adopt Euro. That may further encourage Scotland to seek a referendum on independence from the UK.

Meanwhile, social media is having a field day. In these times of Internet democracy, all sorts of petitions are going around. More than 114,000 people have signed a petition demanded another Brexit referendum.

A campaign called London Stays is organising a protest rally in Trafalgar Square on June 28. More than 47,000 have signed up so far. London voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Now, a petition called ‘Londependence’ has asked Londoners to join the EU on its own.

“London is an international city, and we want to remain at the heart of Europe,” states a change.org petition. Funnily enough, the petition has asked London Mayor Sadiq Khan for a kind of constitutional coup. It has asked him to declare London independent and apply to join the EU — including membership of the Schengen Zone. The petition has already attracted 113,000 signatures.

In another bizarre petition, 5,000 people from Manchester have demanded to be individual members of the EU.
Such fantastic ideas vie to capture public space when the political situation looks out of control. And that’s the test that Cameron faces now. If he can manage an orderly transition and a recrimination-free divorce, he will hold a critical, yet important, place in history.

On the other hand, if the political climate deteriorates, Europen resentment escalates, the economy tailspins and Scotland breaks away, he may earn the dubious distinction of being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or the Mikhail Gorbachev of Great Britain.

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