Updated: June 27, 2016 12:02:23 am
Britons have voted and a hugely polarising campaign has resulted in a landmark vote to leave the EU and the resignation of the British prime minister. Even as the implications of the result are being digested, there is little doubt that it marks a seminal moment in the nation’s trajectory. The decision shall impact not just the British electorate but also the wider European project.
Britain’s demand for a referendum and its negotiation with Europe had focused on concerns over economic governance, competitiveness, the erosion of sovereignty and migration. Prime Minister David Cameron had urged the electorate to vote “remain” but fellow Tory, Boris Johnson, exhorted the electorate to vote “leave”. The internecine turbulence in the Tories on the subject turned out to be emblematic of the broader conundrum facing voters. It was said to be too close to call and the outcome justified that caution. A night of high drama, which began marginally in favour of the “remain” camp ended with a narrow but decisive victory for the “leavers”. The margin of victory has revealed a nation sharply divided across the socio-economic spectrum.
The leave campaign had positioned the debate as one about “taking back control”. Their narrative was framed as one about reinvigorating Britain’s destiny as a sovereign power capable of determining its own choices. It is a worldview that prefers to see Brexit as an opportunity to break free from the shackles of a centralising and bureaucratic EU. Some of the more erudite leavers articulated a vision of Britain competent enough to strike its own trade deals with emerging economies and controlling its immigration agenda to pick highly-skilled immigrants over low-skilled ones.
On the other hand, the remain campaign had been at pains to point out the possibility of economic self-harm due to Brexit. In this narrative, unrestricted access to Europe’s single market had been trumpeted as crucial to Britain’s trade and economic progress. The remain camp also sought to make the case for the broader benefits of EU membership in an age where critical challenges over international security, climate change and mass migration warrant closer international cooperation.
Clearly, the leavers have persuaded the electorate. But what might the immediate fall-out look like for Britain and others?
First, the immediate aftermath has crystallised the possibility of market volatility with uncertainty for the British economy and associated uncertainty globally. This will likely need calm reassurance from central banks across different regions.
Second, by triggering the resignation of David Cameron, a fundamentally decent moderniser, it sets the scene for a change in leadership by this autumn, and will reorder the government’s agenda substantially. This is remarkable given that it was only a year ago that Cameron won a majority mandate in the general election. T.S. Eliot’s maxim that “in a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” has been borne out. Third, the spectre of another Scottish referendum can’t be ruled out given that Scottish voters were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.
Equally problematically, the leavers will need to reconcile their political and economic idealism with actual expectations from their core voters. The truth is that while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove raised the dreamy prospect of a liberal economic approach and an open outlook unencumbered by Brussels, this idealistic posture wasn’t the basis on which the debate turned in their favour. Rather, it was a crude anti-immigration campaign that resonated with sections of the electorate that despise globalisation and prefer isolation. The irony is that an economic shock from Brexit is likely to hurt this segment the most.
Across the EU, the vote is likely to spark an upsurge of support for particular far right movements and leadership, whether it be for Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. The EU establishment will have to confront its “democratic deficit”.
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