Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit: be careful what you wish for (oops, too late!)

Well, the Brits have really gone and done it now! In the referendum of June 23rd, they narrowly voted to leave the European Community, and now they will have to deal with the consequences.
The vote has split political parties, geographical regions, even families, right down the middle, and the aftermath of the vote is unlikely to see much more cohesion. I imagine that an awful lot of Leave voters are thinking right now, "What the hell did we just do?" and second-guessing themselves, though much too late. After all, they were promised independence, and all they will probably receive instead is isolation, uncertainty and resentment.
In a textbook example of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, all the comprehensive logical economic arguments of the Remain camp took a back-seat to the emotional nativist arguments of the Leave campaign (which as far as I can tell essentially revolves around an instinctive mistrust and dislike of foreigners, and a visceral opposition to immigration). I don't know whether it has been remarked on before, but even the names of the campaigns are reflective of their backgrounds (remain is a Latin-derived word descended from Middle French, rather than the more plebeian Old English-derived word stay; leave, on the other hand, comes straight from Old English).
All campaigns and elections are, to some extent or other, sown with misinformation, half-truths and obfuscation, but this has been a particularly nasty one with a particularly high level of both emotion and confusion among the voters. Certainly, few political campaigns in civilized countries involve an actual murder of a prominent politician these days, a new low point in British politicking. This is not the place to go into the details, but there have been many examples in the press of individuals sold on the claims of the Brexit campaign, but for totally spurious, nonsensical, fallacious or paradoxical reasons. There was even a campaign of paranoid Brexit supporters issuing people with pens as they entered the polling stations (complete with a #UsePens hashtag), convinced as they were that there was a MI5-led plot to rig the vote by secretly erasing and changing pencil votes.
In some ways, this has been a victory of democracy over democracy: while a small plurality of Leave supporters carried the day, a healthy majority of the well-educated and thoughtful British MPs these same people voted into power were actually in favour of remaining. Maybe Plato had it right after all...
Anyway, the deed is done, and now Britain and Europe must turn to carrying out the will of the British people, and to dealing with the fallout. In reality, nothing has changed in the short term: Britain's actual extraction from Europe will take many months, probably years, to effect, and in the meantime it remains a part of the EU, even if the atmosphere has been irrevocably soured. There is a high likelihood that Europe will make the process as difficult as possible (or at least a quick divorce, but a painful one), as it tries to make an example of Britain so as to discourage other countries from leaving. New trade treaties need to be struck, possibly along the lines of those with Norway or Switzerland, which will almost certainly come with stiff monetary contribution requirements and even immigration concessions, which may not leave Britain any better off than they were as regards these touchy subjects. Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to lead this process, understandably enough, and has tendered his resignation, meaning that Britain's Conservative government (and therefore the country as a whole) will probably soon be led by a loose cannon like Michael Gove or, God forbid, Boris Johnson (the Donald Trump of England, also widely referred to as "the court jester") - a poor trade indeed.
Whether anything has irrevocably changed or not, though, the world is certainly acting as though it has. The pound has tanked (the 8% drop was the largest ever one-day fall, and the currency now stands at a 31-year low against the US dollar), stock exchanges the world over have lost scads of money - an estimated $2 trillion was wiped off global equity markets the day after the vote, also the largest single day loss ever - even if there is not necessarily any logical reason why this should have happened (stock exchanges are not logical institutions), and the country' S & P credit rating has been cut by two notches. Far right parties throughout Europe see Brexit as a vindication and a great fillip to their cause, and will redouble their efforts to demolish the EU once and for all. In fact, the greatest disservice the vote may have done for the world is to lend validation to the kind of populist dog-whistle politics employed by people like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump. The other thing it may have done is to disillusion younger voters: about three-quarters of voters 18-24 years old voted to remain in Europe, and a clear majority of those under 45.
Other non-EU Countries like Russia and Israel, who have had their own battles with the Europe over the years, are rubbing their hands with glee, as they would at anything that might be seen as reducing the EU's power. Still others, like Turkey and the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, who have been looking for years for an in to the European club, are rueing the British decision, as the EU will now concentrate their resources on dealing with Britain's defection rather than looking to bring in new members.
Countries like Canada and the USA will probably just get down to renegotiating trade deals with Britain with relatively little difficulty. But China, for all it smiles secretly to see the weatern world discomfitted and thrown into disarray, is very worried that Britain's exit - and the general atmosphere of uncertainty in international trade it has created - will make their dealings with Europe much more difficult, at a time when their economy needs a good boost.
Pro-EU Scotland will almost certainly call for another independence referendum, and this time it will probably happen, thus beginning the break-up of the British hegemony. A plebiscite on Irish unity and perhaps even Welsh independence may well follow. As just another example of the myriad small changes that many people never considered, non-EU Northern Ireland will probably need to establish a hard border with the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) to its south, in order to stop all those hordes of Europeans from invading the stories lands of Albion though the back door.
Well, I hope those Brexiters are happy now. The future, however, will not be a return to a "mythical golden age when jolly beef-eating Britons sat serenely in their island fortress", as I have seen it amusingly described, even if that "golden age" never really existed. That same article points out that isolationist Tudor England, in reality, was a minor power trapped between a hostile Scotland to the north, an unruly Ireland to the west, and an unfriendly Europe to the east, and lived in constant fear of invasion. In the modern world, however, there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty, and Britain will now have to start from scratch in negotiating trade agreements with everyone else (it's just that those other people will be much more resentful and difficult now).
Contrary to what many Leave proponents seem to believe, Brexit will not lead to an unfettered free market in Britain, nor has it delivered a lethal blow to the evil forces of capitalism in some obscure way. When all the Poles (who do most of the crappy jobs in Britain, and have done for years now) leave, who will clean the toilets, serve in the cafes and corner stores, and pick up the garbage? Brexit supporters, presumably, if anyone.
I really believe that the Brexit vote was more about the downtrodden working classes giving two fingers to what they see as interfering foreigners in Brussels, at whatever to the cost to them and the country. They see themselves, misguidedly, as doing what Dutch ultra-rightist Geert Wilders calls "beating the political elite in both London and Brussels". The people may have spoken, but - as someone whose family has to continue living in Britain - God, I wish it hadn't.
There is still a slim possibility that the deal may not go through - both Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted strongly to remain in Europe, are considering a legal challenge to the vote, and an online petition for a second referendum already has millions of names, just days after the event. Interestingly, the referendum is not even legally binding, and the British Parliament still has to vote the outcome into law. But I think that a not-so-United Kingdom has to get used to the idea of being a persona non grata in Europe, and the rest of the world has to get used to an uncertain Britain and a weakened Europe.

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