Brexit: the consequences

Politically, the impact of Brexit is likely to be even more earth-shattering than the economic consequences

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the immediate aftermath of last Thursday’s ‘Brexit’ referendum is the uncertainty it has brought about, both political and economic.

The immediate (often alarming) economic consequences can already be appreciated. Politically, the impact is likely to be even more earth-shattering. It is now inevitable that the relationship between the different nations comprising the United Kingdom will have to change. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar all voted to ‘remain’; and all are understandably weighing their options. Even in Wales, which broadly favoured Brexit in the referendum, calls for independence are being heard. 

At this juncture, fragmentation seems inevitable.

This is also true on the European side of the fence, where at least five EU member states have floated the idea of similar ‘out’ referendums. It is simply no longer possible to disguise the fact that ‘Project Europe’ has hit a snag, and now threatens to founder.

At such a critical moment in European history, it is time to approach the situation from a historically European perspective. However angry one may be at the referendum result, it would be suicidal for the EU to not ask itself serious questions regarding why a strong and influential member state would, on its own initiative, decide to leave the European Union.

Some of the more obvious answers are already known. An apparent spate of xenophobic crime in the UK attests to the fact that the Far Right, with its negative views on foreigners in general, objected to both regular and irregular immigration alike: both (unfairly) associated with EU membership. But this fact alone cannot account for 17 million votes for ‘leave’… when UKIP, the rightwing party behind the Out campaign, polled only four million votes at the last election.

Clearly, the causes of disillusionment with the EU run deeper than racism and bigotry alone. Ultimately, the British public was presented with two visions: one of continued membership in the EU, in which case the future was (for better or for worse) foreseeable; and the other of a prosperous country outside the EU… indeed, all the more prosperous for not being part of it.

One can argue all one likes that the second vision was built on lies and misinformation: the simple fact that it was believed, on its own, proves that for a majority of Britons, the prospect of a great leap in the dark was still preferable to life as an EU member state.

If it were only the British who felt this way, one could point cultural differences and other factors. But the reality is that similar sentiment is sweeping Europe at the moment. In France alone – one of the six founding member states –it is even higher than in Britain during the campaign. It is precisely for this reason that the EU’s initial response was aimed (not unlike the UK government’s) at reassuring people that it is not facing a potential melt-down.

If the intention really is to prevent further fragmentation, the EU must take stock of the social realities of Europe: especially those realities which are the direct result of its own policies. Despite promises of greater prosperity within the EU, the daily reality faced by millions of Europeans is very different. Malta may be an exception, and this might also explain the relative absence of corresponding anti-EU sentiment. But as the Brexit referendum also showed, one cannot judge the EU only through the lens of one of its members.

So far, the initial responses in both Britain and the EU have not been encouraging. The EU’s first action was for the six founding members to make a unilateral statement, calling on Britain to speed up the exit process. One might reasonably enquire why the remaining 21 member states were not asked for their opinion.

Already, the EU has made the mistake of failing to take a collective, collegial approach: already, it has vindicated the view that a small coterie of nations rules the roost, to the exclusion of all others.

One must also question why the EU is demanding such haste. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty specifies that the process must be kick-started by the leaving country. It is up to Britain, then, to set the ball rolling… at its own pace. Equally clearly, it is in both the EU and the UK’s interest – not to mention the interests of global markets – that the transition is properly administered to avoid aggravating inevitable shocks to the system. Bluntly ordering the country to leave is not the way forward. That approach can only exacerbate existing volatility.

Questions must be asked about the political direction of the EU as a whole. In their various responses to Brexit, all member states – Malta included – were evidently motivated only by self-interest. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat declared that ‘Malta lost an ally’… only to immediately speculate how Malta could exploit that ally’s economic downfall to its own advantage.

If this is the level of international cooperation and respect that EU member states show their allies, it is understandable that some countries might want to leave. And unless the EU takes stock of these realities, this is almost certainly what will happen.

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