Queen's Policy Engagement

Brexit: What have they done?

Dr Alexander Titov examines Britain's decision to leave the EU which he describes as a shocking blow to the post-WWII Western political order, and the most striking sign yet of dissatisfaction with the paradigm of liberal globalisation.

Brexit: What have they done?

The British vote to leave the European Union after the recent referendum has sent shockwaves throughout the world. The likely economic and political fallout from this vote will be tremendous and still difficult to predict. To account for this dramatic event, both British domestic factors and EU politics in general must be considered.

For many in the UK, it would have been easier to accept the result if the decision to leave was based on a careful, informed and balanced consideration of the pros and cons of EU membership and a proposed alternative option for what happens after leaving. However, one thing that was missing from the Leave campaign was even a basic discussion of what it would be like outside of the EU.

Some invoked the example of Norway, while others discounted it, as this would still allow for a free movement of labour and involve paying fees to the EU in exchange for participation in the Single Market. So, Britain voted to leave the EU without a clear plan or even a vague idea of what it will do after it. As one commentator pointed out, the British voted to leave an EU super-state that does not exist, and now they have to leave the real EU, which helped the UK to prosper economically and punch above its weight internationally.

Domestically, one of the disturbing results was the real division within the UK. Every single macro region in England and Wales voted to leave, except London. So, in a way, this was a revolt of the insular provinces against the cosmopolitan capital, a battle of isolationism against globalisation.

Scotland and Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the EU, and it seems highly improbable that Scotland in particular would want to remain in the UK outside of the EU. Finally, there were the staggering divisions by age of the population, with 75% of people under age 25 wishing to remain in the EU, and the majority of those over age 60 voting to leave. One commentator called the Leave vote a betrayal of the UK’s young. Another called it “a triumph for the cynical, the ignorant and the old.”

However, undoubtedly, it was the frustration of the traditional working class which has become the key factor in the vote to Leave. It was true that the UK government gravely underestimated the number of immigrants from the new member states who joined the EU in 2004 and, unlike other large economies, did not impose temporary restrictions on work permits for the new entrants. The UK, with its dynamic economy and flexible labour market, has been the net recipient of labour from the EU ever since.

The Leave camp eventually focused almost exclusively on the popular dissatisfaction with the modern globalised world, embodied in the anti-immigration feelings. It did not offer a clear alternative vision of how to deal with contemporary problems, instead assuming relations with the world and Britain’s nearest neighbours are open to solutions through the vague but simple populist formula of “taking back control,” while profoundly – and often deliberately – misrepresenting the true nature of UK’s relations with the EU.

The success of this remarkably weak vision was in no small part due to the long established hostility of the British press towards the EU, with an astonishing 82% of newspapers’ output on the referendum favouring Brexit. It was this, the alliance of the hostile press – a Eurosceptic part of the establishment- including a large section of the ruling Conservative party, and the frustrated working class which made Brexit possible. The only consolation is that it seems to be a unique British combination, with other populist movements in the EU unlikely to enjoy such support by significant parts of the national establishment.

Apart from British domestic factors, the Brexit vote is also the strongest indication yet of a deeper crisis in Western politics. It would have been previously unimaginable for a leading Western power to abandon its place at the high table of the biggest Western integration project, reject a role in the world’s largest trading bloc, against the unanimous advice of experts and the political establishment, and without any plan for the future, all driven by primal nationalism and resentment of immigration. The fact that it was Britain, the long standing beacon of political and economic liberalism, is all the more striking.

This is a shocking blow to the post-WWII Western political order, which brought peace and prosperity to Europe and the wider world, and which now is facing some profound questions over its viability. The forces that animated the Brexit vote are gaining strength across the rest of the EU and North America too, from far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen in France, to the Eurosceptic Dutch Freedom party currently leading in the polls, to Eastern Europe’s new nationalists from Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to the Law and Justice party in Poland, to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s challenge of establishment politics in the U.S. The Brexit vote has demonstrated that you ignore it at your own peril.

There will have to be a new rethinking of the liberal globalisation paradigm we have been living in since the end of the Cold War, because there is clearly too much dissatisfaction with it among significant sections of Western society. The UK will, of course, be the biggest loser from it all, and is likely to continue its slide to international irrelevance beset by the political turmoil at home, protracted negotiations with the EU over the terms of its exit from the organisation, and the likely breakup of the United Kingdom itself through another Scottish independence referendum. This was a completely unnecessary and utterly self-inflicted step. However, other countries in the EU should seize this as a chance to reinvent the EU as a project still relevant to the concerns of its citizens.


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.

Dr Alexander Titov
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Dr Alexander Titov is a lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include Russian foreign policy, Russian politics, Modern European History, International Relations, Intellectual History and Nationalism.

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