We’ve been very busy at SSEES this week, trying to untangle the strands of the results of the EU Referendum and what it could mean for the future of the UK. Here are some final thoughts by our academics.
I would like to add just a few ideas, particularly focused on Pete’s point 1:
Could we reverse the referendum result, and get Britain to stay in the EU? There is no question that this would come as a good surprise to the 48% of the population who voted Remain, and to the many Leave voters who are now regretting their choice (not to mention all other EU countries and, in fact, most of the world). But is it realistic?
Previous posts have already mentioned what could be done within the British political system. For example, Pete mentioned how a change in government could provide legitimacy for a new referendum to be held, and how the activation of Article 50 could be delayed.
I feel it’s also worth looking at how the EU institutions could help. There has long been talk within Brussels policy making and academic circles of so-called “differentiated integration”, whereby EU members integrate at different speeds. The idea that it could be beneficial to distinguish between “core” EU countries which are keen to proceed with further integration, and more reluctant members such as the UK, has long been whispered in Brussels.
However so far, this “two-speed Europe” has only been developing informally. It was clear that countries like the UK and Denmark (both holding “opt-outs” from several EU policy areas), were already on a different track, but this had not yet been institutionalised. Such an institutionalisation, for example through the creation of a status of “Associate EU Membership”, could potentially allow the wishes of (52% of) British voters to be respected, without the need to activate Article 50 and leave the EU.
The EU’s history of past referenda is very enlightening in this context. Back in 1992, a Danish referendum rejected the Maastricht Treaty …but after the EU offered concessions and opt-outs to Denmark, a new referendum was held, this time with a positive result. In 2001, exactly the same reversal took place, this time with Ireland and the Treaty of Nice. At first sight, Britain’s vote to leave the EU may seem like a very different situation – but, if we cast our minds back to EU debates and developments in 1992 and 2001, it can be argued that there is a strong air of familiarity.
Reading through the fine print of Article 50 could also be useful. Aside from helpfully pointing out that any country leaving the EU would be welcome to re-join at a later stage, Article 50 also mentions that the period of two years between article activation and EU exit can be extended. This can be done if all EU countries, including Britain, agree – not at all impossible, given the complexity of the work ahead. If this period was extended beyond the next general election, EU exit might be avoided altogether.
This is perhaps all speculation (and maybe wishful thinking), but following the past few days of political bombshells, who knows what further surprises may lie ahead…
Anna–Cara Keim (SSEES Research Student)
About one week has passed since the British electorate voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Yet the result had barely been digested, when events throughout the country begun to unfold. It has become evident that the dividing lines in this country run deep. Much deeper perhaps than many wanted to acknowledge. The political landscape of Britain is witnessing drastic changes. The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has openly begun to talk about the possibility of a second independence referendum in Scotland, the Labour party is in chaos, the prime minister has resigned and the Conservatives struggle to elect a new leader. There have been incidents of racism and hate crime have been reported all over the country. It seems that the leave vote suddenly ‘legitimised’ this sort of behaviour in the eyes of xenophobic leave supporters.
As a EU citizen living in London I did not have the opportunity to vote in the referendum – but I did what I could to support the European cause. I was born a stone throw away from the Berlin wall at time when Europe was still divided by an iron curtain. The fall of the wall in 1989 paved the way for what many of us thought to be road to peace, prosperity and freedom. The central European states returned to Europe, Germany unified and the Soviet Union collapsed. While the experience of change and transition was not an easy one for many, no one wanted to go back to a divided Europe. At its very heart, the European Union is not only an economic project but first and foremost a peace building project. Never again should Europe have to witness again the atrocities that it saw in the first half of the twentieth century. In recent years, new physical and mental fences have begun to reappear all over Europe. Be in the form of Eurosceptic national governments or in the shape of fences that were built a number of European countries to deter the flow of refugees. The EU has been the object of a lot of criticism and often rightly so. Some of its organisational structure and its decision-making mechanisms are deeply flawed. Yet, there is never been a country that has made the radical and potentially irreversible decision to leave the European Union. Brexit has made waves all over Europe. Many have argued that a decision as momentous and far reaching as this one should have never been left to the electorate in the first place. Especially, if one takes into account that David Cameron promised to referendum in attempt to safeguard his own political career. As Article 50 has not been triggered yet, we do not know how the actual divorce process will look like but other European members will try everything to prevent setting dangerous precedent for other potential exit candidates.
Britain’s separation from Europe will not be an easy one. Yet, the extent to which the referendum has highlighted the dividing lines within Britain will present a far greater challenge for any future British political leader. Whereas the majority decision will need to be respected, there are still those 48% who wanted for the UK to remain part of the EU. Immigration has been the key issue for many leave campaigners and although some of the concerns related to the issue, such as the pressure on infrastructure, may be valid, it has done, I fear, far greater damage in the long run. The rhetoric that was used in the run up to the referendum has done an unimaginable damage to social integration. It has divided society in us vs. them. Not just European immigrants but also other minority groups have found themselves the target of post-referendum xenophobic and racist outburst. Hate crime can under no circumstances be acceptable. British society is incredibly diverse and there will be a need find unity in diversity. Some of those parts of the country that opted to leave also did so in the anticipation that their own situation cannot get worse than it probably already is. Political elites have failed in engage with large parts of the electorate in a suitable way. Indeed, so have many of us that campaigned for the UK to remain part of the EU have done it in London or Edinburgh where large numbers of voters did not need persuading. The many wonderful educational events and debates that I attended in the run up to the 23rd of June reached mostly those who already had an interest in the topic. Perhaps we should have spent more time on the streets of Hull or Doncaster than in auditoriums of the University of London or talking to commuters outside of Euston station. Future leader of both the Conservative and the Labour party alike must make a greater effort to bring the country back together. This will not just require the rethinking of things like structural investment in infrastructure but more importantly, it will require to listen to the needs and fears of those who live outside of the metropolitan areas, it will require a change in the political rhetoric used and it will require any future party in power to find ways of governing that do not alienate half of the population.
The situation in Scotland is somewhat different. Many of the promises that were made to Edinburgh after the independence referendum in 2014 have not been kept or were simply forgotten about. The SNP has taken over all former Labour strongholds in Scotland and it has to some extent also managed to unite Scotland. There now appears to be cross party consensus in Holyrood that Scotland has its place in the EU and that measures must be taken to make this possible.
Britain is currently experiencing an existential crisis and although signs were visible before, the Brexit decision has unleashed it in its full and ugly form. Every possible effort must now be made to reach a consensus. The Labour party must unite and reorganise itself in way that it is fit to prepare for the challenges ahead – else it will not stand a chance in the next election. If the Scottish government feels that they have the support of a considerable part of the Scottish population, they should be free to call a second independence referendum. And all of us who are angry, who grieve and complain about the results should use this moment to become more involved in politics and rebuilt civil society. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to have gone to Eton or Oxford in order to participate in everyday politics…
Paulina Stepien (SSEES PhD Student)
I recently read this article in the Independent and was wondering exactly the same. On one hand, leave campaign has been based on lies and deception; on the other, politicians often lie. It was up to the remain camp to expose those lies (which they half-heartedly tried). People did not want to listen. In addition to that, almost all the leaders of the leave campaign have deserted and left the mess to those who (also half-heartedly) voted to remain… So, given that there has been deceit and the leaders who were supposed to lead the exit are not there any more and there is no plan of action, does it make it illegal/illegitimate or in any way warrants a nullification of the referendum?
Also, there is an issue of the voters. Many leavers feel very strongly about the result and any action to undermine the validity of the vote will cause a backlash and deepen the social divisions. It would be interesting to have a new poll asking the leavers how would they vote again and how they would feel about cancellation of the referendum.
Geoffrey Hosking, Emeritus Professor of Russian History at UCL SSEES, has kindly offered us his postscript to his chapter ‘Trust in the trustworthy: a key to social cohesion?’ in a collective volume due to be published by the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, ‘Public Trust and the Future of EU Research and Innovation Policy.’
Britain’s decision to leave the EU was taken as a protest against the established government and opposition parties, in response to an agenda which included restricting immigration, curbing the influence of globalisation and restoring the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. The symbolic motifs of the nation-state have dominated the polemics leading up to the vote, often in defiance of logic and truth. No British citizen can feel proud of the outcome.
But neither can the European Union. Brexit is a challenge to terrible mistakes which the EU has made and to pernicious tendencies which have grown up inside it: its rigid and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, its espousal of narrow-minded economic policies which have generated massive unemployment especially among young people, its failure to investigate and collectively pursue the tax-dodgers who deprive member states of billions of euros. Many French, Dutch, Italian and even German citizens sympathise with the Brexiteers and might copy them if there are analogous referenda in their own countries.
I believe the European Union should now demonstrate that it is tackling the economic problems which blight so many people’s lives:
- At the head of the agenda should be common action against the tax havens (not least in Britain and its dependencies) where irresponsible wealthy firms hide most of their profits. Such action will show serious intent to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, and it is much better done by 27 nations acting together rather than by individual nation-states.
- The EU should announce a major programme of investment in green industry, green technology and the accompanying retraining of workers. With interest rates at a uniquely low level, it is irresponsible not to engage in this mitigation of the effects of climate change. Austerity and annual budget-balancing should be moderated until this investment brings about serious economic growth in the eurozone.
- Simplify bureaucratic procedures as much as possible, especially for small and medium businesses. Not every entrepreneur is conversant with the language and the formalities of accountants, lawyers and EU officials.
- Identify refugees in real need at an early stage of their hazardous journeys; provide help for them and economic aid for those local authorities which have problems in offering them housing, education and health care. We know that in the long run immigration brings economic benefits to the host nations, but in the short run it creates serious problems, often at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged in the receiving countries.
- Finally, the Union needs to become more open to democratic procedures. As a start, it would be good if the President of the European Commission were in future to be elected, not through backroom deals, but by all citizens of the EU. This would encourage ordinary people and the media inside the various countries to debate EU policies seriously and with some sense that they can influence them.
Conclusion, by Pete Duncan
Thank you to Filipa, Emma, and Paulina for your latest contributions. I still think it’s realistic to argue that Article 50 shouldn’t be implemented. I don’t want another referendum. I don’t think the result of the last one was legitimate, to answer Paulina. I want a return to parliamentary democracy.
As far as I can see, it would be illegal for the next Prime Minister to activate the Article without a vote of the House of Commons, and indeed the House of Lords and the Royal Assent. It would be illegal under the European Communities Act 1972, which would first have to be amended through normal parliamentary procedures. This is the argument being made by Mishcon de Reya, which Emma cites.
Again, as far as I can see, The European Union Referendum Act 2015 simply lays out how the referendum will be organized and does not bind the government to accept the result.
If Theresa May is elected Tory leader, and she doesn’t activate Article 50 until the end of the year, as she has said, there will be nearly six months for public opinion to change. This is likely, in the wake of the abandonment by the leaders of the Leave campaign of their main promises about NHS spending and immigration, and their personal antics. By then there’s a real possibility that developments inside the EU may make reforms in the EU which will make membership more palatable, as Filipa has suggested.
There really are changes in the attitudes to the UK inside the EU. Immediately after the referendum, it seemed that the whole EU was telling us to activate as soon as possible and get out. This was the position initially in a joint statement on 24 June by Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Donald Tusk They seemed determined to punish Britain for the referendum and rule out any possibility of reversing the decision, in order to deter other member states from going down the same path.
Since then, however, some of the member states, particularly in the SSEES part of the world, in Eastern Europe, have been more supportive. The president of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, has said that if the UK changed its mind, “welcome, welcome back”.
Miroslav Lajčák, the foreign minister of Slovakia which has just taken over the EU presidency, and Witold Waszczykowski, his Polish counterpart, have followed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestion that the referendum result could be ‘walked back’. And even Angela Merkel (a former East German) is shifting: her chief-of-staff, Peter Altmaier, is quoted as saying, ‘The Britons must decide whether and when they request to leave’.
In Eastern and Southern Europe, and in Germany, there are forces opposing the centralization of power in Brussels and the policies of austerity. In Britain today, even while our government and opposition are both bitterly divided, we need to get our message across to Europe that there is a growing body of opinion of people who are ready to use all legal means to stop the activation of Article 50.
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL or SSEES.