June 24, 2016 - by George Ross, ad personam Chaire Jean Monnet, Université de Montréal

The Brexit moment has been discussed at length. We can be brief, therefore, in asking a few pertinent questions.

What is its history?  The UK has never been enamoured of European integration.  It refused to join the European Coal and Steel  Community in 1951 and tried to sabotage the EEC around the Treaty of Rome by promoting EFTA. 1957. When the UK did finally applied to join the EEC in 1961, its entry was vetoed twice by French President de Gaulle for being insufficiently “European” (i.e. too economically liberal and tied to closely to US foreign policies). Finally admitted in 1973, internal political opposition led to a first referendum in 1975 and the decision to stay. Since then  British participation has been grumpy with complaints  about paying too much to the EU budget, about the Single Market’s regulations and social policies, about much of the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, leading to opt-outs of EMU, Schengen, and most legislation under the EU’s Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice. The grumpiness continued  and helped provoke the referendum.

The Brexit Referendum, Why Now? 

In 2013, faced with anti-EU carping within his Conservative Party and government and with a general election scheduled for 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK would hold an in-or-out referendum on the EU soon after the elections. Cameron thereby chose to gamble the future of the UK in the EU for domestic political reasons to keep his cranky troops in line. 

After the 2015 elections, Cameron then began to “prepare” the referendum and his support for the Remain side, by renegotiating the UK’s relations with the EU: withdrawal from commitments to an “ever great union;” setting limits to social welfare for immigrants from other EU countries; establishing an immigration emergency brake, and obtaining guarantees for City of London financial industries in the Euro-zone (despite British non-membership). This strategy did not work. Concessions to Cameron were minimal, his own Eurosceptic troops refused to stay in line , and his  leadership of the Remain camp was weak. Martin Wolf, the distinguished Financial Time editorialist, has called Cameron’s decision to call the referendum choice and his strategy for winning it, the most stupid foreign policy mistakes since World War II.

How was the blunt Instrument of the referendum deployed?  National referendums are always unpredictable. Asking citizens to make “yes” or “no” responses on something as multidimensional and complicated as EU membership is to ask too much. Voters would need to understand policies and institutions that even the best specialists have rarely mastered and in addition, to be able to  distinguish between hype and fact. Elites would have to be pedagogic and united. Demagoguery would have to be unmasked and short-term events put in their rightful places. Little of this happened in the last months in the UK. Rather, the Brexit debate was intense, cacophonous, and divisive, full of hyperbolic rhetoric and inaccurate statements.  British elites and political leaders lectured to citizens, with both sides using a huge mixture of true and untrue arguments.  Official bodies, in the UK and elsewhere, along with a number of foreign leaders including President Obama, repeatedly announced Brexit’s dangers to economic stability and to people’s livelihoods plus the very great uncertainties that Brexit would create. Experts of all kinds, including many earnest academics, simply told people what to think. The powerful, strident, unscrupulous, and largely Euro-sceptic, British press pulled out all stops to shape readers’ views. The Leave side accused, often dishonestly, the EU of costing too much, of flooding the UK with undesirable immigrants, and of intending to let Turkey join and allow hordes of Turks to invade the British Isles.  They claimed the EU grievously violated British sovereignty, notwithstanding the UK’s multiple delegations of sovereignty to other international institutions and its deep dependence on a globalized economy. Proponents of staying rarely defended the EU, instead arguing that it would be safer to stick with the Union, despite its flaws, and relying on scare tactics about the economic consequences of leaving. Powerful emotional undercurrents surfaced.  Many British citizens  almost reflexively mistrusted their political elites and experts, thereby  partaking of trends across the wealthy democratic world. More darkly, Leave campaigners pandered to deep public fears of immigration, playing on the anti-globalization phobias that we also see practically everywhere.

Results?   Opinion polls first favoured the Remain camp but by early June the momentum had reversed to favour Brexit. If the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox a week before the vote seemed to prompt a shift back, it was not enough. The verdict of June 23 was 52% for Brexit and 48% for staying in the EU.

A Shakespearean moment has ended.  A too-clever-by-half Prime Minister who vastly overestimated his own capacities, had tried to control a small revolt in his own party by holding the European Union hostage. The strategy has ended tragically, with Cameron  politically assassinated by his own people, the UK in dire straits, and the EU confronted with huge new puzzles to solve.

Other stories now begin. The first will involve the ricochets of Brexit for fragile British, European, and global economies, all already on  the precipice created by the Great Recession. The second may be the unravelling of the United Kingdom itself. Scottish leaders, committed to the EU, immediately began mobilizing for another referendum on Scotland’s independence. Ireland will be cleaved by new economic frontiers between the North and the Republic.  The Lisbon Treaty’s Article 50 provisions for a country leaving the EU has never been used and is certain to lead to excruciatingly painful processes over coming years. Treaties, trade deals, laws, regulations, and norms accumulated over decades of EU membership have to be renegotiated and rewritten with EU leaders in no mood to do the UK favours. Finally, the EU, already mired in huge problems, multiple crises, and low legitimacy has to figure out how to respond  at a moment when its capacities to cope are demonstrably in serious doubt.