June 24, 2016 - by Oliver Schmidtke, director of the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria
The decision of the United Kingdom to exit the European Union is one of those stunning turns in history that leave observers in a state of disbelief. The chock that was palpable in commentators' first reactions to the Brexit decision reflects how challenging it is to come to terms with this new reality. First, leading up to the referendum the consensus among the chattering class was that a vote in favor of Brexit could be avoided by a last minute surge in support for the Remain Campaign (in particular after the murder of Jo Cox last week). Watching the BBC live coverage of the referendum it quickly became apparent how the political elite, the business community and the media had misread the political pulse of the country. Second, as a commentator one feels almost overwhelmed trying to grasp the enormous implications of the Brexit vote in the UK, in Europe and even globally.
The referendum on British membership in the EU will shape the socio-political and economic fate of the UK and the European Union for generations to come. Yet, the Brexit vote was largely driven by a far more immediate sense of anxiety and anger directed at the elites in London and Brussels. In particular the economic crisis of 2008/9 and the challenge of governing refugees in Europe has nurtured a deep feeling of uncertainty and disempowerment. In this climate blaming immigrants or a remote bureaucracy in Brussels has held considerable political capital. Images of national sovereignty and protected borders suggest stability and a protective collective identity.
Now the United Kingdom will have to address the implications of this act of anti-elitist defiance. The country is without strong leadership and we have no idea at this point who will replace David Cameron as Prime Minister. How far will the UK move towards a form of nationalist populism that we have seen spread quickly throughout Europe over the past years (as well as shaping the rhetoric of the current American presidential race). What will be the role of a triumphant Nigel Farage (leader of the UK Independence Party) and Boris Johnson (former major of London) who, with his divisive rhetoric, has become the face of the Conservative opposition to the UK's EU membership? Not surprisingly, right-wing populists in France and The Netherlands have already enthusiastically endorsed the idea of an exit referenda in their countries. The Brexit vote calls for a reasoned and calm response. Yet it will be a colossal task to contain the specter of nationalism. In this regard the Brexit vote might indeed indicate a seismic shift in European politics and veritable threat to the very idea of European integration.
Dr. Oliver Schmidtke is Director of the Centre for Global Studies and Professor in Political Science at the University of Victoria. He is also part of a pan-Canada network of experts working on European policy issues, the Strategic Knowledge Cluster Canada-Europe Transatlantic Dialogue.