Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit: What Happened and What's Next?

Photo: Alamy

So what happened? Honestly, I am still digesting the Brexit vote myself. On one hand, I don't want to be seen as saying "this was predictable" since this wasn't -- I am as surprised as everyone else. On the other hand, I do think that this phenomenon is not that dissimilar to the rise of Trump in the US: a major silent majority, comprised of whites, old people, people who've lost out against globalization, people living in "rust belt," all voting with  emotion to make Britain great again. They are the left-behinds of this globally interconnected world that has created a huge inequality gap among the rich and the poor. They are the ones who resent Brussels' red tape and do not feel that European Union really reflects their political preferences and attitudes. 

Are the voters racist? I doubt it. I'd suspect really few of them are racist. Yes, immigration is one of the top British concerns, but fearing job theft or incoming radicals doesn't make them goose-stepping totalitarians. In fact, branding the pro-Brexit voters all as racist is the easiest way to cop out, to avoid asking the real tough question of what went wrong. Why is there a disconnect between these people and the political/economic elites/experts, in London as well as in the EU home offices.

Considering that most of the experts were pro-Remain, I think there's a significant undercurrent now against this "educated class," that many people no longer trust so-called experts, seeing them as just tools for corporation interests.

And it is interesting that instead of asking what went wrong, why this identity of being European only germinates among the rich and political elite and does not trickle down to the lower class -- leading to the rise of right wing parties all over Europe -- the overwhelming reaction, from pundits, analysts and politicians, simply blamed the voters. In fact, with the aid of hindsight of course, there were warning signs about the continued viability of the entire European project. After all, some European Union countries only ratified treaties after major concessions, and some didn't even hold a referendum for fear of rejection at the ballot. I mean, if the EU is so popular, brings so many tangible political and economic benefits, then why all the political gimmicks?

What's next?

One answer is heightened uncertainty, which leads to turmoil in the market--something that has already started today. Britain has to renegotiate a lot of treaties, and with the feeling against Britain in Continental Europe, plus the prospect of seeking their own exit, it's unlikely the EU will grant London many, if any, concessions. Moreover, US economic stagnation combined with the rise of populist sentiments within America means that Washington probably won't help the Brits much at all--either now, under Obama, or under his successor, Trump or Clinton. So Britain is basically alone. Expect at least short-term, if not long-term, economic pain.

And then there are questions about Scotland. As expected, the Scots are already pushing for second referendum, which may be successful this time. But whether that would benefit the Scots is doubtful -- the Scots won't add much to the European Union, and with the price of oil at $50/barrel, they would be another weak economy country begging to get in the European Union. Keep in mind that England actually subsidized the Scots, not the reverse. And while many European countries would love to see Britain get its comeuppance, it is doubtful that they'd actually risk invigorating secessionist movements in Spain and Italy and even in Belgium, outcomes which would only add more headaches to the region and to the EU itself.

We may see more backlash against immigrants, particularly in the form of a political crackdown against them, so as to dampen the apparent right-wing awakening across Europe.

In terms of security, I doubt we'll see much change. Regardless of how much everyone is hating the Brits right now, England is one of vital elements within NATO and the entire European security architecture. There's no way Continental Europe is going to kick the Britain out or to modify the extant security arrangement. Frankly, those agreements and institutions have never been a problem and won't be in the future.

Lastly, in terms of international relations scholarship, there will be a lot of rewriting on the institutions literature. What seemed to be irreversible before is now actually reversible. And the case of Brexit/EU may be relevant to other cases, especially ASEAN, where the current model is closely hewing to the European Union model. With ASEAN currently in mess, it is possible that there will be rethinking of ASEAN in near future.

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