Brexit: What if?
After months in which opinion polls showed a 6-10 percent lead for the “remain” side in the referendum campaign on continued British membership of the European Union, the numbers have suddenly shifted in favor of “leave.” The latest Guardian/ICM polls revealed that 52 percent of those polled favor Brexit (British exit from the EU), while only 48 percent want to stay in.
These numbers may even understate the probable outcome if the referendum were held today, and not in three weeks’ time (June23). “Out” voters are typically older, whiter and less urban than the “in” supporters – and much more likely to vote on the day.
One “remain” campaigner even fantasized about the ideal poster to motivate young pro-EU Brits to take the trouble of actually bothering to register and then vote. It would show an election queue of elderly, well-dressed white voters, all clearly unlikely to be around in 25 years’ time, and the tag-line would say: “Don’t Let These People Decide Your Future.” Needless to say, it will not decorate any actual walls.
So what if Brexit really does win the referendum? Even if the margin of victory is very small, the decision will in practice be irrevocable. And two things will certainly follow almost instantly.
One is the resignation of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose position will become impossible. It was he who promised a needless referendum three years ago, not in response to overwhelming popular demand but in a blundering attempt to placate the obsessively anti-EU right wing of his own Conservative Party. Then he led the campaign AGAINST Brexit – and lost it.
The other certainty is that Scotland will vote to remain in the EU, no matter how the rest of the United Kingdom votes, and will not let its wishes be overruled by the ROUK (as the rest of the country will doubtless come to be known). The Scottish National Party, fresh from an election victory at home, will call a second referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, and almost certainly win it.
After that, however, the glass gets darker. The new Conservative leader and prime minister would probably be Boris Johnson, Britain’s answer to Donald Trump. Perhaps no leader could negotiate a divorce settlement with the EU that protected Britain’s vital trade interests, but Johnson, at the head of a party mired in a civil war and with a working majority of only 18 seats in parliament, is least likely of all to achieve it.
Under article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, negotiations for the withdrawal of any EU member must be concluded within two years after the country in question says it intends to leave. The big issues would be continuing British duty-free access to the “single market” made up of the other 27 EU members – almost half of Britain’s exports go to EU countries – and continued free movement of labor across national borders
“It will be imperative to stop the Brexit contagion from gripping other countries,” said one EU official, so European negotiators will want to impose harsh terms on Britain in order to show other potential defectors that leaving is not cost-free. Since only 8 percent of EU exports go to Britain (and only two EU countries run a trade surplus with the U.K.) nobody will go out on a limb to preserve duty-free British access to the single market.
As for free movement of labor, ending it would require the expulsion of at least 1 million EU citizens currently working in the United Kingdom. Preserving it, on the other hand, would mean keeping the door open to uncontrolled immigration from other EU countries – but closing that door was a key promise of the Brexit campaign. This will not be a friendly divorce, and Britain’s negotiating position is not good.
Meanwhile, Scotland would be having its own difficulties. A second referendum would certainly back independence from the U.K., but it would not be easy for Scotland to retain (or rather, regain) its EU membership.
Legally, it would have to reapply, and other EU members (notably Spain) that want to discourage parts of their own countries from seceding will have every reason to make things hard for the Scots. They could end up waiting outside the door for a long time.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Scotland would just be collateral damage, and the rest of the U.K. would deserve and get very little sympathy when the divorce negotiations turn nasty. What will worry everybody else is the risk to the unity of the rest of the EU.
It is a bad time for Europe. Economic growth is low, unemployment and debt are high and refugees are pouring in from the Middle East and Africa. Hard-right populist movements like the Front National in France and Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany, anti-immigrant and anti-EU, are growing everywhere in Europe, and are already in power in Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland.
The real fear is that the “Brexit contagion” will spread and that other EU members will also acquire governments that just want out. That’s actually not a very high probability, but nobody wants the old pre-EU Europe back.