Tough decisions ahead for Britain
The European Union has been one of the more successful initiatives in history in advancing peace, democracy and human rights, in addition to the economic and political transformation of not only the European continent but also its neighborhood. Although not a security organization or an alliance per se, it has provided peaceful coexistence in war-weary Europe for almost 70 years.
Yet, it has in recent years been struggling to cope with several concurrent troubles, ranging from bankrupted economies to refugee flows, terrorism and rising populist and xenophobic political parties. Just last week, on June 23, in a historic referendum, 51.9 percent of the citizens of the U.K. voted to leave the EU, while 48.1 percent voted to remain. It clearly showed how these problems have affected the public in one of the bloc’s more populous and influential member states.
Those who voted to leave were mainly from England (53.4 percent) and Wales (52.5 percent), while Northern Ireland and Scotland strongly backed staying in the EU by a margin of 55.8 and 62 percent, respectively. The referendum results also showed that elderly citizens were very reluctant to stay in the EU.
Started as an appeasement tactic for the euroskeptics within the Conservative Party, and later backed by the right-wing populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron lost his gamble in taking the country to the referendum and had to resign.
Still, Cameron left the most important decision, that of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the process of leaving the EU, to his successor. He no doubt fully realizes by now that such a decision might also entail starting the dissolution of the U.K. in the interim, as First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated.
Even though Cameron did not want to take the responsibility of the process and leave it to his successor, his challenge against his populist rivals has already made him the scapegoat of his country’s unknown future, and indeed the future of European integration and stability. The depreciation of the pound against the dollar, the downgrading of the credit rating of the U.K. and the drop in the British stock exchange are early indications of the possible economic impacts of an exit from the world’s largest single market on the U.K. economy.
Beside its economic consequences, the real concern among the U.K. governing elite is the possibility of Northern Ireland and Scotland breaking away from the union. On the EU level, the main concern is whether this first exit could push other populist parties throughout the continent towards forcing their countries down the same adventurist road. The populists in France, Denmark and the Netherlands have already called for similar public votes on their countries’ EU membership.
Although major European officials call for quick Brexit negotiations, there is still plenty of time for the more sober U.K. political classes, if they are so inclined, to find a way out of this quagmire they have created. By postponing the decision on invoking Article 50, Cameron has gained some time for his country. Granted that a move towards ignoring the result of the referendum, regardless of its being a non-binding one, for a long time contains high political risks for its taker, the mainstream politicians might be able to convince the U.K. public after all about the negative consequences of life out of the EU and possibly arrange another referendum soon. As radical French politician Henri Queuille once pointed out, “Politics is the art of postponing decisions until they are no longer relevant.”
Otherwise, hard times are ahead for the U.K., the EU, the European continent and even the world at large.