No country has ever left the European Union. However the electors of the United Kingdom have just voted to do so. There are plenty of reasons why they might want to take this decision – but few UK electors are the slightest bit interested in any of them. The United Kingdom has voted to know nothing, see nothing and think nothing about the EU – to not engage with something they never liked or were much interested in, simply because it is too difficult to understand foreigners.
Throughout the campaign both sides made all kinds of misleading claims about the other. The Remain camp tried to make out that no one would trade with the UK if it left the EU, while Leave insisted that they could build a new hospital every day with the money the UK pays to be part of the club. Few cared about this manipulation because they had their own concerns for voting the way they did, which had little to do with what either campaign said, or how accurate it was. It was all about whether you wanted to look at the EU and what it did or whether you wanted to hope it all went away so you wouldn’t have to think about it anymore – and by 52 to 48%, the island nation has voted to do the latter.
Spirit of the age
The United Kingdom has always had a grudge against the EU as a result of Post-Empire Syndrome. Having ruled the “Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets”until the mid-twentieth century it once thought it automatically had a community of interest with a large number of now-independent English-speaking states, if it wanted one, and saw itself as automatically at the heart of international affairs, regardless of how other countries saw it.
There was no reason the UK needed to deal with countries on the European continent, which had never been part of the Empire and did not speak the international language. It knew little about the politics or “foreign” cultures of these countries, or any reason why it should trade with them on anything, other than British-dictated terms, which largely revolved around importing cheap food. Nor did the UK see a need to make war impossible. No one wanted another war, but if there was one the British would win it, as always, having this innate advantage over all these little continental countries.
Not until the 1960s did an idea develop that the “Special Relationship” with the United States, another former colony viewed with suspicion for all the ways it now deviated from the UK, wasn’t enough. Politicians, if not the public, began to feel that leaving the European Free Trade Area and joining the EEC, as it then was, would keep the UK the big player on the world stage it felt it had a right to be. In the post war world of healing and reconciliation, it made sense to build a new world with former enemies as well as friends, provided, of course, it was done on British terms.
The trouble was, the then-six EEC nations didn’t see it that way. They felt they had created a new model which would dictate its own terms to future members. They also had a different outlook on co-operation because they had land borders, which the UK has only with the Republic of Ireland, which was not seen as a fully independent state anyway due to shared history, the large numbers of Irish living in the UK and reciprocal arrangements dating back to Irish independence in 1922.
The UK’s first application to join, in 1963, was vetoed by a resurgent France, whose President Charles de Gaulle uttered the famous phrase, “l’Angleterre, cen’est plus grand chose” (“England is not much anymore”) when the British felt he should still be grateful for wartime assistance. De Gaulle also vetoed a second application, in 1967, saying that the UK’s practices were incompatible with those of the Europe he was trying to build, something the British saw as a virtue.
Only in 1973, with de Gaulle dead, was the veto finally removed and the UK allowed to join. There was a sense of inevitability about it, of having to keep up with the times. All the significant political parties were in favour of joining, the only serious objectors being found in certain elements of the Labour Party, whose arguments were treated as another manifestation of crypto-Communism, and therefore suspect in motive.
Over time, however, the innate resentment of “Johnny Foreigner” became serious rather than a self-mocking British stereotype. The EU’s labyrinthine institutions kept imposing regulations which were resented because they seemed to come from nowhere and be decided by no one. British people don’t like Big Brother, whatever form it takes. They often resent their own directly-elected local authorities for the same reason, whilst accepting their benefits, and were never going to take orders from a bloc dominated by politicians they didn’t elect, whose parties they didn’t understand, who had generally been dumped there after failing at home.
When the political position reversed, and the Conservatives rather than Labour became the home of Euroscepticism, anti-EU opinions became mainstream. All parties, even the Liberals who had campaigned for the 1979 Euro elections with a poster showing all the European Prime Ministers sitting together, started voicing concerns about the waste, the bureaucracy, the unaccountability. The arguments in favour of the EU became technical economic ones which people didn’t relate to their personal finances. The EU had been a new future, but as a concept it had never won majority support in the UK, only weary acceptance that there was no other way so everyone had to put up with it.
Under pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his own party and defections to UKIP, Prime Minister David “Call Me Dave” Cameron agreed to hold this referendum to try and quash the anti-EU feeling and restore party unity, and admitted this publicly. The argument therefore became: do you agree with “Dodgy Dave” and his trendy cronies in the political class, or should the government listen to self-proclaimed “grass roots opinion” from those who felt themselves disenfranchised by all politicians? The fact that much of this was actually media opinion, spun by newspaper proprietors the general public has no more liking for than politicians, didn’t come into the equation. The British, or rather the English and Welsh residents amongst them, have voted to “take their country back” – simply because they don’t want to engage in the argument any more.
Too tired to care
The result was predicted to be close, although a YouGov poll on the day, and the reaction of the financial markets, suggested a small Remain majority. In the end differential turnout swung it towards the side which was always more motivated.Europe is a boring subject to most UK voters. No one wants to listen to what the EU does, what its institutions are, what its economic or social benefits might be.
The Remain campaign was never going to motivate its supporters as much as the “we want our country back” argument motivated the Leave-inclined. The longer the campaign went on, the less people wanted to hear about it one way or the other. Voting to leave was another way of saying “shut up and go away, I don’t want to hear about this depressing institution anymore.”
There has been a longstanding issue in the UK with immigration, a very visible factor in areas of high population density. It has long been assumed that immigrants in general, and refugees in particular, get preferential treatment when it comes to jobs and housing. However there are no laws which mandate this, and if immigrants aren’t working and sleep in the streets they are criticised for that too.
The issue is rather a lack of affordable housing, which is a product of purely UK government policies, such as selling off council houses, rather than EU regulation. But it is assumed that all migration is one way, and that the EU is flooding the UK with immigrants at the expense of locals due to the free movement of labour within its borders.
One of the starkest images of the referendum campaign was a Leave poster depicting UKIP leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a photo of a deep line of immigrants trying to cross a border under the slogan AT BREAKING POINT. The photo depicts refugees trying to enter Slovakia rather than the UK, but it captured a public perception which had been allowed to take root, for short-term electoral gain, by the very politicians who officially decried it.
The Leave campaign had no grand vision to offer of what the UK would be like outside the EU. It simply capitalised on public weariness with the whole business. If the EU goes away, all these arguments will go away. Whatever the future is, no one knows or cares as long as everyone leaves them alone.
Gone but not forgotten
The EU is indeed a deeply sinister institution. No one knows who really runs it, and some of its organs meet in secret and base their binding policy decisions on evidence people are not allowed to see or know the existence of. It has also created as many problems as it has solved, if not more, by its geopolitical activities, such as its “us and no one else” ultimatum to Ukraine, all of which seem designed to create a European superstate few actually want and no one could hold accountable.
But if any of the reasons for leaving the EU actually mattered to the UK electorate this referendum would have been held long ago. There was a similar one in 1975, but most people have forgotten this because the Remain campaign of the day won it by an overwhelming majority, thus putting the question of British membership to rest. The EU has served a purpose by bringing apparent economic benefits and by being there to complain about. No one cared what it did as long as they could complain about it but still get whatever good came out of it, and have it both ways.
Now the UK is fed up, and will define itself as the country which rejected the EU. Inevitably, this will affect the careers of its current politicians. All the party leaders except Farage, who is not an MP, supported Remain for different reasons. Cameron has announced he will resign in October, the others are under internal threat. The parties now have to reach out to an electorate which has rejected their arguments, but isn’t that fond of the personalities on the Leave side either, andmuch will depend on how the process of withdrawing from the EU is handled from hereon in, even though few know what that is, or if it even exists.
The result of the referendum is not binding. Parliament is still sovereign, and a large majority of MPs want the UK to remain in the EU. It is perfectly possible that MPs will try and sabotage the process of withdrawal, even though they still have to court the public vote. Who discredits themselves, if they have not already done so, and who emerges as a leader capable of channelling the public mood whilst remaining within the parliamentary system, will play a big part in how things develop from here.
It is also perfectly possible that there will now be a backlash against the reality now facing the UK. When Scotland voted in its own referendum to remain in the UK the outcome was a huge increase in support for the Scottish National Party, the only one which backed the losing side. If Scotland was still going to be in the UK it wanted a different relationship with it. UKIP and the Conservative Eurosceptics could feel a similar backlash now the deed has been done, as voting leave and swallowing the rest of what these individuals say are two very different things.
The EU is already saying the UK won’t get any concessions if it leaves. It would take decades to wipe all EU laws off the UK’s statute books, if anyone wanted to do so, but it will no longer get the trading benefits of either membership or association. Nor will it have the same political voice. The UK public doesn’t want such a voice in Europe right now, but will when everything becomes more expensive and more difficult to do, whether or not that means EU membership.
Not the end but perhaps the beginning
Every setback the EU has ever received, such as de Gaulle vetoing the UK in 1963 when the other countries thought differently, is seen as a crisis which might break it up. We are far from that point. But the UK vote has sent a signal to other countries that they don’t have to believe in the EU just because it is there, and the rise of anti-establishment parties across the globe, and the immediate call for referenda in other EU countries, show that many people no longer want the political configurations they’ve always known.
Some might remember what happened to a country called the Soviet Union when that happened. But do not be surprised if the British shed more tears than anyone if it actually does. While other international blocs, not least the Commonwealth formed out of the old British Empire, may well rejoice at this result their own hopes of greater influence at the expense of the EU might also be dashed. All we have now is unknown territory, and the biggest unknown of all is who will benefit, if anyone, from this historic vote. It is possible the Brexit vote may eventually lead to the entire break-up of the EU as an entity.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.