It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Facing a sizable fraction of his own party that wanted to secede from the EU David Cameron made the gambit of the century: Let’s have a referendum and get this behind us once and for all. He never for one second thought that the ‘leave’ faction would be able to win that referendum and the end result would be to cement his own position for at least another election cycle to come. Alas, for everybody involved, we now know this was an extremely costly mistake.
Amidst claims of regret and being duped the UK population is rocked by the impact of what they’ve done, but even if everybody that wanted to would be allowed to ‘switch sides’ and vote again the ‘leave’ camp would still win, but by a smaller margin.
There are a number of driving forces behind the ‘brexit’ vote, and as I watched the whole thing unfold from my (Dutch, and so EU) vantage point I tried to make a small catalog of them without assigning them any relative weights.
The EU government is spectacularly out of touch with its subjects and does a very poor job of communicating the pluses and the minuses of being part of the union. As one of those subjects, and fairly politically informed, it always amazes me how opaque ‘Brussels’ is to those that would like to know how it all functions and what options we as ordinary citizens have to influence the proceedings outside of the votes we cast. There are veritable mountains of documents about the EU, but there is no relatively accessible piece of information that gives a person with average education an idea of how it all works and what the tools at hand are. The EU is generally viewed as a cost without upside (and the main upside is that the EU is much more stable than the countries that it unites), a net negative and a draw rather than a benefit. The fact that Brussels diplomats routinely take compensation without any performance whatsoever and that corruption is perceived as being wide-spread doesn’t help either. In general, EU politics are far away from the voters boots on the ground. This is as much a real problem as one of communications and can’t be solved easily.
The UK, a former world power, has seen its position marginalized further and further over the last 5 decades. An older generation hankers back to the days long gone and would like to see Great Britain to be restored to its former glory. This is understandable, but in my opinion somewhat mis-informed. The world is a much more connected place today than it was 50 years ago and next to a unified EU with the UK as an outsider (and, if we are to believe the latest developments with England as an outsider) it is not a very important country economically. The EU is a very large economic entity and to negotiate with 27 countries individually the UK of the past had formidable clout but today the situation has changed very much and turning back the clock like this simply isn’t going to work.
Immigration, always a hot topic when things are not going well. The UK has its share of immigration issues, just like the rest of Europe. Unlike most of the rest of Europe, as an island there is the illusion that the physical borders are insulation against the issues that the rest of Europe struggles with as soon as the subject is the free movement of people. Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, there are a lot of people in the UK that feel that ‘the foreigners took their jobs’, or that refugees are the kind of people that there simply isn’t room for. It’s a tough problem, but I highly doubt that this problem is large enough to isolate a country over from its main trade partners. On the one hand, there definitely is some truth to the downward pressure on wages from cheap competition (so when this affects you directly your vote for ‘exit’ is probably in the bag), on the other, a large influx of people that are most likely not going to be net contributors to the economy isn’t going to help either. But, and this is the bigger issue, exiting the EU will come with the requirement to re-negotiate a whole pile of treaties and the EU is most likely simply going to make all the same things that were tough to swallow pills in the past bargaining chips. And this time the UK (or what’s left of it) will not be in a position to refuse much of anything. So I highly doubt that this subject will be resolved through an exit of the UK from the EU.
Automation: Unlike immigrants vying for the jobs traditionally held by UK born blue collar workers (many of them second generation immigrants themselves) the automation wave of the last 30 years has done as much or more to damage the prospects of those that do not have a high level of education, and those that do not work in the immediate vicinity of a large population center. More and more jobs disappear through automation in almost every branch of industry. This has led to record un-employment and governments the world over (including the UK) are struggling with how to deal with this. For a laid off factory or agricultural worker it does not matter what the underlying reason for being jobless is, the frustration with the establishment to whom they would look to solve this is definitely understandable.
General protest votes against those in power seem to me to make up the remainder of the group that voted for the exit, and quite a few of those are now in the un-enviable position of having received what they wished for, a country whose leadership has already started infighting and which - to me as an outsider at least - appears to be utterly rudderless, which for a former seafaring giant is a very bad position to be in.
If the UK were a boat, it would appear as if the captain had descended into the hold with an axe and had made a giant hole in the bottom of the boat to prove that it can’t be sunk. Fortunately the UK is an island and literally sinking it is an impossibility, but the damage done dwarfs anything I’ve seen a political entity ever do to their own country.
The really puzzling thing about the composition of the ‘leave’ voters is that a very large number of them stand to be positioned squarly in the way of the blow that will land on the UK economy once the exit is a fact. I can see ‘change for change’s sake’ as an option but when it is all but a certainty that your own position will come out much worse it makes me wonder if the consequences have been thought through.
Junker & co are happy to finally kick the naughty kid out of the class, and even though I understand their position I’d like to caution them not to be too rash, it’s just another example of the EU doing what it does best: to decide without any visible kind of proces behind the decision, and I don’t recall voting for Juncker. For one a very large chunk of the UK voted ‘remain’ and to push the UK to exit too fast could very well alienate this extremely important faction within the UK, for another, it would appear that France and Germany would like to see the UK cut up into pieces or to no longer be a factor of note in EU politics so they can drive their plans forward unimpeded.
The damage is done, I for one would very much like to see restraint on the part of the EU leadership on how they deal with the self-inflicted crisis in the UK and to limit the damage where possible. If the UK loses some of its special status then that would be acceptable, but to push the UK out when it may be possible to retain it - or a large fraction of it - through some kind of compromise would be a mistake worthy of a Cameron, and we already know how that ended.