Brexit Stage Left: The Decline of the United Kingdom and the Future of the European Project

By: Adam Stromme

Editor-in-Chief, Economics and International Relations Undergraduate Student 

The outcome of the European Referendum has already had devastating consequences, and sowed the seeds of uncertainty for people both within Britain and in Europe. St Andrews itself is abuzz with fretting students and rising anxiety, much of which prompted the swift response from the university providing assurances that are for the most part either platitudinous or empty.

Responses to the referendum have been similarly swift, usually long, and always spirited. For an institution as symbolic as the European Union to have been condemned by forces touting slogans hauntingly reminiscent of Europe’s dark past is understandably too much for many. Equally predictable outrage at the outrage, including in the pages of the Saint, have encouraged a more holistic assessment of what has otherwise been correctly criticized as a bald face appeal to nativism and antipolitics. One can hardly remain as admirably cool yet somehow still Panglossian as Mr. Yeh, whose piece at other points makes valid observations, because the result of a vote fueled by such toxic forces ought only be understood as the result of “each voter [acting] according to what was rational to them”. A nice tautological appeal, if one with little factual basis.

But the real consequences of this vote are not likely to be fully felt for years. As has been noted elsewhere, this provides a cruel sense of justice as voters who voted inordinately to stay in the European Union, the young, are the same ones who will be forced to deal with the consequences of this poorly conceived referendum the longest. Thanks to a razor thin margin utterly at odds with the “mandate” the referendum was meant to seek, everything from the Common MarketErasmus program and research funding for universities is now in jeopardy, and these ripple effects will likely disproportionately affect young students directly.

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A Demographic Breakdown of the referendum, from the authoritative Lord Ashcroft Polls (Source)

But how did we get here? Fully understanding the consequences of the referendum will require a wider lens picking apart the culmination of events leading up to the vote, and the less clear consequences that the outcome will bring. Its tempting to follow headlines and recite statistics, but discerning the longer term effects will require a different approach. It will also require a glance at how the European Union itself is likely to fare, a topic largely ignored by now-frantic British citizens.

The origin story of the referendum can be drawn anywhere, but its best to start back in 2013. Having branded himself as a new kind of Conservative, David Cameron pushed through a series of controversial proposals with an ostensibly centrist Liberal-Democrat coalition. At the same time he also embraced a broader agenda of social justice in order to remove steam from Labour, and as a result began to empower a distinctly far-Right identity in reaction that would eventually power UKIP.

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Brexit: An  Case Study in Political Myopia (Image Source)

Faced with sliding poll numbers and a backlash within the Conservative government as a result of this move to the centre, Cameron decided to lance the base of UKIP’s more or less single-issue platform and co-opt the rising tide of the far right into the Conservative party by promising a referendum he was confident would vote remain, and clamoring loudly about immigration in the meantime to bide time and bleed votes. Having originally set the date for the referendum by the end of 2017, he unexpectedly brought it forward a year in order to bolster the otherwise lackluster projections for the Conservatives in the 2015 election and ensure historians could be certain the Brexit vote was only ever intended to serve instrumental ends. It is only in the context of this move that the promise for a referendum, a desperate bid for a short term electoral bump sold as “getting a mandate”, that the random choice sprung on the British people on Thursday makes any sense.

It is also in this light that the delusionally short sighted rationale for the referendum becomes painfully obvious.

This decision, this rushed and confused decision, will continue to reverberate well into the future, particularly for the EU itself. Far-Right Nationalists have declared victory from London, to Paris, and beyond. To have had their mandate to dismantle, not reform, the laborious project of post-war union legitimated has dire consequences. Ever a cautious and piecemeal institution, such an attack on its very right to exist will undermine the political capital for meaningful reform at the very time it is needed most.

It is only in the context of this move that the promise for a referendum, a desperate bid for a short term electoral bump sold as “getting a mandate”, that the random choice sprung on the British people on Thursday makes any sense

This is because, for all its faults, the European Union is more than the sum of its parts. At its core, it stands for the commitment of the peoples of Europe to bury the lethal strands of militant Nationalism, xenophobia, and nativism that has wrought incalculable damage and to work together to solve global challenges on a Cosmopolitan basis. And the rising tide of decentralizing independence movements, from Scotland, to Ireland, to Catalonia will require more, not less integration in order to ensure that their bid for self determination does not devolve into the violent infighting that has arguably plagued Europe more than any continent.

In a way, the European Union today resembles the nascent United States. Faced with common problems, but plagued by gross disparities in power and a toothless binding arrangement under the Articles of Confederation, the solution was to seek a balance between the powers of the larger and smaller states, and provide a genuinely federal constitution in order to set the ideals of local and national representation side by side. Such an undertaking faces massive headwinds, but the fault of many commentators is to decadently assume that a continuation of the incrementalist, damage-control centric, approach to the European Union can survive the rising tides that challenge its very right to exist.

Ever a cautious and piecemeal institution, such an attack on its very right to exist will undermine the political capital for meaningful reform at the very time it is needed most

Britain has failed to stand by the European project, and it remains to be seen whether the project can stand by itself in the long term absent a new approach. Facing issues as thoroughly global as the immigration crisis, compounding consequences of climate change, and financialized Capitalism run amok, the hidden question forces us all to ask is not whether the EU can bear to be without the UK, but rather whether the world can afford to be without the EU.


(Thumbnail Photo Courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos)

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