A fateful choice by Britain

Shahid M Amin

In a landmark referendum held on June 23, 2016, the British people decided by a slender majority to take Britain out of the European Union (EU). Most analysts, including financial experts around the world, had predicted a very close election, ending in a vote in favour of remaining in EU. But the final tally showed that 17,410,742 voters or 51.9% had favoured British exit (Brexit) from EU, while 16,141,241 or 48.1% wanted to “Remain” in EU. The voter turnout was 72.2% which set a record for a British poll.
Britain had joined EEC (now EU) belatedly in 1973 after much internal debate. Thereafter, though Britain has been a leading member of EU by virtue of its political, military and economic power, it has also been described as a “reluctant partner” who seemed indifferent to the progress of EU. For example, unlike other member countries who adopted the Euro as one common currency, Britain insisted on retaining pound sterling as its currency. It also did not join the Schengen open-frontier regime.
In the more recent past, disaffection with EU has developed in Britain, primarily over the sharp increase in immigration from East European member countries; a perception that Britain was being made to pay far more to EU than what it was receiving; and an impression that Britain was losing its sovereignty because rules were being imposed on it by Brussels, the EU headquarters. Internal opposition within the ruling Conservative party forced Prime Minister David Cameron last year to announce the holding of a referendum on continued membership of EU, in which the Conservative party itself would adopt a neutral position and party members were allowed to vote according to their wishes. The opposition parties —Labour, Liberal Democrats and the main party in Scotland— supported continued membership of EU. The British news media split, with the more widely-circulated newspapers supporting Brexit. Most financial experts had warned that any withdrawal from EU would greatly harm British economy. European countries as well as the USA repeatedly expressed the view that Britain’s global importance would diminish if it left the EU. But growing nationalistic opinion in Britain obviously has thought otherwise, as shown by the majority vote in the referendum.
It is clear that the decision to quit EU will have far-reaching consequences in political, economic and other spheres. As soon as the negative vote became known, Prime Minister Cameron announced his decision to quit as Prime Minister. He had campaigned vigorously for the Remain vote but failed in his bid. His moral authority has clearly been shattered and, in his resignation speech, he stated that the country needed a “fresh leadership” and he did not think that it would be right for him to try to be the captain who steered Britain to its next destination. The Conservative party would decide in October who would succeed Cameron. It will be the first time that Britain’s prime minister will not be chosen by a general election or by members of parliament, but by some 149,800 party activists, or about 0.2% of the British population. The leading candidate for the post is Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor, who is regarded as a controversial politician. Interestingly, his grandfather was a Turkish Muslim, Ali Kemal, and his father’s name at birth was Osman Kemal. But his father was orphaned and raised by his maternal grandmother as a Christian with a new name.
The referendum result has also caused dissensions in the Labour party whose eccentric leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of leading an indifferent campaign in favour of continued EU membership. In this manner, both leading parties are going through a period of dissension, something unusual in Britain which is known for its political stability. More worrisome is the divide in Britain between north and south, revealed by the referendum. The country seems to have been split right in the middle. Scotland voted largely in favour of continued EU and feels aggrieved by the majority Brexit vote. In 2014, Scotland had decided by a narrow majority to remain in the UK. The prospect of Scotland breaking away from the union has increased as a result of the EU referendum. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also hinted that Scotland’s parliament could use its constitutional power to block Britain’s exit from EU. Clearly, the domestic political fallout in Britain from the Brexit vote will be significant. The strength, composition, and leadership of the government are likely to be uncertain, at least in the immediate future after the referendum.
Some observers expect that the Brexit “contagion” might now spread to Europe itself where rightist ultra-nationalist parties have made gains in recent years. The sentiment to leave EU could increase in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. That would be a reversal of the movement for European integration that has been seen as a model for regional integration in other parts of the world.
The economic fallout of the EU referendum result is already apparent. Pound sterling suffered its biggest one-day selloff in recent history coming down from $1.50 against the US dollar to just $1.33. Moreover, stock markets fell all over the world with an estimated $2.1 trillion lost in stocks globally. Europe is at present the destination of 50 percent of British exports and the largest source of investment and there is likely to be a significant decline in both respects.
Already, there are calls for a second referendum to undo the results of last week’s referendum. Whether this can be done is uncertain. Under the rules, the process of withdrawal from the EU can take two years but, first, the country concerned has to notify the EU about such an intention. Leaders of EU countries have been shocked by the result of the British referendum and want Britain to expedite the withdrawal process. Some observers foresee a painfully long process ahead and think that the worst is yet to come. British and European politics have entered an era of uncertainty. Britain seems to be divided and the political contagion threatens to wreck the European Union as a whole. In social media, the comment is being made: England, what have you done? Donald Trump is happy over Brexit, as are ultra-nationalists in Europe.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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