The UK’s EU referendum held on the 23rd June was a close run thing but the ‘leave’ camp received 52 percent of the vote, narrowly beating team ‘remain’ with 48 percent. The outcome was not anticipated and has sent shockwaves economically (note the dramatic fall in the value of the pound Sterling), politically and socially around the country, the EU and further afield. The UK is now amidst its greatest post-war political crisis. Inertia hangs in the air as Conservatives jostle to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister and leadership questions within the Labour party rage furiously on. It is the Scottish Nationalists who are demonstrating professionalism while they try desperately – if not totally without their own agenda – to avoid being dragged from the one Union they desire to be in. In Brussels the EU finds itself embroiled yet again in a seminal crisis caused by the electorate’s rejection of its agenda once again. Both unions must view this result as an opportunity to reflect and reform. They must engage with citizens and tackle growing inequalities domestically, supporting those left being after years of concentrated growth. They must demonstrate the worth of participating in a set of reformed European institutions where each Member State can articulate its role and reap the collective rewards.
Rebuilding the UK
The UK has changed. The referendum’s result unleashed a collective cry for help. The referendum was nominally about the UK’s membership of the EU. The result did little to reflect this question. Instead voters took the opportunity to vent their collective rage at the government. Years of post-industrialisation, globalisation, austerity, a Conservative agenda, growing inequality and faltering social mobility have left a sizable proportion of the population feeling isolated. Added to ongoing anxieties about immigration, pressures on public services and media hysteria the referendum proved a touch paper. The EU question was the hook on which to hang all concerns. For decades consecutive British governments and media outlets (especially a Telegraph correspondent, one B. Johnson) have blamed our ills on the boogiemen in Brussels. Little wonder people began to believe them. The vote showed an enormous gulf between the prosperous areas which by and large voted to remain, and the under pressure areas that chose to leave.
The referendum campaign was Conservative party politics writ global. For Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, it was a Machiavellian ploy to topple Cameron (see Ken Clarke’s wonderful summary caught off-guard). The weapon of choice was obvious – the EU, that eternal fissure running deep throughout the Conservative party. Channelling national discontent into an EU referendum was the sure-fire way to bloody the Prime Minister’s nose – with a paper-thin remain win – and make space for a run on the top job. The plan half worked. Cameron was toppled but not by a narrow loss; the leave camp won the vote.
The end result is chaos outside Westminster and a political vacuum within. It’s only when political stability is gone one notices it was there at all. As it transpires the leave camp has no plan, economic or otherwise, the flagship promises that formed the backbone of its campaign melted away. More worryingly a small minority of ultra-nationalists have been emboldened by the results, causing racist and xenophobic attacks to dramatically increase. Scotland is looking to offer another referendum on independence.
The referendum outcome cannot be overlooked or undermined. Rather a robust response should come in two parts to address the wide cross section of issues that fuelled the outcome on the vote. Two things must happen to start to mend the rift:
- Urgently tackle core domestic grievances, including:
- Investment: in local infrastructure and instructions to build resilient communities.
- Economic growth: based on long term sustainable and inclusive strategic plans for all regions, especially the most deprived.
- Immigration: that does not alienate local populations.
- Re-establish trust: in expertise and those people who are elected to make decisions.
- Build confidence: in being a progressive outward looking nation built on a rich history.
- Mapping out alternatives:
The UK will remain to be a part of the EU until it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to formally leave. When this will be is unclear. The UK must use this interim period actively to work out what its options are in terms of a future relationship with the EU. Detailed plans – based on existing (Switzerland, Norway, etc.) and new models (a UK hybrid, UK remaining in a reformed EU, etc.) – should be drawn up and costed as a matter of urgency. These models should be published and put to another vote (either referendum or general election). It’s vital the public get another chance to make an informed decision about what kind of relationship the UK has with the rest of Europe. It’s highly likely, with changes at home and at the European level, the favoured options will be to remain within the EU.
Rebuilding the EU
The dominance of domestic issues in the referendum does not absolve the EU itself from blame. Failure over decades to resonate with people’s lives has left the institutions looking and feeling distant and aloof (although a deeply hostile press in the UK has not made this any easier). This is a shame given the positive things that can be attributed to it. The remaining 27 Heads of State as well as EU officials will be keen to pressure the UK into triggering Article 50 as soon as possible. They are right to do so. After failing to deal with numerous crises – most notably with the Euro and refugees – the EU will not want to be seen yet again to drag its feet. Failure to move swiftly will almost certainly lead to contagion. Numerous far right political parties, including France’s Front National and the Netherlands’ Dutch Party for Freedom, are emboldened by the UK’s referendum and are pushing for their own.
The values that underpin the EU are precious. The existing institutional structures that help to secure and deliver them are not. European leaders and EU officials must move quickly to consider how to make the EU fit for purpose. A little humility goes a long way. They should be seen to remove themselves from the minutia of policy making, question the status quo and work to make changes. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, himself has expressed a wish for a “European Union that is bigger on big things, and smaller on small things“. Now more than ever is the time to make this a reality. The MEP and former Belgium Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, sums it up best: “the Union must change, or it will die”. Warning further that the EU is sleepwalking towards disaster and another 27 referendums if the only repose to this fresh crisis is more of the same. The EU must regain a sense of perspective. It must help support and facilitate the overall strategic direction for 28 countries bound together by geography, history, economic and social integration.
Do not be mistaken – this is a crisis of epic proportions for both Unions, and survival of either is not guaranteed.