The British rejection of European Union membership came like a brick slamming into a pane of glass. The impact has stunned observers, radiated shockwaves and suddenly thrown up an arresting vista of cracks and jagged shards.
A crestfallen British Prime Minister David Cameron handed in his resignation only hours after the result showing the majority of Britons had voted for their nation to leave the EU – after 43 years of membership.
The victory for the «Leave» campaign was decisive. Some 52 per cent of British citizens voted against 48 per cent who wanted to «Remain» within the 28-nation bloc. Conservative Party premier Cameron and the leaders of the other main political parties – Labour, Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats – had joined ranks to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.
But in the end the popular vote rejected their pleas and instead backed the anti-EU stance of Boris Johnston, the former mayor of London who led Conservatives opposed to membership, in league with the more stridently Eurosceptic and anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage. The flamboyant Johnson is now tipped to take over as leader of the Conservatives and maybe future prime minister.
The repercussions of the so-called Brexit are multifaceted. British and international reactions struggled to assimilate the ramifications. This is partly due to a sense of astonishment that the United Kingdom had actually voted to leave. Not only did the result defy all the main political parties, it also repudiated a massive campaign endorsing continued EU membership, with what Leave campaigners decried as a «project of fear».
Cameron’s government had issued dire warnings of economic and financial mayhem if the country opted out of the EU. That call was backed by top British companies, City of London financial executives, and an array of international institutions, including the IMF and OECD. Days before the referendum was held, billionaire financial speculator George Soros predicted disaster for the British economy in the event of a Brexit.
European governments openly urged a Remain vote, while American President Barack Obama said that Britain would no longer be given «special rights» as a trading partner if it left the EU.
In the same week of the referendum, the US-led NATO military alliance also weighed in with grave warnings of increased security risks for Britain if it quit the European bloc.
In spite of this wall of pressure, if not blatant intimidation, the British electorate rejected EU membership. And in the early media coverage of the result, there was a palpable sense of disbelief among the chattering classes that the ordinary British people had gone their own way.
Apart from Cameron tendering his resignation, other British constitutional cracks split wide open on news of the Brexit.
The Leave result was driven mainly by English and Welsh voters, in contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, where a majority had voted to remain within the EU, the nationalist dominated regional assembly led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed that a second independence referendum was now on the table. In the previous independence plebiscite, in September 2014, the Scots voted then to stay within the United Kingdom largely as a way of securing continued EU membership by remaining an integral part of the UK. And with most Scots wanting to remain within the EU, the likelihood is that they would now reject the union with a «Brexited» England.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland the EU Remain vote carried the day. Nationalist Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that London had hence lost its mandate to rule Northern Ireland, and he called for a referendum on Irish unity, which could lead to Britain relinquishing its centuries-old jurisdiction on the island of Ireland.
In short, the Brexit vote has not only severed Britain’s union with the rest of Europe, it has also unleashed secessionist forces presaging the dissolution of the United Kingdom’s own internal union.
Across Europe, the stunning British vote to leave was met with euphoric applause from similar anti-EU movements. In France, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen hailed the result as a «blow for freedom» and she demanded that the French nation be immediately given the right to have a referendum on EU membership.
Le Pen’s declaration for an EU referendum was echoed in Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.
Several recent polls in these countries have shown growing – if not majority – support for a similar Brexit-style rejection of the EU. That is certainly alarming for the incumbent governments given that these countries represent founding members of the European project, which began nearly 70 years ago following the Second World War.
The EU establishment, represented by the Brussels administrative centre and pro-EU governments, is reeling from the Brexit shock.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly held emergency meetings with European Parliament leader Martin Schulz and European Council chief Donald Tusk; while EU foreign ministers convened in Berlin to discuss the permutations and how to stabilize the remaining 27-member bloc. Britain is the second biggest economy in the EU after Germany, so its negotiated departure over the next two years is a formidable challenge.
Over the next days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to hold crisis talks with French President Francois Hollande and Italian premier Matteo Renzi.
What these leaders fear most is that the Brexit will unleash a «domino effect» right across the whole of Europe. In virtually every country, including the foundational members, anti-EU parties are on the rise and flourishing. There is a veritable popular revolt against the EU establishment, which has come to be seen as undemocratic, autocratic and unresponsive to pressing social needs of employment, public services and general civic welfare.
European governments have got no-one else to blame but themselves. Whether they are nominally right, left or center, all conventional political parties – and the EU establishment that reflects them – have become ossified and inflexibly subordinate to neoliberal capitalist dictate. This has, in turn, engendered widespread poverty, unemployment and economic austerity, while the profits accrue to a tiny elite. The EU has become a cage of locked-in capitalist globalization, seemingly with no escape, as with much of the Westernized world.
Alternative opposition parties may not always express critique in such an anti-capitalist way, but they are united in their repudiation of what they see as a centralized oligarchy that operates out of Brussels. This has led to a counter-movement towards nationally controlled economies, as opposed to globalized form.
It is doubtful that many of the anti-EU parties can deliver remedial policies to what is the stagnancy of capitalist economics in the 21st Century. But one thing is sure: their supporters want to reject the failures of the status quo that is embodied in the contemporary EU.
An equally important form of inflexibility seen in the EU bloc is in foreign policy. The EU seems to have become a passive replica of the US-led NATO military alliance and under the thumb of Washington’s decree. Granted, most of the membership overlaps between the two organizations. But for many of the EU’s 500 million citizens, the EU’s lack of independence in foreign policy from Washington is a source of consternation.
The dangerous and economically damaging stand-off between Europe and Russia, largely at the behest of Washington, is a classic illustration of the problem.
The kowtowing by European governments and the Brussels administration to Washington’s policy of hostility towards Moscow is emblematic of the unaccountable and undemocratic nature of the EU bloc.
So too is the refugee crisis assailing European countries, which can be traced directly back to criminal US-led wars in North Africa and the Middle East, which the EU has colluded in or acquiesced to. And now is bearing the brunt of due to its servility towards Washington.
The popular revolt against the EU is far from homogenous. Some elements are impelled by reactionary, xenophobic nationalism. Some by chauvinism and romanticized notions of «traditional capitalism». Among some elements, there may even be fervent support for NATO militarism and pro-American hostility towards Russia.
But with Britain’s departure from the EU, Washington and the NATO alliance has lost one its most ardent supporters within the bloc. The Cameron government, after all, was the major proponent of tough sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, and London’s Atlanticist bias had preponderant leverage on the overall EU foreign policy position.
Britain leaving the EU can be seen as a blow to undermine the sway of Washington and NATO over Europe. And this progressive end was also a factor in support for the Brexit, as it is in the wider social revolt across Europe. The European revolt is not all about rightwing reactionaries; it is also about creating more democratic, independent European states, even if that necessitates the seemingly retrograde step of breaking up the EU under its present form.
The Brexit thus heralds much more than the shattering of the EU. On a national level, the United Kingdom is also prone to fracturing, while at the international level the Atlanticist bond with which Washington has dominated the EU is another fracture point.
Like the proverbial pane of glass, inflexible structures are always susceptible – at some stage – to fragmentation. The EU appears to have reached that critical pressure point.