On 23 June 2016, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU). The consequences of this vote will play out over many years now. In this article we look at five of the consequences.
Labour Party in Turmoil
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced immediately after the referendum result that he would be standing down. Realistically he had little choice; he campaigned hard to keep Britain in the EU and the eventual loss destroyed his authority.
The Conservative party, however, realigned itself quickly around Theresa May, the former Home Secretary. A serious politician, Mrs May does not indulge in social media gimmicks performed by many modern politicians. She is seen as a safe pair of hands and, although she nominally backed “Remain” in the referendum campaign, the Brexit supporting press have been reassured by her insistence that Britain must make a clear break from the EU.
Paradoxically, the internal strife within the Labour party is much more serious. Whilst the Conservatives have traditionally styled themselves as “the natural party of government” and take pride in the almost cynical pursuit of power that this entails, the Labour party has rarely been ruthless in its internal mechanics. The referendum opened a mighty schism between MPs who had little faith in their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and party members who backed him to the hilt and promptly re-elected him.
Although the challenge had been prompted by Mr Corbyn’s lackluster and unenthusiastic campaigning for the EU, the Labour conflict is much deeper; and therefore more serious than ongoing disputes over the meaning of Brexit within the Conservative party. The essence of the problem is that a lot of MPs represent a moderate centre-left Social Democratic view, whereas Mr Corbyn, and many party members, are much more radical.
In other, more proportional, political systems, the two streams of thoughts would be represented in different parties. However, Britain’s winner takes all constituency system means that political parties are often broad churches featuring several ideological influences. This can work where the different factions are committed to compromising and finding positions most in the party are comfortable with. However, with goodwill at a low, the two different camps in the Labour party seem intent on a war of attrition. It risks damaging not only the party’s reputation going forward, but also the political focus on what is a crucial period in the country’s history.
Labour also risk being squeezed in the new, post-Brexit debate about values. Many in their traditional working class core vote backed Brexit. These voters are often socially conservative and sceptical about immigration. The UK Independence Party and Paul Nutall, their new Merseyside born leader see a possibility of cannibalising that vote as, to a certain extent, do Mrs May’s Conservatives, who have moved noticeably from the liberal approach adopted by Mr Cameron.
However, if the Labour party move to solidify that vote they risk alienating their other core voters – young(ish), middle class, university educated city dwellers who are liberal and internationalist by outlook. The centrist Liberal Democrats have suddenly found a new lease of life in being the internationalist party and can be expected to compete vigorously for these voters. The tightrope that Labour will have to walk would challenge a more talented politician than Mr Corbyn.
Tricky Negotiations Ahead
In the modern political world “historic” is an over-used adjective. In this instance, though, it was an understatement. Undoing all the threads following 44 years of EU membership will be a huge technical challenge and the negotiation process is likely to be fraught and complicated.
The Leave campaign suggested that Britain can control immigration whilst maintaining the same access to the single market. Mrs May seems to realise that this is overly optimistic and is, instead, talking about a comprehensive trade deal.
However, the EU is concerned about scepticism in a number of different countries and will need to show that membership of the club has value. The easiest way of doing this will be to ensure that no “sweetheart deal” is given to the UK. Regardless of arguments that trade deals are not zero sum games, membership of a club must have advantages over non-members (otherwise membership has no meaning). It is therefore entirely logical that European politicians say the UK cannot expect a more generous deal outside the EU than in. Whether this reality can be squared with some of the more hyperbolic claims of the UK’s negotiating strength remains to be seen.
Timing of Plans
Mrs May wants a comprehensive free trade agreement to be in place within two years. Although she left some wriggle room for certain parts being phased in, this looks hugely ambitious.
Most trade deals take years to negotiate – the EU/Canadian deal, for example, took seven years and almost fell through at the last minute. Some would argue that the UK can negotiate much more quickly as it already adheres to common rules as an EU member. There is some truth in this – however, the quickest way for agreement on this basis would be for the UK to agree to EU regulations and the jurisdiction of a designated court, like the European Court of Justice. But this is what many Brexiteers have railed against.
The reality is that, once negotiations start, all sorts of awkward issues will come up and cannot quickly be put back in a box. A traditional complaint from Brexiteers is that the EU moves at a glacial place – if they are proven correct then a full trade deal within two years will be proven optimistic.
Scottish Independence Debate Has Some Way to Run
In September 2014, the Scottish electorate rejected independence from the UK by a clear, if not totally convincing, margin (55%/45%). One of the arguments used in the referendum campaign was that Scotland would need to re-apply for EU membership if it voted to leave the UK. Now, though, Scotland is facing being taken out of the EU against the will (62% of Scots voted to stay). Unsurprisingly Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s nationalist First Minister sees a second referendum as being “on the table” although she is cautious about expanding on this phrase.
With their being no possibility of Scotland staying in the EU but within the UK, independence is the only way to ensure Scotland’s membership of the EU. Polls since the EU referendum have shown little sign of a spike with the unionist vote still moderately ahead. Practical difficulties post-Brexit will only increase – Scotland exports far more to England than to the rest of the EU; the collapse in the oil price has made prospective fiscal conditions problematic; and it is far from an ideal time to establish a new currency.
At the moment, there has been little sign of an economic downturn following the vote, and Ms Sturgeon is weighing her words carefully. If exit negotiations break down in acrimony, and there are signs of a major economic hit to the UK, then the mood music could change quickly. With global politics in a very fluid state, this story has a long way still to run.
Turkey Will Never Join the EU
Turkey was unlikely to join the EU any time soon, but the British referendum result may seal its fate permanently. Progress has been painstakingly slow in accession talks and President Erdogan’s erratic behavior hasn’t helped. Indeed, the current momentum seems to be decidedly backwards rather than forwards.
Even if Turkey were to change course on human right this in unlikely to help them. Turkey had a major champion for its cause in the UK, with David Cameron promising to “pave the road between Ankara and Brussels”. With the UK leaving, it is inconceivable that any other major country will take up the cause – particularly after Turkey’s membership became a major issue in the campaign.
The Leave campaign repeatedly quoted Mr Cameron’s remarks and released campaigning material suggesting Turkey would join the EU very soon. This concerned the British population, already alarmed at consistently high immigration figures. Given the experience of Mr Cameron, other leaders may conclude that it is political suicide to push Turkey’s membership. Even if the current political difficulties can be smoothed over, serious progress is unlikely for decades, if ever.