Mon | Jul 16, 2018

John Rapley | Brexit: dilemma or deliverance?

Published:Sunday | June 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference in London on June 24. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron announced Friday that he will quit as prime minister following a defeat in the referendum which ended with a vote for Britain to leave the European Union.
A screen shows the US dollar-British pound sterling exchange rate at the Korea Exchange in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, June 24, 2016. World financial markets were rocked Friday by Britain's unprecedented vote to leave the European Union.

The result was decisive and the outcome clear. However, Britain's future in the wake of its decision to leave the European Union is now anything but obvious. Rather, the country has taken a huge leap into the unknown. And its ride there is very difficult to predict.

Before it turns its attention to its relations with the rest of the world, Britain will have to negotiate a new trade agreement with the European Union (EU). Given that such deals can take half a dozen years or more to hammer out, the two-year timeline for exit to be finalised under the EU Constitution would be tight at the best of times.

These, most decidedly, are not the best of times. As I wrote in my blog on Friday, after four decades in the EU, during which Brussels led trade talks on behalf of its members, Britain's own negotiating capacity has withered. Moreover, the international environment has been gradually turning more protectionist. The sorts of generous trade deals the Brexit campaign said it could negotiate for Britain if only it took back its sovereignty may not be so easily achieved.



It's not even clear who will stand at the helm as Britain redefines itself. David Cameron gambled that by holding a referendum, he could neutralise the Eurosceptics who had long torn apart his Conservative Party. At the time, Euroscepticism, while growing, was still a fringe force in British politics, so he put all his chips on the table. What a mistake that turned out to be! Euroscepticism surged, Cameron lost the gamble, and, with that, his future. A new Conservative government will take the reins, with the early betting on former London Mayor Boris Johnson as prime minister.

However, the new government will not only be unelected - the new prime minister will be selected by the governing Conservative Party, not the electorate - but its mandate will be further weakened by what was, after all, a thin margin of victory in the referendum.

And it gets worse. Both the campaign and the result of the referendum revealed deep and worsening divisions within British society: Leave-areas voted strongly to leave and Remain-areas voted strongly, even overwhelmingly, to remain. London opted unambiguously for the EU, and its economy may suffer from the disintegration that results. The rest of England and Wales, which has resented London's economic dominance for years, turned its back on the political and economic Establishment that urged it to stay. Half of Britain will love the new government; half will loathe it.

Even more challenging will be that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, strongly so in the case of the Scots. Given that Scotland narrowly voted down a referendum proposal for independence two years ago, the issue is bound to resurface. The 2014 'no' to independence took for granted a Britain that remained in the EU. The Scots will not long tolerate a decision to leave the EU, especially when it is perceived to have been imposed on them by the English.

Equally, peace in Northern Ireland presumed a warming of relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland, which remains firmly in the EU. Nationalists in Northern Ireland will not long tolerate a turn away from the EU if it entails a weakening of ties with its southern neighbour.

Meanwhile, the UK civil service must now begin a long and laborious process of rewriting hundreds of thousands of pages of legislation and regulations that had been harmonised with EU standards, while drafting new rules to replace outgoing EU ones. This could well take the better part of a decade, during which Britain's new identity will be a field of contestation. Old wounds, patched over by EU standards, will get reopened, as Britons fight over such things as workers' rights and individual liberties. Brexiters don't just want the power to determine Britain's future; they want to use that power to reshape the country in their image, and the pushback could get fierce.

As a result, uncertainty will cloud Britain for years to come. And since markets hate uncertainty, the economy will probably struggle. As businesses and individuals hold off on investment and spending decisions until they know what their future will be, Britain's economy may well suffer from the very stagnation the Brexit campaign said leaving the EU would end for good. And since the Leave campaign pledged that the economic situation would improve post-Brexit, its inability to deliver may well anger a lot of its own supporters, further weakening the government.

It is thus not out of the question that the new government which emerges this autumn could prove as short-lived as David Cameron's majority premiership. Depending on how things go, it's not out of the question that fresh elections would return a party with a mandate to restore ties with the EU. But that prospect, too, looks murky, for the simple reason that the whole political Establishment in the UK is in crisis.

Not only has David Cameron fallen, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who failed miserably to turn out the Labour vote that normally tilted towards the Remain side, will also face upheaval in his own party.

Taken altogether, Britain faces years of uncertainty, economic stagnation, political crisis and weak government. These are not the best conditions in which to chart a brave new future. Rather, they are the circumstances that will play into the hands of extremist elements that want to scapegoat others for the country's self-imposed problems.

As if it were an omen of what may yet come, Donald Trump landed in Scotland the day after the referendum and proclaimed Brexit a great thing. As is the case in America, populists are on the rise across Europe, threatening Establishments that remain wedded to neo-liberal globalisation. The rebellion that exploded after the 2008 financial crisis boils on. Europe, and the world economy, face trying years.

- John Rapley is a university professor. Email feedback to