Reflections on Brexit from a European student living in England.
Perhaps a month ago, while discussing potential outcomes of the referendum with my friends in Manchester, I would have just shrugged my shoulders and confidently asserted: “Brexit? Not going to happen. Problems exist but they won’t just simply leave.”
Of course, as you may have guessed, on June 24th I woke up to a different reality. The immediate response was well-anticipated chaos. The pound hit a 31-year low, the Prime Minister announced his resignation, the opposition leader was getting impeached and the Scottish First Minister was considering the idea of a second Scottish independence referendum.
Nigel Farage, who led a tireless campaign for Brexit, wasted no time in celebrating the glorious results of the referendum, exclaiming: “We did it! It’s independence day!”, and was even quicker to dismiss one of the promises he made to the people of Britain to convince them to support him in this leap of faith: 350 million pledged to be spent on ‘our NHS’ (National Health Service) instead of wasting it to “those filthy European bureaucrats” was apparently a ‘mistake’.
He also highlighted that this admirable victory had been achieved without violent means and without a single bullet being fired. Except perhaps the one that killed Jo Cox. But, as we all know, or have been told by trustworthy politicians of his kind, the brutal and unjust murder that took places only a few days before the referendum was not – in any sense – politically inspired. It doesn’t matter that she was a bright-eyed MP of the Labour party and a staunch supporter of the Remain campaign, or that her killer shouted ‘Britain First!’ as he was taking away her life: this cold-blooded execution was not of political nature.
I would prefer not to engage in vast generalizations such as: “All leave supporters are racist” or highlight that the selling point of Brexit came down to immigration, but watching videos of a man in a balaclava attempting to burn an EU flag (which ironically is made from non-flammable material due to EU regulations) really makes you wonder whether calling the Remain campaign ‘Project Fear’ is anything but a projection of what the Leavers are actually feeling within themselves. Fear. Fear of immigrants snatching their jobs away from them, fear of the EU taking away their sovereignty, fear of the erosion of their national identity, and the list goes on. It is not a secret that the EU – like any international governmental organization of such scale – has a lot of functional problems, which can lead to doubts regarding its efficiency and its benefits. Many consider the EU’s transformation from the EEC to what it is today to be akin to Charmander evolving into Charizard, and the mere thought of such evolution results in great existential angst. I had a lecturer at my university tell a theatre fully-packed with law students: “Be careful everyone, you are creating a monster that will end up eating you.”
Coming from such a tiny country that is Cyprus, you would expect me to participate with much greater enthusiasm in this scaremongering of essentially being wiped off the map culturally, linguistically and politically through our membership in the Union. But I understand that the EU is not a contest of who will prevail in strength and end up sitting on the Iron Throne (after all, we all know the answer to this) but rather an opportunity for my country, with the assets and resources it has at hand, to benefit from having the chance to be heard – to sit at the negotiating table and decide on key common issues with all its neighbors. I have greater confidence in my country’s stability and political strength if I know that I am in direct cooperation with 26 other Member States and not just a floating piece of land in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Of course, as a way to celebrate the new status quo and his champion achievement of finally freeing his people of their chains (arguably by sawing their own limbs off) Nigel Farage resigned from the leadership of the UK Independence Party. Unsurprisingly, he resorted into excuses such as the fact that he had achieved his life’s ambition and his biggest political goal: to exit the EU. Is this perhaps also the time to dismantle UKIP as a party in general since it was a single issue movement that has fulfilled its purpose? The biggest irony is, though, that Nigel Farage has not resigned from the one position he supposedly despises the most, that of being a Member of the European Parliament. You might be wondering why would someone carry on working in an organization they have no faith in. Could the disgraceful European money have lured a man of his moral integrity? Impossible.
A new Prime Minister
As one would expect, Nigel’s resignation wasn’t the only one to follow the 24th. David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister for the last 6 years also chose to abandon ship, but perhaps most understandably so since the passengers wanted to take a different direction from the Bremain he strongly campaigned for. A lot of buzzes were heard about Boris Johnson becoming the next PM, but in a typical Brexiteresque fashion, he removed himself from the situation in order to let someone else take over.
That someone is ex-Home Secretary and MP Theresa May, a fairly lukewarm ‘Bremainer’ and a ‘One-Nation conservative’ who is willing to take draconian measures to cut off immigration, such as forcing foreign students to leave the country as soon as their degree is completed or blocking immigrants from permanently settling in the UK if they make less than £37,000 a year (a rule which the Home Office estimated would cost the British economy more than $200 million)
Is it really happening?
Though the referendum in itself did not have a legal trigger and speculations of David Cameron pulling a ‘Tsipras’ (disregarding the outcome of the referendum) have vanished along with him, Article 50 has yet to be activated. So, is Brexit really happening? Absolutely.
Theresa May herself has said that “Brexit means Brexit”, and proceeded to practically displaying that by creating two new positions in her cabinet for that express purpose; appointing David Davis as Secretary of State for exiting the European Union (the so-called ‘Brexit minister’) and Liam Fox as International Trade minister, who will be the architect of the ‘better deal with the EU and other countries’ that the leave campaign was chattering about. Nevertheless, though Brexit is indeed happening, according to the new Prime Minister, it won’t be until the end of the year that Article 50 would be activated, giving the green light for talks with Brussels to begin as Britain still needs time to develop and plan its negotiating strategy.
Prior to when the referendum took place, unsurprisingly, the EU was a strong advocate for ‘Bremain’ and worked closely with the British Prime Minister to reform the UK’s position within the EU in an effort to make a strong case to avoid Brexit. However, following the outcome of the referendum, and in response to Britain attempting to delay the process of filing the official application to withdraw from the European Union, the EU has adopted a rather harsh stance, intensifying the pressure for the UK to leave as soon as possible. The UK demands to maintain its access to the common market, a notion Angela Merkel has rejected, citing that there would be no “cherry picking” of what Britain gets to keep from its EU membership while jettisoning the aspects of the relationship it dislikes. This position can be attributed to the fact that the way the EU handles this time of crisis can either strengthen the Union, or completely break it apart. Analysts emphasize that the EU needs to show that an exit from the Union comes at a cost, and it should by no means be treated as a protest that can be easily reversed. Once the ties with the Union have been severed, the recovery shouldn’t be quick nor painless. Since the people of Britain have expressed their desire to leave the Union, the EU will not try to coerce them to stay, fully respecting to the democratic process, also because there is no backdoor to achieve that. When Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament since 2012, speaks about Brexit, he is no longer making an appeal to the British people to get them to stay, as that would be futile, and inarguably undemocratic: he wants to be heard by other Eurosceptic parties that have been recently gaining momentum and show them that ‘out’ is not the answer.
The case for Scotland
If this referendum has brought anyone more towards independence, it’s not the UK: it’s Scotland. Understandably, the country’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced soon after the results were out that a second referendum was highly likely as Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain (with 62%), and is being dragged out against the will of its people. It is worth remembering that the EU played a major role in Scotland remaining within the UK, and then the possibility of Brexit was brushed off as ‘highly unlikely’, falsely easing people’s concerns on the matter and perhaps misleading them regarding the implications of staying in the UK.
The next day
This is shaping up as a tumultuous and messy divorce. Of course, that was to be expected, by both sides in the case of Brexit, but where the real divide lies is on whether the UK can bounce back from a short-term decline and be stronger than before (and thus justifying why exiting the EU was beneficial) or whether the UK will end up with a damaged economy, a devalued currency and revived internal divisions.
It has long been discussed by academics and political analysts that the United Kingdom is now only a mere shadow of its glorious days as an Empire. While this is almost unanimously established, some argue that the UK is in fact not even interested in restoring its previous status. It appears that Brexit is perhaps an attempt for the UK to rebirth itself into a completely different form of nation, a business hub; perhaps something closer to a Dubai of the North Atlantic. The idea of Britain being more interested in being a trading port rather than a champion of foreign policy is reflected in Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary, a man who has insulted every key ally the UK has ever had and has praised Putin and Assad while going on trade visits to China. Theresa May doesn’t want a Foreign minister who is taken seriously – and is seen as an equal – by leaders all around the world, and who is able form robust alliances; being a mascot and bringing money into London will suffice.
Is that what the British people had in mind when they were voting on the 23rd? Perhaps. It is undeniable that the Brexit referendum does answer to legitimate concerns expressed about the EU’s democratic process. However, the ‘leave’ mandate appears to reflect a vote of protest, rather than a firm decision to follow a thorough plan, a specific path.
One thing is guaranteed: the future is certainly uncertain.