The people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum June 23 to leave the European Union, plunging the country into a state of economic and political independence it hasn’t known since joining the EU in 1973. The College spoke to faculty experts from the Departments of History and Government and the School of Foreign Service to get their comprehensive analyses of the causes, processes and effects of the “Brexit” vote.
Georgetown College: Did you see the victory for Leave coming a week ago?
Kathleen McNamara: Referenda are notorious for being extremely difficult to control. They tend not to actually reflect the broader sentiments of the population around the question being asked, but tend to be voted on whatever the most recent emotional issue in the air is. That being said, it’s still shocking.
Abe Newman: There was a broad consensus when Cameron announced this that it was a bad idea. He did it for political reasons — it wasn’t really about “should England stay or go.” It was about party politics, politics that he was setting himself up to lose. There was dissension in his own party about whether to stay or go, then he spun it in a way that he was going to defend the decision to stay, just as he was being attacked for being too liberal towards Europe.
GC: Is it possible the UK government could just ignore this?
Jeff Anderson: It just baffles me that the next Prime Minister could walk away from this and not suffer, given how activated and mobilized the “Leave” segment of his party is. There would have to be major changes in the Labour Party, a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, and supporters in the Conservative Party — potentially leading to Johnson losing a vote of confidence on the issue. There’d have to be a general election fought on the question, “Should Britain go back on its pledge?” We’re talking about a lot of steps and a lot of low-probability events.
KM: Legally, they could certainly ignore it. Politically, they can’t. They’ve painted themselves into this corner with the campaign and the discourse, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to unwind. That being said, it’s fascinating seeing supporters and some of the tabloid newspapers vocally in favor of Brexit taking a step back now and saying “Maybe we should rethink this.”
AN: You also have to think about the political consequences of remaining after you say you want to exit. For the national psyche, I think it’d be a very difficult blow to then go back to Europe, be in Brussels, negotiate with these people whom you’ve just said you’d end relations with. They might eventually be back in, but it’d be with a large economic and political cost.
GC: What’s the best case scenario for the UK?
AN: There’s no good outcome. If they get a deal that, say, Boris Johnson wants, you’re saying “We need to have access to the common market, we have to adopt all those laws, we have no input into those laws, and we have to maintain immigration flows.” They get nothing out of that except lack of input into the decision-making process. There’s the question of if they could get the “Norway solution” but with no immigration flows, and I don’t think the EU would allow that. It’s a floodgate for every member state to say “Oh, I want this, and not that.” Also, it doesn’t solve the problem of immigrants coming to England. They come through refugee programs that aren’t part of the EU mandate!
KM: It’s a fairy tale to pretend you could participate in a deeply integrated single market — essentially a federal system — without a structure of governing rules, laws, regulations for that deep cross-border flow to occur. And that’s why we’re all so shocked — it’s very hard to paint a happy picture with Britain out of the EU on the political terms it’s been voted on.
Aviel Roshwald: I think it could potentially undermine UKIP. Ostensibly it’s a huge triumph, but what’s next for them? To get trade access and influence overseas, they’ll have to make concessions. These won’t be the kind of black and white choices you can rally support around. I think it’ll prove a Pyrrhic victory for the right — it’ll force people to realize that the world is complicated and knee jerk reactions.
GC: Does this bring serious concern for the future of the EU?
JA: I don’t see this as the beginning of the end. That’s not to say there won’t be very difficult debates, and countries that wobble a bit on some of these commitments. But the conditions that led to this in the UK are replicated nowhere else in the EU. Decades-long Euroskepticism that has embedded itself in the population, major political parties that have been openly Euroskeptic, a majority government that puts the issue on a referendum — those conditions don’t exist anywhere else, at least not to the same degree or as a collection.
KM: The UK is the only EU country that doesn’t fly the EU flag parallel to its own flag at its embassy in DC. Britain has always had this very uneasy relationship that people were able to prey on. But this generation of young Britons has grown up in a world where the EU is a part of everyday life. It’s sort of inconceivable to them that they won’t be able to take advantage of it.
AN: It’s terrible for the UK, but the economic value of the EU was just given the rubber stamp by the economic community. You see markets plunging, you see chaos, you see governments falling. You have to ask yourself if you’re a French person, or Spanish, or Italian — the EU’s doing a good job, and would we really benefit from that? Or would we suffer?
GC: Do you see any parallels to be drawn between what happened in the UK and the upcoming election in the US?
JA: You have electorates similarly confused about the issues, but elites that responded extremely differently. In the UK, there was a cynical but effective and eloquent campaign to leave, while on the other side it was akin to watching someone fighting with one hand tied behind their back. That’s not the case here — Trump is skilled in some ways, but he’s also his own worst enemy. Boris Johnson was not. And on the other side you’ve got Clinton, with an incredibly sophisticated machine, who’s able to make both economic and identity-based arguments.
AN: Even though there’s a growing European identity, the referendum is pitting “Do you vote for the UK, or this thing called the EU?” It allowed the campaign to say “Do you attach yourself to the Union Jack, or this star thing?” And the power of Europe was demonstrated by the fact that young people do have that affinity. But for many people, it’s an easy choice to say “I’m choosing my country.” In the US, it’s not a decision between the country and an international organization — it’s between two visions for the country.
GC: Historically, are there any comparisons we could learn from?
AR: It’s important to remember that French Revolution and the Revolution of 1848 took place not in the worst time of famine or economic crisis, but in the years following. When people are in the depths of crisis, they’re too busy trying to save themselves to think about politics. But when they start to come out, and the expectation is of full recovery but the outcome is ambiguous — some people are better off than others — the perception is that a few elites have profited while others have struggled to regain the status quo.
Another analogy is from the 5th century BCE in Greece, when Athens was becoming an economic and political powerhouse in the Aegean world. There was a huge influx of migration to Athens and tons of resident aliens, and it led to restrictive citizenship policies under Pericles — restricted to those whose parents were native Athenians.
GC: Could this have an impact on separatist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland?
AR: If it becomes clear to everyone that Scotland would rather leave the UK than leave Europe, and the Northern Ireland question arises again, that may create some traction where the leave movement ends up grinding to a halt.
KM: Scottish MPs have been standing up and talking about Scotland as a “European country.” They were able to finesse that question of “is it Europe or is it your national identity” into the idea that Scotland is part of Europe, and that’s its national identity. I think there are ways in which you can imagine constructing what Europe is, and how nationalism fits into Europe. … If they aren’t able to stay within the European Union, there’s no doubt in my mind that Scotland, and potentially Northern Ireland, will go.
AN: I would raise the flag that other member-states would have to accept that new membership, and there are other member-states who do not want to accept separatist states. Spain could easily veto the Scottish accession because they don’t want a Catalonian state.
GC: Do you see the use of the referendum becoming more widely used among populist movements as a result of this vote?
JA: Right, but they’re under no obligation to hold a referendum. This would be totally voluntary. Imagine Marine le Pen somehow wins the presidency in France next year —which is a long shot, but it’s a nonzero possibility. Then I would see this very much on the agenda, because you have a sitting president calling for it. Everywhere else, we’re talking about small parties — growing, but basically fringe parties — who aren’t in a position to force the issue unless the government chooses to. And I don’t see government’s choosing to.
KM: You have to wonder if this amplifies the impact of people who might otherwise not choose to go out and vote — particularly the youth — to stand up against this type of effort.
Interview by Patrick Curran.