The working class citizens of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland will be cheering the ‘bravery’ of the Brexit voters who delivered the surprise victory to the ‘Leave’ campaign in the British European Union referendum. For the dispossessed, disenfranchised, poor, and rural voters; those ‘left behind’ by globalisation and mainstream economics, the Brexit vote gives the middle finger to pan-national institutions who impose inflexible, remote bureaucracy, austerity and neo-liberal ‘solutions’ to the problems created by capitalism.
But political parties have warned of a countervailing risk. Giving the EU credit for labour policies negotiated by unions, supporters of the ‘Remain’ campaign point to allegedly progressively higher standards of human, environmental and workers’ rights which may be lost as Britain develops its own policies, even though in some cases British standards are higher than the EU’s. But the loss of economic scale and critical mass provided by the European market, and the spectre of exit itself, may give authorities an excuse for more austerity and social service budget cuts, rather than flexibility to support more. With markets, temporarily at least, in panic mode, and early threats of market contraction and recession, conservative governments will be further able to justify budget cuts and austerity, with the greatest impacts on those already disadvantaged, powerless and poor. Indeed, British Chancellor George Osborne has already warned that the loss of billions of pounds of EU investment “could only be filled through tax rises and more public spending cuts”. Brexit may become not the solution to austerity, but the justification for more.
Those Brits “embittered by poverty”, humiliated by long term unemployment, despairing of underfunded services, and housing shortages, have found a foil to rally against in the European Union, and a voice for expression in the ‘Leave’ vote, even though the EU is peripheral, barely causal, to many of their concerns. Capitalism’s consequences of growing inequality and impoverishment won’t be solved by exiting from the EU itself, but may even make matters worse.
When international neo-liberalism is the model, sovereignty is a myth, and the limits of state intervention are determined not by the government but by the market. And these markets are too big to fail. The Bank of England is reassuring investors and markets that it will do everything possible to steady the economy. But there have been no similar promises to workers, that all action will be taken to provide job security in this time of potential turmoil, or the homeless, that their basic needs will be addressed. Ultimately, the European Union is and always has been, first and foremost, an economic pact, not a social one. But the initial offer of £250bn from the Bank of England to other banks in support of economic stability is particularly galling in that it was speculation on the outcome of the vote that has left the markets overexposed today. As in the Global Financial Crisis, once again they’re being rewarded by the state for dodgy gambles, although clearly there’s a whole economic system at stake.
The Brexit vote is being read as a victory of racist rhetoric and anti-immigrant dissent. By preying on fears of Britain losing its Britishness, and harking back to nostalgic nationalist pride, ‘Leave’ voters, it’s suggested, have been manipulated into believing it’s the EU and immigrants and refugees, that are responsible for joblessness, homelessness and reduced state services.
Net migration in the UK has grown from about 37,000 people on average every year from 1991-1995, to an average of 249,000 p.a in 2011-2015, but in 2014 for example, only 45% were from the European Union, with the majority from the Commonwealth countries, legacies of colonialism. And of course, immigration is a two-way street with British citizens continuing to emigrate in considerable numbers around the world today. Instead of being directed at immigrants, the rightful target for the anger about housing and job shortages, are governments who strip back the welfare state, provide inadequate security for workers, the ill and the poor; and the multinationals that shift their manufacturing offshore, seeking lower wages and less protection elsewhere, so domestic consumers, in a false economy, can buy ever cheaper goods at home.
The Brexit vote has exposed other divisions in Britain with gaps in the preferences of young and old, town and country, rich and poor. 64% of young people under 24 voted to remain in the EU while only 24% wanted to leave. Only 33% of those over 65 voted to stay, but 58% wanted to exit. Some young people say older generations (with “less years to live”) have vetoed their opportunities for travel and work. However, various degrees of association could be negotiated, that allow Britain borderless passage and trade deals, without representation or votes on wider European Union decisions. Brexit isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game.
The ‘Leave’ vote prevailed in almost every region, in Wales, the English Shires, North and South, but the ‘Remain’ vote was dominant in London, the cities and Scotland. That highlights a huge level of dissent with not just the EU, but with government institutions more generally, with people economically struggling outside thriving London, and seeking more self-determination, better economic fortunes, “sovereignty”, more accountability from political elites, less bureaucracy, all condensed in sentiment against the ‘monolithic’ EU.
Boris Johnson in the ‘Leave’ corner, contended that Britain could be more powerful and successful outside the EU, but this remains to be seen. As second largest economy in the EU, Britain’s departure from the trade bloc won’t be an end to UK-European trade, though a huge amount of extraction from current trade agreements and renegotiation of new ones will eventually be in order. This possibly offers new opportunities for countries like ours disadvantaged by the UK’s initial entry to the EU’s precursor in 1973. The formal entrenchment of Britain in the EU has taken over 45 years to develop, and its extrication won’t happen overnight either. Unless the banks freak out and go off the rails, there’s no reason why a moderated, negotiated business as usual approach won’t smooth the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU from here on in. There are lots of incentives for governments, banks and businesses to keep a cool head, and self interest in sustaining the prevailing economic order is one of them.
But the Brexit vote has sparked a flame that is heating up the coals of dissent elsewhere. The Scottish preference to remain in the EU is contrasted with England’s preference to leave. No doubt calls for another referendum on Scottish independence will emerge. Ironically, England’s self-determined right to leave the EU might reinvigorate Scotland’s self-determined right to leave the UK. The Brexit vote could undermine not just the EU, but the UK itself, furthering a dis-United Kingdom. The contagion effect is also likely to be felt in Continental Europe with the Left in Southern European countries and the Right in France, Germany and elsewhere all using the Brexit vote to defend their own resistance to the EU.
Whether a ‘triumph of democracy’, or a ‘failure of reason’, a ‘revolution’ or a ‘crisis’, the Brexit vote has exposed weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the walls of Fortress Europe. The EU stared down Grexit, but failed to withstand Brexit. We will watch in half-fearful fascination, and wonder, who, and what nexit?