In the run-up to the UK’s European Union membership referendum, many world leaders and important figures encouraged British citizens to vote to remain. Voices from within the EU and outside it argued that union was best for Britain and the world on political, economic, and security counts. Now they are faced with a fait accompli, these same individuals are at lengths to emphasise that they respect the voters’ choice, and that they will do all they can to make the best of the new political situation. However, Britain’s secession from the EU will doubtless have a variety of consequences around the world even beyond the economic fluctuations and trade negotiations which were discussed by both campaigns in the run-up to 23 June.
An age of separatism?
The EU has long been held up by many around the world as a beacon of internationalism and unity between peoples. Its supporters would argue that it represents the antidote to the toxic divisiveness of twentieth century nationalism, a phenomenon they see as having been defeated with the end of the Second World War. Since Brexit was announced, this idea already seems to be coming under significant strain, with right-wing groups throughout the member states taking the opportunity to call for their own referenda on EU membership. While there is a strong democratic argument for this – if British people can vote on this issue, it only seems fair that others be allowed to do the same – such calls appear symptomatic of a sort of neo-nationalism which has been taking root on the continent for at least the past two decades. Will the European project be undermined by a return to an “every country for itself” rivalry?
Brexit will warn authoritarian governments not to let go of the reins of power if they can help it.
Further to making the EU itself less effective, this trend could even lead to the map of Europe being redrawn, with Basque and Catalan secessionists encouraged by the prospect of an independent Scotland and united Ireland. Indeed, there have even been calls for a Texan exit from the United States (known, of course, as “Texit”), and it seems likely that other groups which have long craved self-determination, such as the Kurds in the Middle East and the Uighurs in China, will be spurred on by the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and other European nation states. Of course, this is not necessarily a negative thing. If we have to have nation states, it seems logical that all self-identified nations have a place to call their own. However, there is no denying that, were such a trend to develop, it would have a huge short to medium-term impact on global stability.
An exemplar of democracy?
On the face of it, Thursday’s referendum was a perfect example of democratic procedure serving the people. The very fact that the Prime Minister backed the losing side and has since resigned says a lot for British democracy – such a scenario would seem far-fetched in many places around the world. However, this same fact has already raised comments about the suitability of referenda as a means of determining a nation’s political direction. An editorial in the Chinese press highlighted the enormous risk this referendum poses to Britain and the world, and Beijing officials have implied that it hasn’t done much to reassure their country’s leadership about the wisdom of letting people decide things for themselves. In a world already full of uncertainty, where British Prime Ministers and South American Presidents can be brought down at the ballot boxes, Brexit will warn authoritarian governments not to let go of the reins of power if they can help it.
A challenge to the global status quo?
Particularly towards the end of the referendum campaign, there were an increasing number of calls for a left-wing Brexit, or “Lexit”. Proponents of this idea argue that the EU is very much part of the global system which props up elite politicians and business people by promoting neoliberal ideology. Indeed, far from being a socialist utopia, the EU has often supported policies and projects seen as neo-colonial exploitation of working class and occupied people outside Europe, such as through its support of the Moroccan monarchy after 2012.
As such, anything which weakens the organisation could be an opportunity to move away from the current political and economic order in favour of something more radical. This idea is rather admirable in theory, but there is not much evidence to suggest that it will follow in practice, especially now we know that David Cameron is stepping down but not calling a general election. His replacement, and the person to lead Britain’s renegotiations with the EU, will therefore be a pro-business Conservative hoping to preserve the UK’s place in the world economy even outside the Union. Even though many businesses supported a remain vote, they will now be keen to make the best of the situation as it is now, and are sure to find ways to keep making money no matter what. After all, that’s what businesses are for. The privileged elites around the world are the best placed to cope with the changes that will develop in the coming months and years, while those with less money and power are more likely to be adversely affected by market fluctuations and falls in the value of the pound. Brexit may be a big change, but it isn’t a revolution!
the White House has been keen to emphasise that political relations between the two will remain positive.
New opportunities and alliances?
Some people are worried that Brexit will, to use President Obama’s analogy, put Britain to the back of the diplomatic queue, while others see it as a great opportunity to build better, stronger relationships with non-European allies, unconstrained by the needs of other EU member states. From what various heads of state have been saying since results broke on Friday morning, I suspect the real outcome will be somewhere in between the two. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has said that he understands’ the British public’s reasons for voting to leave the EU, and that the Kremlin is open to developing positive links with a post-Europe UK. Chinese officials seem to be on a similar page, and although the Obama administration is standing by its original position about Brexit impeding UK-US trade relations, the White House has been keen to emphasise that political relations between the two will remain positive.
Of course, China and the USA will still want to do business with the EU, so don’t expect them to start treating the UK as special favourites. All governments care about economic prosperity, and most will take a pragmatic approach to both the UK and the EU, rather than getting involved in ideological debates – only people like Donald Trump do that. Meanwhile, the Iranian government seems to be making overtures to the future government of an independent Scotland by saying it supports the Scottish people’s move to escape occupation by monarchist England. What’s world politics without a few mischief makers, though? Changes as significant as Brexit are pretty rare, and we are likely to see a mixture of caution and boundary testing as its longer term ramifications become known.