24 June 2016 will be forever remembered as a defining moment in modern European history. Just what type of emotion this date will induce in future years is unclear. For better or for worse, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) is still in the process of being fully accepted by politicians, markets and wider civil society. Regardless of outcome, the so-called Brexit is damaging news for the EU, which has actively sought to cultivate an image of democracy, prosperity and freedom through a common European identity. What’s more, the fact that this decision was made through a public referendum exposes a stark division between the common British voter, Westminster and Europe.
It’s been a long time since a political event in Britain has caused so much turmoil across the government, economy and populace. David Cameron is to step down as prime minister with his replacement likely to be selected by the Tories in mid-September. At the same time, the British Labour Party is also facing a crisis with 80% of MPs pledging a motion of no confidence against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. With party disunity rife, Corbyn has been attacked for his inability to unite, lead and promote a pro-remain Labour party in the lead-up to the referendum. With Labour facing a public party division and the Conservatives a leaderless party, the leftover pro-Brexit coalition of politicians have little reason to celebrate. They are being routinely criticised for their inability to produce anything reminiscent of a strategy that dictates how Britain should legally and politically withdraw from the EU. Leadership is paramount in times of crisis. Yet for Britain, there seems to be no natural leader in sight.
The EU has also been particularly forthright with its expectations regarding Brexit. The European Parliament, European Commission and the European Council have made it clear that the UK must enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in order to formally commence withdrawal negotiations. This will then introduce a two-year grace period whereupon the EU will collectively decide on the arrangements for Britain’s retraction from the Union. Given the time-constraining nature of bureaucracy, one questions whether the legal, social, political, economic and security dimensions of withdrawal can be succinctly addressed in two years. A Member-State has never before enacted Article 50, which is part of the reason why some European leaders are anxious about future proceedings. Britain is also not entirely sure how much bargaining power it will have during the two-year negotiation period. European leaders have routinely dismissed the notion that Britain would be granted preferential access to the Single Free Market, despite Prime Minister David Cameron arguing that this was likely to be the case. For Britain to participate in the Single Market, it has to accept the free movement of people, capital, service and goods—the underlying principles that define the EU.
The full implications of Brexit will be realised over the coming weeks and months. Markets are once again bouncing back from the volatility spurred on by Brexit, and there will hopefully be greater insight into how Britain plans on defining its future relationship with Europe. Meanwhile, the 16,141,241 people who voted to remain have been actively voicing their discontent with the result—some even going so far as to propose a second referendum. But this fails to address the real crisis facing Britain—namely a population of disenfranchised people who have felt it necessary to react against an institution they perceive as undermining both them and Britain’s position in the world. The Brexit has revealed a division between Britain’s metropolitan middle-class who have been able to reap the full benefits of EU membership, and the nation’s hybrid community of the marginalised working class, pensioners and disgruntled individuals spread across cities and regional centres. Britain is a nation clearly divided politically, economically and socially. Yet now is a time for unity; for Britain to look forward and redefine its future role outside of the EU. The people have spoken.
Rhys Merrett is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University and currently based in London.
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