Is Brexit the Beginning of the End of the UK … or of Other Countries?
So citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Good or bad? Right or wrong? I’m not sure and I’m not sure that I really know enough to make an informed judgment. That being said, my instinct is to view the decision to leave the European Union as a bad decision (and the fact that both Donald Trump and Sarah Palin think that Brexit is good is almost enough reason for me to believe that it isn’t). I must admit that I find interesting the exit polling that showed apparent strong correlations between both age and education and the choice of whether to remain or leave (more education and younger voters tended to vote to stay, while older and less educated voters tended to vote to leave). But what the long term effects will be for the UK economy, for the European economy, for the global economy … I have no clue.
I do, however, have some concerns about what Brexit may mean both with regard to the stability of nation-states and to relations between them.
Let me address the latter of those two points first. One of the principal motivations for the original formation of what eventually evolved into the European Union was the notion of finding ways to avoid future conflicts within Europe and by and among European countries. The European Union has been largely successful in that ambition. But consider how things might look once the United Kingdom is fully divorced from those European nations that remain a part of the European Union. For example, what sort of hard feelings may exist by and between Britons and Europeans? If Europe’s economy stagnates and the United Kingdom’s flourishes (I have my doubts…), won’t many Europeans have a sense of … well, anger, I suppose, toward the United Kingdom? Similarly, if the UK’s economy stagnates and Europe grows, then how will Britons feel when they look across the Channel?
Perhaps more importantly, what sort of cooperation existing today might become strained or even cease? For example, think of the large migrant camps in northern France, populated by refugees and immigrants seeking to make their way to England. France has worked hard to try to keep those migrant camps stable and to help the UK keep mass waves of immigrants and refugees from making their way across the Channel. Part of the reason for that is good relations between the UK and France and part of the reason for that was the pan-European approach to dealing with immigration and refugees. But if the UK is no longer part of the European Community, what, if any, duty to does France have (let alone Italy or Spain or Greece) to help the United Kingdom deal with “unwanted” immigrants and refugees? Likely, none. Given that a motivating factor for many Britons who voted to leave the European Union was the desire to deal with immigration without interference from the European Union, then how ironic will it be if France chooses to cease its efforts to prevent immigrants and refugees from embarking on journeys across the Channel to England? (And it seems just as likely that those countries might actually opt to find ways to help immigrants transit their territory for Britain, in order to try to lessen their own refugee and immigrant burdens.)
I can also see other possibilities for European countries to sort of lash out in petty revenge against the United Kingdom if Brexit is viewed as damaging those countries. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to see countries adopt tariffs or other fees on British goods or even travel by Britons within Europe (which could come as a real shock to Britons who have purchased vacation properties in Spain). Or, just imagine if FIFA (the world body governing soccer … er … football) were to decide that because the United Kingdom no longer views itself as being a part of Europe, that soccer clubs from the United Kingdom would not be eligible to play in the European Champions League or the UEFA Euro Cup?
Based on the last millennia or so, anything that gives one European country a reason to act in anger against another European country is … um … not good.
I also worry that the Brexit vote may, over time, begin a slide into the fracturing of stability within Europe and elsewhere.
In September 2014, Scotland voted, 55% to 45%, to remain a part of the United Kingdom. There were many factors at play in that vote, but one that appeared to play prominently was the role an independent Scotland would be able (or perhaps unable) to play within the European economy and global markets. It was pointed out that an independent Scotland would not be a part of the European Union and would, thus, not be able to avail itself of free trade and the other benefits of membership in the European Union (at least until going through the difficult and multi-year process of joining the EU). Thus is probably isn’t surprising that last week Scotland voted to remain in the European Union. Each of Scotland’s voting districts voted to remain and the results weren’t terribly close (62-38 to remain, compared to 53-47 in England). But the United Kingdom voted to leave. So where does that leave Scotland?
The leader of Scotland’s Parliament (the “First Minister”, I believe) has already called for a second Scottish referendum on independence. I suspect that such a referendum will be held and I also suspect that in a post-Brexit vote, Scots will, indeed, vote to make their own way.
Is that good or bad? I don’t know.
But if Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom, what then of Northern Ireland? Like Scotland, Northern Ireland also voted to remain a part of the European Union (56-44 to stay). So, were Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, might Northern Ireland contemplate doing the same and, perhaps, even seeking to unify with Ireland which is a part of the European Union and with which many Irish have a closer bond that the government in London?
Those actions would, quite obviously, have a significant impact on the United Kingdom, reducing it down to just England and Wales (and who knows how long Wales would want to stick around…). But how might the democratic dissolution of the United Kingdom impact independence movements elsewhere in Europe? Consider Belgium which is essentially divided into two distinct communities (roughly dividing the country in half geographically, south and north), one French-speaking (Walloons) and the other Dutch-speaking (Flemish). The divide between the French and Flemish within Belgium has risen to near-crisis levels in the past. Query whether watching the disintegration of the United Kingdom might, once again, prompt calls for Flemish independence.
Or consider Catalonia, the northeastern part of Spain, with its capital in Barcelona. Catalans speak a different language from the rest of Spain, they don’t permit bullfighting, and, perhaps even more importantly, find themselves in a much different economic condition than the rest of the country. Might the rending of the United Kingdom give further impetus and strength to the already quite vocal and popular Catalan independence movement?
Of course if Catalonia were to become independent, that might reinvigorate the independence desires of the neighboring Basque region of Spain and France. Or, just to the southeast, perhaps the independence movements of Corsica and Sardinia (from France and Italy, respectively) would find succor in the example of Scotland.
In fact, the number of independence movements across Europe is almost too numerous to count and includes both large areas (Bavaria in Germany, South Tyrol in Italy) and tiny (Faroe Islands in Denmark, Venice in Italy); I even came across a reference to a independence movement for the Åland Islands, a tiny chain of islands between Sweden and Finland that presently belongs to Finland, but whose 28,000 inhabitants speak Swedish (but an acquaintance of mine who lives in Åland assures me that it is merely a “romantic protest”).
In any event, I think that the concern (or hope, I suppose, depending on your perspective) of the tearing asunder of European countries and the reformation into something … well … different, is worth contemplating. The goal of the European Union was a form of European unity, but that is splintering and it is quite likely the first breach of the unity of the European Union may also lead to the splintering of the United Kingdom. And as people across Europe — or even the world — watch Scotland and perhaps Northern Island pressing for independence, then it seems quite likely that independence movements will be strengthened and, quite possibly, the political structures of the world will see dramatic changes.
One commonly used phrase to describe the breaking apart of countries into smaller nations is “Balkanization” and that word is used for a reason. However, consider if you will, the history of the Balkans and whether that worked out for the best or not.
I don’t know what the results of Brexit will be for the United Kingdom, Scotland, Europe, or the world. But I have concerns that this will be the first act in a drama that may result in a period of chaos and contention.
But please, don’t get me started on the discussion of Texit (Texas exiting the United States). Just … don’t.