The Brexit Chaos

Last weekend the CEO of Nasdaq complained in the Wall Street Journal about ‘The Overblown Brexit Market Panic’. Repeating the absurdity that the vote has created an “independent Britain”, as if the EU is a colonial power, he assured readers that “over the next two years, the timeline for EU withdrawal, Britain has an opportunity to become a trading magnet”.

It is rare to find so many errors and misunderstandings in such a short space. First, there is no panic because there has been no Brexit, only a non-binding referendum. This generated a small pro-Leave majority, which – according to numerous polls since – would not be repeated today.

Britain is a representative democracy with a sovereign parliament which chose to make this referendum non-binding. The Prime Minister who promised to implement it has since resigned. While the House of Commons could find strong reasons to ignore the vote, they will not (yet) dare to do so because of the fanaticism of the Brexiteers. Thus, Dominic Lawson, a columnist in the ‘Sunday Times’ has claimed (July 3rd), that ignoring the vote would cause such anger that “we could see tanks on the streets”.

So what is the most likely outcome? Will the British Parliament pass Brexit legislation, which most of its members do not believe in? The current House of Commons has a large pro-EU majority and it is unlikely that this will change after the next election.

So for now, it is likely that the process of the UK leaving the EU will go ahead, despite the growing opposition. Over 1000 lawyers have called for an independent body to examine the consequences, followed by a parliamentary vote.

Before the referendum, David Cameron said that the UK would trigger the EU exit clause (Article 50) quickly after a Brexit vote. Today this date is receding ever further into the future, with government ministers not wanting it triggered until the end of the year or even next year. Why? Because, having no Brexit plan, they have only now realized the complexities of unravelling 40 years of EU membership. As the Article 50 timetable stipulates that the UK will be outside the EU two years after triggering it, they are panicking that this will leave them without an alternative arrangement and at the mercy of their ex-partners. (Unanimity would be required to extend this two-year period). Experts have calculated that concluding negotiations and passing the required legislation may take seven years. The Austrian Minister of Finance experts Britain to still be an EU member in five years’ time…

As for negotiating new trade agreements, this may take even longer. For decades such agreements have been concluded at the EU level and the UK no longer has the required expertise. Last week, the media reported that New Zealand had offered to help out by lending London some trade negotiators…

While there is yet no panic, the Brexit insecurity is growing: “Sterling falls despite reassurance”, “Banks promise to boost lending to stop Britain falling into recession” (both headlines in the “Daily Telegraph”, July, 6th), and “Brexit vote may be the undoing of Italian Banks” (“City am”, July 6th). One of this paper’s columnists recommends that the UK adopts the cold war UN strategy of Stalin’s Foreign Minister Molotov and turns up at the EU Council of Ministers to “veto every proposal on any subject whatsoever, regardless of its merit”, until the EU agrees to Brexit negotiations before the UK has triggered the Article 50 exit clause.

One can only imagine the animosity and harm this will cause. Already, xenophobic and racist incidents have surged in the UK since the referendum. The vote has also created new inter-generational conflicts. Most young Britons voted to remain in the EU and many are furious with parents and grand-parents for depriving them of their freedom to live and work in other European countries.

So, as a result of holding this referendum at a time of strong anti-government feelings, and resentment against the privileged establishment after years of austerity, and promising to implement a non-binding vote come what may, the UK and EU now face many years of turmoil and disruption. At a time when many urgent issues — climate change, economic instability, terrorism, the refugee crisis, a resurgent Russia etc. — require the attention of European decision-makers, they will be busy unravelling the details of the UK’s EU membership and implementing alternatives. The simplest, guaranteeing continued full UK access to the EU market, would involve joining Norway and Iceland in the European Economic Area (EEA). Yet the UK will soon find that this involves accepting most EU laws and obligations — including free movement – but with no ability to influence them, and at equivalent financial costs for EU membership. The UK may believe it can get a special deal but this is very unlikely as the other members – who would all need to approve the outcome — would not want to create precedents.

So what is the most likely outcome? Will the British Parliament pass Brexit legislation, which most of its members do not believe in? The current House of Commons has a large pro-EU majority and it is unlikely that this will change after the next election.

The more time elapses since the Brexit vote, the more likely it is that MPs will assert their primary duty to act in the best interests of their country. This will particularly be the case if Scotland moves towards independence and the peace in Northern Ireland is threatened by Brexit, which will necessitate border controls between N. Ireland and the Republic.

In such a case it would be very surprising if MPs did not prioritize the peace and integrity of the UK above a non-binding vote taken years ago.

So, while it is likely that Article 50 will be triggered to appease the Brexit fanatics, it is even more likely that it will later be rescinded, i.e. that the UK withdraws its application to leave in a few years time. International treaty law allows this. Of course, this would require reversing the complex legislative process, wasting more years and risking more vetos along the way. David Cameron’s foolishness and arrogance will cost his country and Europe dear.

So what about immigration? Of course problems arise when health and educational facilities face years of under-funding due to austerity policies. But there can be little doubt that media anti-immigrant propaganda played a greater role in the referendum than actual immigration. I live in London which often really feels overcrowded with foreigners. But London voted to remain. On the other hand, areas of Britain which seem “unchanged since the 1950s” (to quote a retired lawyer living in Cheshire) voted to leave, despite very few immigrants. Voters there read the “Sun”, “Daily Mail” or “Daily Telegraph”, which worked hard to convince them that this was their last chance to stop the mass invasion of dreaded foreigners reaching their village…