Britannia waives the rules. Martina Anderson, an Irish politician for the Irish Republican Party managed to capture the tenor of Brexit in this equally catchy phrase during the European Parliament’s meeting directly after the Britons voted against the European Union. It all started in 2013 with Cameron’s announcement to hold a referendum amongst the British people for them to vote in favour or against the European Union.
In Cameron’s speech announcing the referendum, at the end he mentioned the phrase: “What is it exactly that we are choosing to be in or out of?” This sentence was preceded by an explanation for his prolonging of the referendum until after the next ‘Conservative manifesto’, or programme of the Conservative Party, at the basis of which a new settlement with the EU regarding Great Britain’s role was to be discussed. At the heart of this settlement of course would be the Single Market, on which Britain’s financial heart, the City in London, so very much relies.
Britain wanted a deal with Europe without the list of restrictions it had, that also led to the public wish to exit the European Union. This was fuelled by the consistent need to bail out governments all over Europe, especially in the southern parts, and the enormous sums of money that were involved. Great Britain wanted to be the sole sovereign of their borders, accounts and policy-making, but still wanted to have all the benefits that being a member of the European Union yields. The problem is really that although Britain is of course free to leave the European Union, they will never be able to leave Europe. To put it even further, the continent will most likely remain to be UK’s primary market. Cameron even mentioned that if the UK were to leave the EU completely, as they have done now of course, “decisions made in the EU would continue to have a profound effect on our country”.
Spurred by prominent British politicians in the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the British people voted leave on the 23rd of June, 2016. Nigel Farage, with his UKIP party, toured through Great Britain convincing people to vote leave, whilst Boris Johnson did the same in his big red bus that stated: We send the EU £350 million a week. Nigel Farage mostly emphasised the fear for refugees ‘flooding’, to use his terms, the UK and taking jobs of ordinary Britons. It is these types of phrases and this type of rhetoric that has been able to convince a majority of voters in the referendum to vote for leaving the EU. The problem is that the consequences, which were also mentioned a considerable amount of times by former Prime Minister David Cameron, are not only vague and yet largely unknown, the economic, political and cultural ties with Europe are so thick and interdependent that the UK might never even be able to fully leave. And if it does completely leave, every single trade that is going to be made will have to be negotiated, every single treaty that has even been agreed upon between the EU and other nation-states around the world will have to be rewritten and renegotiated and the British influence in and profits from the European Single Market, which is the principle the entire banking system in the City and therefore for a large part the heart of the British finance system is built upon, will be jeopardised.
And this is exactly what happened. The entire status quo in the British economy and British foreign policy has been shaken to its core and the question now is: What will happen? With the new British Prime Minister Theresa May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the same Boris Johnson who campaigned so fiercely for leaving the European Union, will now have to negotiate new trade deals with the very continent they decisively left. The danger in it is that they might even succeed in negotiating profitable trade deals with the EU and with that might also succeed in deflecting the quota regarding refugees.
It remains to be seen whether Great Britain will actually succeed in achieving all of the above, but it cannot be stressed often enough that the political, economic, and cultural ties that bound Europe together and therefore also bound Great Britain to Europe, are so important for everyone’s prosperity, health, and security that they cannot ever be threatened again. The reckless nature of the British referendum, the unknown consequences that the referendum has, and the devastating blow the referendum already had and probably will have on the economy can never be overstated.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that a referendum such as the Brexit will never again become more than a catchy term.
This paper was written by Joep Moolhuijsen for the mastercourse ‘Theories and Approaches of International Relations’.