Will Brexit Become Britain's Self-Sacrifice to Save the European Union?


Like many people in Europe, I went to bed on Thursday evening thinking that the Brits had voted to remain in the European Union only to wake up on Friday morning to find that the United Kingdom instead chose to leave the EU. To be completely honest, I had not expected a Brexit. Not at the beginning of the campaign and not even at the end - despite some of the polls. Then again, if one country could find a majority to exit the EU, it was the UK, and the so-called "immigration crisis" provided the perfect storm for a Brexit.

So, what happened and what's next? In short, the EU referendum campaign and result have thrown the UK into a deeper crisis than the EU. While both will be fundamentally transformed as a consequence of Brexit, only the existence of the UK is really threatened. Here are the some of the key points.

Cameron failed at everything

The most clear and comprehensive failure of the EU referendum is the now ex-Prime Minister David Cameron. He had three reasons to call for the EU referendum: (1) to strengthen his position within the Conservative Party; (2) to overcome the internal division over the EU within his party; and (3) to strengthen British support for the EU. He failed at all three. First, he has already resigned as Prime Minister and will be replaced as party leader in October. Second, the Conservative Party is more divided than ever and the toxic referendum campaign will cast a long shadow. Third, while Brexit might lead to a re-appreciation of the EU, it will happen outside of the EU.

The EU referendum was "hijacked" by the immigration issue

The referendum could have addressed all kind of different issues, as the EU is relevant to almost every policy field and issue. Instead, the two campaigns mainly focused on fear-mongering, both claiming that a vote for the other camp would mean "war" (Cameron) or "a European superstate" like Hitler wanted (Boris Johnson). In the last weeks the campaign was dominated by the immigration issue, and not so much the intra-EU immigration (from Eastern Europe to the UK), but the "refugee crisis", which has a less clear relationship to the EU in the UK, which is not part of the Schengen Treaty.

Still, after decades of nativist media coverage, not just in the tabloids, and a year of broad political consensus that Europe is confronted with a "migration crisis" that the EU cannot fix, the Remain campaign was destined to loose on the immigration issue. It didn't even matter how bizarre and racist the anti-immigration claims of the Leave camp became - for example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage claiming that British women were threatened by a "nuclear bomb" of migrant sex attacks. Even the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, by a man with strong anti-immigrant and anti-EU positions, didn't swing the public.

Brexit showed the irrelevance of the left

For all purposes the EU referendum was a campaign between two wings of the Conservative Party. The Leave wing of Boris Johnson received enthusiastic and highly visible support from the far right UKIP and its mediagenic leader Nigel Farage, the Remain wing of David Cameron was left with open support from discredited former New Labour leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The more radical left had supported a "Lexit," i.e. a British exit under left-wing conditions, during the Greek crisis of 2015, but had shifted to the Remain camp when the Brexit debate became dominated by the (far) right. While some like Guardian columnist Owen Jones campaigned passionately, although not necessarily convincingly, for the Remain camp, others like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn kept a low profile, hoping to sit out the referendum without too much personal damage. In different ways, both surrendered their cause to the right.

Brexit has re-ignited the inner divisions of the 'United' Kingdom

As so often after a high-profile referendum, the UK comes out of the EU referendum more divided than before. A slight majority of all Brits supported Brexit (52%), but a clear majority of Catholic Northern Irish, Londoners, and Scots voted for Remain. Consequently, the referendum re-ignited long-standing regional divisions in the less and less United Kingdom, between Catholic and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between urban and rural parts of England, and between Scotland and England. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has already said that a second referendum on Scottish independence is "very likely".

At the same time, almost all major British political parties are in disarray. The Conservatives are without a leader and ready to take the divisive EU campaign to their own party. Within the Labour Party Brexit will lead to a new leadership challenge, in which opponents will argue that Corbyn is too weak to challenge the increasingly radical right dominance in the country. UKIP has made itself superfluous by achieving the key point of its existence: Brexit. Given that organizations rarely dissolve themselves, however, they will undoubtedly try to re-invent themselves by finding a new goal. The last years indicate that the new key issue is immigration, which means that UKIP will finally fully transform into a populist radical right party like Marine Le Pen's National Front (FN) in France and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. Finally, the only really pro-EU party in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, are now not just left without voters but also without their main attraction point.

Brexit has made "exit" a legitimate position within the European debate

Brexit also has profound effects on the EU, of course. First and foremost, exit from the EU has become a legitimate position within the European debate. Until now options like a "Frexit" (France) or "Nexit" (Netherlands) were dismissed as dangerous and ridiculed as unrealistic. No more. While the Pound is currently in free-fall, and the British economy might take a hit, these shocks are probably going to ease off soon and Britain will stabilize outside of the EU. It might not do better, however defined, but it will also not descend into chaos. Consequently, the call for an exit in other countries can no longer be dismissed as a dangerous leap into the unknown. This might actually have a positive effect on the European debate, which so far has been dominated by fear-mongering rather than factual debates about different scenarios. Brexit will lead to more referendums but not necessarily more exits

Geert Wilders, leader and only member of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), has already called for a referendum on Nexit. No doubt parties on the radical right, and some on the radical left, in other countries will do the same. The EU referendum has made it more difficult for pro-EU parties to oppose a referendum, particularly when they are sympathetic towards the democratic instrument of referendums in general. Even if support for an exit in the national parliament is limited, Brexit - just like the "European Constitution" referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005 - have shown the big gap between the European preferences of the representatives and the represented.

Still, it is doubtful that other countries will follow the British example. The UK has a long tradition of Euroscepticism at the level of both the media and the public - the two are, of course, not unrelated. Moreover, the country was neither in the Eurozone nor in Schengen and is physically isolated. If the UK can muster only 52 percent for an exit under perfect conditions, i.e. divided main parties and a "refugee crisis," it is not very likely that any other country can do the same under much less favorable conditions.

Brexit will further strengthen authoritarian and nativist politics

Just like after every election and referendum, the political elites claim to have "heard the message" and to respond accordingly. The dominant message of Brexit, according to the media and politicians, is that the EU has failed to provide (a sense of) safety in a world of mass migration and permanent terrorist threats. Hence, they will call for even more draconian measures toward immigrants and refugees and continue to link them to issues of security and terrorism. Obviously, this will make people feel neither safer nor more confident in the established parties. Rather, it will make them more susceptible to far right parties, who have a much more coherent and consistent track record on these issues. Brexit will rather lead to the end of the UK than of the EU

But while the short-term response of the political elites will be an opportunistic embrace of authoritarian and nativist policies and, mostly, rhetoric, they will soon revert back to the old motto that the real solutions require more and not less European integration. Particularly among the still Europhile elites of Western Europe, most notably in Germany, Brexit will be seen as an opportunity to finally push for deeper and faster integration, if necessary within a smaller group of "core Europe". While several governments oppose such a step, such as Denmark and Hungary, they will no longer have the powerful voice of the UK to make their case.

And as the EU will pick up the pieces and move on, with 27 rather than 28, the UK will have to overcome its internal demons without its convenient external scapegoat. Tension in Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and the UK, could rise as the British-Irish border will become an external EU border. More importantly, however, is the situation in Scotland, which is solidly controlled by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has always campaigned for an independent Scotland within the EU. When the party lost the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the choice was between both a Scotland and a UK within the EU. In the inevitable new referendum pro-EU inhabitants of Scotland will have only one choice left: an independent Scotland. Whether that is enough to swing the majority will remain to be seen, but at this point it is more likely that a majority of Scots vote for Scottish independence than that a majority of French votes for a Frexit or a majority of Dutch vote for a Nexit.

In conclusion, it highly likely that in a few years Brexit will be seen as a decision in which the United Kingdom sacrificed itself to safe the European project. Now wouldn't that be ironic.