Brexit - Be Careful What You Ask For
(Opinion and commentary on the power of direct democracy by Brad Redderson)
Brexit. In spite of what many politicians and press pundits are saying, this made-up word does NOT rhyme with “Breaks-it”. But the tidal wave it has created may end up breaking many things.
Brexit is a great example of the power and risks involved in direct democracy. Especially in the case of complex questions such this British exit from the European Union, in which voters were barraged with news articles, editorials, endless politicking at all levels, and pro and con television advertising.
The United Kingdom’s involvement in the European Union goes all the way to its beginnings as what was known as “Common Market” in the mid-20th century. Part of this post World War II vision was to bring together the major powers of Europe as a sort of “United States of Europe”, with country borders opened up to allow free trade and passage of people and goods within the European Continent without passports or tariffs.
It was a good idea in theory and for over 50 years it seemed to work for the most part. There had been strains for some time on various issues, including the momentous one when the 21st century brought with it the single-currency Euro to replace the French Franc, the Italian Lira, and the Germany Deutschmark – but not the British Pound Sterling. But somehow they survived and even thrived.
Nothing, however, was enough to prepare the European Union (EU) for the multiple battering of the 2008 financial crisis, the financial failure of member nation Greece and unsteadiness of Italy and Spain that followed, and the recent wave of war refugees or immigrants from the Middle East. The stronger communities of Germany and the United Kingdom – plus France, the Netherlands and more to a lesser degree – were called in to help deal with and fund European Central Bank issues to keep the EU as stable as possible. The European Union Parliament also provided an already well-organized place to argue policy issues including the more recent ones involving Syrian refugees.
Even as the system worked in some ways remarkably well as a union, slowly but surely the United Kingdom and its citizens began to feel its interests were taking second place to those of the EU as a whole. At first it seemed more an issue of debate than a serious consideration for secession, but over time it became a big enough question that the UK’S current Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided he needed to get all that controversy out of the way. He wanted it resolved so the country could stop arguing about possibly leaving the EU – and get back to other things.
So he did what seemed a very logical thing. He called for a public referendum on the issue. To leverage that power of direct democracy to show all those doubters out there – that the public was in fact supporting him to stay in the union.
He did so – or so it appears – because he believed the public wanted to stay in the European Union and the dissension was just so much noise.
He was wrong and is probably even now losing sleep over how things might actually have blown over in time if he had not asked for that referendum. Now it is too late for that.
He assumed people would understand why staying in the EU, from his perspective at least, was a good thing. Even if he were right, even if the average citizens had all the facts to consider the issues like he felt he did, figuring things out was both far too complex for most to analyze properly. And in the heat of prolonged local recession, knowledge of many high-level problems across the EU, and the feeling of powerlessness, voters chose a messy divorce over an imperfect marriage.
Too many UK voters valued their national soverignty and culture over the potential economic and social benefits of staying in the EU. They were tired of watching immigrants pour into the UK and take the jobs they didn’t want and those they did. They didn’t like the erosion and dilution of their culture. They were sick of Asian rape gangs preying upon their daughters and wives while the police did nothing. They were fed-up with feeling powerless in the face of a distant bureaucracy that did not understand or value their concerns. They were not persuaded by their own government when it tried to convince to vote to stay.
It also turned out – after the fact – that many citizens voted with a lot less information than they needed. Why else would one of the top questions on Google in the UK the day after the election being “What is the European Union?”
But the vote is over and although a petition is being sent to parliament to reconsider the vote, this particular decision of direct democracy looks to be one that will may on the books.
It is creating a mess as far as the logistics of separating from the European Union. That is partly because although there is a procedure to separate from the EU nobody has done it before. It is also because, long before you start dealing with the implications on UK-based and Eu-based companies that need to do business with each other, there is the need to replace the EU ‘relationship’ with a brand new set of trade, banking, and other agreements that will work across the borders. Two years has been allotted for the process, but far less complex deals have taken nations over a decade to work out.
On the company side, besides the now cross-border trade issues to work out, there are many other problems. Companies which have branch offices that used to all reside within the EU will now find themselves on different sides of the UK/EU now. Corporate headquarters that used to be in the UK for some logistics reasons are now already announcing they will move to the mainland to conduct business. Manufacturers and agricultural suppliers on either side of the border will need to restructure to deal with likely tariffs on their products. Startups with UK citizens in charge but resident in Europe now are faced with moving or getting visas, passports, and having to cut their own local deal with the EU government. The EU itself may also insist on mainland workers being part of UK busi- nesses as part of the new arrangements, as they indicated in public discussions in late June.
Within the UK itself things are not all that stable either.
While in the UK as a whole the vote was 51.9% to leave to 48.1% to remain, within Northern Ireland 55.8% voted to stay and 44.2% to leave. Scotland, which only months ago was voting whether or not to secede from the UK appears to have found a new reason to leave its London-based leadership behind. It voted with a resounding 62% to stay versus “only” 38% of its population wanting to leave the UK. The vote was so clear that Scotland is already looking for when to schedule its next departure vote. Worse still, it is also inviting all mainland British residents who want to stay in the EU to move to Scotland before the vote – so they can easily stay in the EU.
(Scotland’s move into the EU will take time, as some have forgotten to point out. The current UK needs to formally separate in all ways before Brussels will even consider talking with Scotland about membership. But at this writing that particular restructuring seems just a matter of time.)
Age is another divide that show up in polling on this issue. UK residents over 65 voted more than 2 to 1 in favor of leaving the EU. Those 18-24, on the other hand, voted 60% to 40% in favor of staying in the EU.
How much money one makes also tells an interesting story. Although the data is far less solid than for the geographic and age demographics, one UK polling organization, Populus, estimates that lower class workers were in favor of leaving the EU at a rate of 48% stay versus 52% remain. Upper middle, middle, and lower middle class workers supported staying at a rate of 54% to 46%. This could be an effect of concerns about lower-wage immigrants coming in from the mainland. It could also be connected to the feeling among the lower class that some considerable amount of money which “should” have been supporting them was instead supporting the rest of the EU’S concerns.
And then there is the divide between those who travel back and forth to the mainland and those that mostly stay at home. Those UK residents that have taken a foreign vacation in the last three years, vacations that mostly went to travel within Europe, voted 55% to 45% in favor of staying in the EU. UK expats living within the EU voted in even larger numbers to stay. With so many structural divides as to who voted for what, it is safe to say the United Kingdom is anything but a “united” Kingdom right now. The issue of Brexit will bring with it more internal dissension than perhaps at any other time in its history, and near-term internal fractures such as when Scotland calls for a new vote to get out from under Britain could mean the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.
Within the EU, dissension is no less strong now that the UK has voted to leave. Other countries are either publicly or likely privately considering the same move. Which is very much behind why the governing body of the EU wants to move as quickly as possible to complete its “divorce” from the UK – and stop its own ship from wobbling and possibly tipping over.
It could be that both of the “grand experiments” involved, the creation of the European Union in the mid20th century and the once transcontinental supreme empire of the United Kingdom, could break apart in the next two years.
And all because a single man, David Cameron, called for a vote by direct democracy of the citizens of the United Kingdom.
CC - Image by Rob984 & Offnfopt
Eurostar train. Photo: EQROY / Shutterstock.com