The people of Britain have made their choice over their future in Europe. They have voted, by a margin of 52 per cent to 48, to leave the European Union forty three years after coming into it in 1973. The irony ought not to be missed. Forty three years ago, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who triumphantly led Britain into Europe as a full partner. Today, despite all his efforts to have the country carry on in the EU, it is a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has overseen a referendum in which a majority of his countrymen did not agree with him.
The results of the referendum on whether Britain ought to stay in or leave the EU have, in that properly political sense of the term, been narrow. Being narrow – with the Leave campaign garnering the support of over 17 million people in contrast to the slightly over 16 million for the Remain campaign, they project an unassailable truth. And the truth is that Britain is today a divided nation. Much as Nigel Farage would like to project the vote as a victory for decent people, the fact remains that those who lost are people equally decent, people who have cared passionately about the need for a continuity of union with Europe.
Go back to that matter of irony again. When the Treaty of Rome relating to European political unity was forged in 1957, an offer to Britain to be part of the enterprise was brushed aside by London on the assumption, mistaken as it turned out, that it did not need to be linked to any political arrangements with continental Europe. But then the European Common Market or the European Economic Community, as it was known, began to exercise some clout that had promise in it. Britain changed tack and sought membership of the body. Nothing doing, said French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963. For him, the United Kingdom might as well have been another planet. In any case, it was no part of Europe.
The politicians in London sulked, until 1973. Georges Pompidou was in the Elysee and Edward Heath was in Downing Street. Britain finally found its place at the table, though it did go through hiccups in relation to certain aspects of EU policy in subsequent years. The referendum of 1975, the decision to stay away from the ERM in the early 1990s, et cetera, turned out to be crucial for Britain in assuming for itself a dual role: it was part of European integration and yet it was sensitive about maintaining its national sovereignty.
That phase is, effective from Friday morning, a blast from the past. As a despondent Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, said in the hours after the results of the vote came in, Britain will now have a diminished voice in Europe. That is quite a climb-down. Worse, it is a retreat. But that is not the only issue which now has surfaced for the country, despite the triumph of the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage have won, thanks to a spirited but divisive campaign. But note the possible ramifications of the referendum results. Thousands of British industries are directly linked to business with and in the EU. There is now a distinct possibility that banks and other corporate organizations will make an exit from London and head for Europe. Immigration in the United Kingdom will now be a more stringent proposition. Add to that the migration, of continental Europeans working in Britain and of Britons based in Europe moving back to their native territories in droves.
Yes, Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, stipulating the modalities along which a member state of the EU can leave the organization, is there. That will entail intense and protracted negotiations in the coming months. David Cameron will not be there. It will be up to his successor, who will likely take charge in October, to lead the talks aimed at shaping an exit strategy. The talks will be hard, for never before has any member state of the EU opted out of it. Between now and the arrival of a new leader at 10 Downing Street, however, there will be the tremors arising out of Thursday’s vote, those that will call for deft handling. Just how complicated conditions could be has been made manifest by the plummeting pound soon after the results of the referendum came in.
The vote has, let us repeat, shown up the United Kingdom to be a divided nation. As many as 33 million people have made their views on the future of their country vis-a-vis the EU known. People in London and Scotland have voted emphatically to stay in the EU. Northern Ireland has, in a more limited way, opted to remain in Europe. The rest of the country, which means England beyond London and in the north as well as Wales, has turned its back on the EU. The image of deep division, of perspectives at variance with one another, is the story that has emerged. The margin of the divide has been rather slim. The Leave campaign has registered its victory by 1,269,501 votes. But the consequences, with the results streaming in, promise to be hugely consequential. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, may keep up his optimism about the future of Europe with its 27 remaining nations in the union. But the British vote has opened a dam. It may well lead to conditions where the floodgates to a diminished EU could now burst open. Observe the rightwing politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. He has already voiced his support for a UK-style referendum on whether his country ought to stay in or leave the EU. His views have been echoed by another rightwing politician, this time in France. Marine Le Pen has tweeted her view that France too needs the kind of referendum Britain has just had.
Observe the sense of glee which has greeted the British decision. The glee is generally palpable among the rightwing. You have Nigel Farage in Britain. And now you have Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen ready and willing to emulate him. Extend the image a little more, across the Atlantic, where the sabre-rattling Donald Trump typifies some of the very issues which anti-EU politicians in Europe have for long raised and argued to suit their politics. Briefly, it is the right that is rampant in the West today. Within Britain, there is the spectre of a Little England taking shape in reality in light of the victory of the Leave campaign. Nicola Sturgeon has made clear Scotland’s faith in the European Union. Hints are here of a new referendum on Scottish independence, of the country feeling confident in its ability to make itself heard this time around. And away in Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein would really like to raise the possibility, post-Brexit, of a reunification of the province with the Irish republic.
The pitfalls are there, for the United Kingdom, more than the possibilities. Where earlier the issue was philosophical – of the degree to which Britain could assert its sovereignty if it walked out of the EU – today the question is one of tackling the new realities head on. ‘Might happen’ has now happened.
And beyond those realities is the uncertainty. Where does Britain go from here? What future awaits the 27 members of the EU, now that member 28 has decided to take its separate route to the future? How does the EU get over, if it can, the body blow Britain’s voters have just dealt it?
Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.