A week and a half after the vote that shook the world, the list of unanswered questions continues to grow. Will Brexit really happen? Who will take responsibility? Who and what lost Northern England? Has unbridled populism won or has the popular will prevailed, reflecting a majority disenfranchised by globalisation? Was it the Euro, the barons of Brussels or national ego trips on migration that tipped the scales? Is Brexit the end or the real beginning of the most important political experiment of modern times? What will be the consequences of Brexit, if any, in other parts of the world where supranational elements might come into play, such as within ASEAN?
Commentators are supposed to enlighten, to find a trend in apparent chaos or at least place a singular event into a larger context. But in this case, I confess I am reduced to asking questions and a making a few observations hopefully not yet covered in the deluge of nonplussed commentary that has followed this vote that appears to leave mostly losers in its wake.
Those losers include the 'leave'-crowd to the left of Nigel Farage and his storm-troopers. This was demonstrated by ‘Bor-exit’; the backstabbing of Johnson by one of his own, an Elizabethan drama more reminiscent of Marlowe than the often invoked Shakespeare. The Bard was more subtle than Michael Gove. So the new leader will likely be Theresa May who has already vowed 'to respect the will of the people'.
But which people shall she lead? Not the Scots, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the only credible politician in present British politics, has already made clear. And probably not the Northern Irish, who would rather join the South than face an outer European border on their isle.
On the EU side, both François Hollande and Angela Merkel have made it clear that they want ‘ a clear decision, soon’. But does that really include a quickie divorce? Both leaders will take a tough line through to the 2017 elections in both countries — the French even impitoyable — to prevent calls by their internal nationalist foes for ‘a Europe light’ from prevailing.
As pointed out by all reasonable politicians on the continent before the vote (excluding only the nationalist right and those on the left who blame Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair for ‘neo-liberal Europe’), in the long run, Europe’s position and role in the world will suffer without Great Britain. This is especially the case in the political security sphere where the EU will be asked to do more in the future. Berlin and Paris had drawn up contingency plans in the case of Brexit but Britian's military might would be greatly missed in a real European defense force. The pressure on, and from, all sides — including the US — to find a workable arrangement to ‘keep the UK in Europe’ will be intense.
One crucial part of such an arrangement that will be difficult to resolve is freedom of persons. On the one hand, migration was a crucial, if not the crucial factor in the Leave vote. On the other, there cannot be free access to goods, services and capital via the internal market of the EU without the granting of the fourth freedom in return. Incidentally, this has proved to be a particularly hard nut to crack in all negotiations of the EU with close neighbors who can’t or won’t be full members.
Will the EU start looking at reforms after the Brexit vote, and if so, to what? There is a lot of talk about future ‘variable geometry’ in the European construction. Of course, this is not exactly news, given exceptions from generally agreed rules, often as a follow-up to national referenda (Denmark, Ireland), have been granted to EU-members before.
This leads us invariably to the question of what, other than populist cheerleaders, has contributed most to the defiant and distant attitude many European citizens (not just in the UK) harbour now, compared to the 1990s when ‘Europe’ appeared to be an exciting promise.
Contrary to what is often said, including by some EU-proponents, I believe it is neither the common currency — irreplaceable grease in the cogs of the single EU market — nor the European bureaucrats (which are mostly a figment of overheated imagination in the heads of arch-liberal enemies of any public sector activity) that are responsible for this change.
Rather, I believe it was the rush to include states in the new Europe of post-1990 which led to an early, possibly too early, inclusion of the newly liberated and independent countries of Eastern Europe as full members of the EU. Certainly, there were short interim periods before the full extent of the four liberties came to pass. But the pent-up desire to live and work in the fabled West was such that almost one million Poles, for example, took advantage of the fourth freedom to move to London. In retrospect that was probably too many, too fast especially when many moved onto a Northern England that had already been hit hard by deindustrialisation in a globalised economy.
Thus the surprising high percentage of ‘leavers’ in areas such as Sunderland, despite considerable cohesion funds channeled to these areas through the much maligned Brussels. These areas will also face a rude awakening when the real price to pay for Brexit becomes evident. The Japanese carmaker that has replaced the shipyards of yore as the main employer of blue-collar workers will move on when it is unable to export UK-made cars duty-free to the continent any longer.
Finally, is the greatest ever experiment in sharing sovereignty between national capitals on the one hand, and a commonly-created and supervised authority to administer the common good on the other, coming to a early end?
I have always been struck by how, in Asia Pacific, the EU as a political construct fascinated pundits and politicians alike. Certainly ‘old and tired Europe’ is often a subject of some condescension there. Particularly as Asian ways of consensus are supposed to exclude definitive transfer of, historically speaking at least, recently won national prerogatives. And yet, when discussing supranational elements to be included in the future of ASEAN, such as generally applicable human rights obligations, the European example loomed large.
If the complex evolution of European institutions since the end of the second world war is any guide, I suspect we won't know how its future will pan out for quite some time. Indeed, there are likely to be few answers in the short term to the many questions left in the wake of Brexit.