Cutting to the chase: what the Brexit referendum did

Brexit means Brexit – but what does that actually mean? To understand the EU referendum results, we first have to accept its irreversibility. 

John Weeks
26 April 2017

A "Vote Leave" poster spotted in the run up to the EU referendum in London. Flickr/David Holt. Some rights reserved.

A June Divorce

On 23 June 2016, 52% of those casting ballots voted in favour of ending membership in the European Union. Voters in England (population 53 million) and Wales (3.1 million) supported “Brexit” (both by about 53%), while Northern Ireland (1.8 million) and Scotland (5.3 million) gave majorities for “Remain” (by 53% and a landslide 62%). These results came on a high voter turnout, 72% compared to 66% in the 2015 national election.

Various hypotheses have come forth to explain why a majority of those voting chose “Leave”: national sovereignty (however defined), dislike of the European Union, revenge of the globalisation losers, and fear of immigration. Inspection of voting patterns suggests that “regaining sovereignty” was not the most important motivation, though this was a major “leave” slogan.

While the anti-EU campaign made much of the alleged tyranny of the coming European super-state, the common view I encountered among potential voters was indifference, not dislike. Immigration stands out as the strongest motivation, though the greatest anxieties arose over non-EU migrants, which Leave propaganda exploited shamelessly.

Two conjunctural factors help to understand the outcome of the referendum. In the months leading up to the referendum, the Syrian refugee crisis dominated politics in the European Union, with the issue all the more explosive in wake of the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Had the UK vote occurred a year previously the anti-EU campaign might have found it more difficult to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria.

The second conjunctural factor brings to mind John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous line, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'it might have been’”. In the case of the referendum that might read, “it might not have been”, because it was both unnecessary and unneeded. Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the legislation requiring a referendum not in response to public demand, but to weaken his opponents within the Conservative Party who were overwhelmingly anti-EU. In a spectacular misjudgement he presumed that voters would overwhelmingly support remaining in the Union, thus allowing him to “see off” his intra-party enemies.

Misrepresenting Brexit

Understanding “what Brexit means” begins by accepting the irreversibility of the referendum result. The Westminster parliament has 650 seats and includes only three political parties with more than ten seats: Conservatives (330 seats), Labour (229), Scottish National Party (SNP, 56), and then the others (35). In none of the big three is there a majority for a second referendum, even less to treat the 23 June vote as non-binding (“advisory”). Reversing the referendum outcome is politically improbable to the point of impossible.

Understanding “what Brexit means” begins by accepting the irreversibility of referendum result. While the SNP favours remaining within the European Union, it would achieve that goal by creating an independent Scotland via its own referendum planned for 2018. It is quite likely that the English majority for Brexit will prove in the long term to break-up the “United Kingdom”, a break-up several decades in the making (a topic for another article).
While leaving the EU may prove complex in procedure, its meaning and consequences are no mystery. The frequently posed question, “what does Brexit mean?”, results not from lack of clarity but from the unwillingness of parts of the British media to accept the irreversibility of the referendum. This is especially the case for the Guardian, the least reactionary daily newspaper in Britain, whose approach to Brexit seems designed to convince readers that the process will be unmanageably complex and prone to a disastrous outcome.

Indeed, the core strategy of mainstream pro-EU groups is to represent leaving the EU as a disaster in the making. This strategy extends the counter-productive approach taken during the referendum campaign, that fear of the unknown would prove the effective defence of EU membership. To continue that strategy portraying the consequences of Brexit as unknown and perhaps unknowable is essential.  

Clarifying Brexit

Further to the task of obfuscating the consequences of leaving the EU has been the ubiquitous use of the adjectives “hard” and “soft”. Determining the cognitive meaning of these modifiers presents a daunting task, but the message comes across clearly – “hard Brexit” is “bad” verging on disaster, and “soft Brexit” is “good” and the route of reason.

Determining the cognitive meaning of these modifiers presents a daunting task, but the message comes across clearly – “hard Brexit” is “bad” verging on disaster, and “soft Brexit” is “good” and the route of reason.

These clichés are easily translated into simple English. “Hard Brexit” refers to a complete break with EU institutions, placing Britain into the category with the countries of the world that are neither EU members nor affiliates (26 members and 4 associates via the European Economic Area).

The right-wingers within and without the Conservative Party favour this option, complete withdrawal. A group of far right ideologues, Economists for Free Trade (formerly, Economists for Brexit), provide the putative intellectual polemics for a complete break, and for “free trade” one should read “corporation-friendly trade”.

The purpose of a complete withdrawal is to end legal constraints and regulations on UK business set by EU environmental law, the employment rights protected in EU treaties, and civil and human rights enforced by the European Court of Justice. To be politically appealing, right-wing politicians package “Hard Brexit” as the anti-immigration option. It should be more accurately named “Hard-right Brexit”.

A “soft Brexit” strategy seeks to maintain association with as many aspects of EU institutions as possible consistent with the referendum outcome. Were it possible, the softest of soft Brexits would have Britain become an associate rather than a member, and retain all the putative advantages of membership. Political conditions in both Britain and among EU governments make the softest option impossible.

By EU treaty access to the common market (so-called single market) requires accepting free movement of labour from member countries and associates. Because opposition to immigration played such a prominent role in the referendum campaign, no British government could accept a continuation of free movement of labour.

Even if a British government did accept free movement, EU leaders would reject the full-privileges associate membership option. The great fear among EU politicians is that other countries might follow Britain, with a possible Italian exit from the euro the greatest anxiety.

Were a Greek government to drop out of the euro zone, the impact would be an embarrassment but not a disaster. If anti-euro sentiments prevail in Italy, a major country and an original member, the result would prove fatal to both the euro zone and the Union itself. It should come as no surprise that the German government, which dominates EU policy, has pledged to make Brexit as expensive and unpleasant as possible as an example to other would-be leavers (though later softening its message).

Brexit probabilities

A joke circulating in the corridors of EU office blocks in Brussels is that the greatest uncertainty facing the British government is whether it can exit the European Union while there is still a Union to exit. The joke correctly suggests that Brexit is not the most serious problem confronting EU leaders in the foreseeable future.
The refugee crisis, elections in France (April-May for president, June for the legislature) and Germany (September), and the resurgence of fascism (trivialized as “populism”) not merely complicate negotiations over Brexit, they render it marginal to European political debate. In this uncertain context the priority for the EU side of Brexit negotiations will be to prevent further defections; that is, “hard Brexit”.

On the British side, the government appears strong because of an ineffective opposition, and in practice has a weak negotiating position due to divisions within the Conservative Party. An unfavourable outcome of Brexit negotiations serves the interest of the Scottish National Party, providing another argument for independence to a strongly pro-EU population. With the Conservative Party deeply split, staggering into “hard Brexit” and blaming the German government for it may be the least worst outcome from the point of view of the May government.

When someone asks you, “what does Brexit mean?”, quote the prime minister, “Brexit means Brexit”. Not as tautological as it May appear.

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