A basic overview of Brexit


An outside perspective of Brexit

[notice]A special feature by INcontext ministries.[/notice]

On Friday June 24 2016 British citizens woke to the shocking news that ‘Brexit’ (Britain’s breakaway from the European Union) was now a reality after the previous day’s referendum. Even those who voted in favour of leaving were surprised at the results: pre-referendum polls had pointed to the opposite result.

Nigel Farage, controversial leader of Ukip (United Kingdom Independence Party) declared the results to be a “revolution” and that 23 June would “go down in history as [Britain’s] independence day”, while presumptive US presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in with a declaration that it was a “great thing” that Britain “took back control of their country”. However, for the millions of Britons who opposed Brexit, the results were a cataclysmic disaster.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is trying to make sense of what this means beyond Britain’s borders. In this article, we look at the basics of what happened in the referendum, some of the factors that led to the ‘leave’ vote, some of the immediate ripple effects, and what is likely to happen next.

The results

At the end of counting, the votes were 51.9% in favour of leaving the EU while 48.1% voted to remain. Voter turnout (72%) was higher than for last year’s elections.

The map on the left indicates the areas of majority vote: blue represents the ‘remain’ vote, while red represents the ‘leave’ vote. Scotland and London were the key areas that voted to remain part of the EU.

Very important in terms of the results was the voter demographics. Consider the graph below – the older the voters, the more they voted in favour of leaving the EU (attributed to the fact that they could remember life before EU membership). Education also proved to be a factor – those with university degrees were more likely to vote ‘remain’, while the ‘working class’ preferred independence.

Voters in favour of EU membership were likely to have travelled outside the country, while those who supported Brexit tended to stay at home more. Areas with high support for Ukip in last year’s election corresponded with areas of high ‘leave’ support, while areas with high immigrant communities voted in favour of staying with the EU.

Rafael Behr, in an article for the Guardian, vividly expressed the shock of the results and the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead, “There is a difference between measuring the height of a drop and the sensation of falling; between the sight of a wave and hearing it crash on to the shore; between the knowledge of what fire can do and feeling the heat as the flames catch.

The theoretical possibility that Britain might leave the European Union, turns out to prefigure nothing of the shock when the country actually votes to do it. Politics as practiced for a generation is upended. Traditional party allegiances are shredded; the prime minister’s authority is bust, and that is just the parochial domestic fallout. A whole continent looks on in trepidation. It was meant to be unthinkable, now the thought has become action.

Europe cannot be the same again. There are, in reality, two results from this referendum that operate in separate dimensions – the order for withdrawal from the European Union and the demand that all of politics be conducted on different terms, for a different audience. The sheer scale of combining those tasks is breathtaking, and yet the air over Britain does not yet feel clear enough to breathe so thick is it with dust from an earthquake.”

What is clear is that history has been made. What is not clear is what that history is going to look like. The Washington Post wrote the following: “The vote is perhaps the most dramatic to date in a wave of populist and nationalist uprisings occurring on both sides of the Atlantic that are overturning traditional notions of what is politically possible.”

Reasons for wanting to leave

1. Immigration
This proved to be a major issue in the vote, if not the primary reason people voted for independence from the EU. Immigration in Britain has more than doubled in the past 15 years, due to EU legislation – freedom of movement within the EU means that any EU citizen can go to live and work in the country. ‘Leave’ voters feared that these EU immigrants (particularly those from poorer EU countries like Poland, Lithuania and Romania) crowded schools, stole jobs and caused longer waits for public services like health care, and they believed that “taking their country back” would solve these kinds of problems.

Mass immigration also brought with it fears about terrorists entering the country via legal means, which trumped Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence that EU membership would ensure better national security.

GQ Magazine reported figures, that the ‘leave’ campaign used to boost their argument: “In 2014, there were 131 000 working-age EU citizens claiming British benefits – 2.5 per cent of the total – so any reduction would save the country money.

Pressure group Migration Watch UK has estimated net migration to Britain could be cut by up to 100 000 people a year, it would leave behind a less competitive job market, which could have negative knock-on effects on the NHS and businesses, but would likely raise employment levels.” According to the Economist, however, EU migrants brought economic benefits to the country, and more than half of the immigrants entering the UK in 2015 actually came from outside EU borders.

2. Economics
Those who voted against EU membership believe that the current economic setup is not working in their favour. The Guardian writes that although there has been some measure of ‘Euroskeptism’ throughout the past four decades, it grew in strength with the economic downturn of recent years.

3. Anger with present establishment
The New York Times describes ‘leave’ voters as “angry, confused and deeply distrustful of elites”, and the Economist says the vote was “an outpouring of fury against the ‘establishment’”. Voting in favour of Brexit went against the advice of many international voices, including US president Barack Obama, NATO and the IMF. Brussels (the EU headquarters) was seen as being too controlling in the average British citizen’s everyday life, and the EU as a whole was considered to be lacking in transparency and accountability.

Immediate ripple effects

1. David Cameron resigns
Almost immediately after the result of the voting was announced, media analysts began speculating whether Prime Minister David Cameron (who had campaigned fervently against Brexit) would attempt to keep his post or whether he would resign. Before the vote, Mr Cameron said that he would stay on in his post regardless of the outcome of the referendum, but mid Friday morning, he announced that he would be stepping down and that there should be a new Conservative prime minister in place by October.

In his speech, Mr Cameron said that the “will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered” and that while he would do everything he could to “steady the ship”, he did not think it right for him to “be the captain who steers the country to its next destination”.

Analysts described Mr Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum as a “gamble”, a “reckless and catastrophic misjudgement”, and a failure of his own making. According to the Guardian, his decision to call the referendum was an attempt to unify the fracturing Conservative Party during his campaign for re-election.

So who might take over from him? Early guesses suggested Home Secretary Theresa May and former London mayor Boris Johnson as the front runners. Johnson had been very vocal in favour of Brexit, but his surprising lack of ‘celebration’ on Friday suggests that he may be wondering whether he has bitten off more than he can chew. May, on the other hand, had not been vocal about her convictions in the run-up to the referendum, and some suggest that this might allow her to play a critical unifying role in the near future.

2. Financial market impact
In the aftermath of the vote, the global market reeled as the British Pound fell more than 10%, slumping to the lowest it has been since 1985. According to the Washington Post, such a decline for a rich country’s economy in a single day is “shocking”. Almost every market was affected, and gold – which is often bought in “times of panic” – climbed $100 an ounce. Analysts agree that Britain is almost certainly going to go into some kind of financial recession in the coming months and years as the vote plays out.

3. Talk of Scottish independence
With Scotland having voted firmly in favour of remaining in the EU, the ‘overrule’ by the rest of Britain may prompt another referendum on Scottish independence, and a full Scottish breakaway from Britain. An independent Scotland would then almost certainly seek membership of the EU. Meanwhile, the Economist writes that if Britain ends free movement of people, Northern Ireland could face trouble due to a “hard border” being raised between itself and the south.

Shockwaves in the EU

A question being asked over and over again since Friday morning is whether this vote in Britain is the first indication of things to come, in the wider picture of the increasingly strained and fraying ‘EU project’.

The Guardian reports that at a recent meeting of far-right and ‘Euroskeptic’ parties in Vienna, French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen said that “support for Brexit in the UK was one sign of a ‘new air’ of patriotism sweeping Europe [in a] ‘springtime of the people’”.

Some of the key responses from European political figures to Brexit included the following: In France – Le Pen (who could possibly make a serious bid for the French presidency next year), said the following in a radio interview: “Like a lot of French people, I’m very happy that the British people held on and made the right choice.

What we thought was impossible yesterday has now become possible.” Meanwhile, the vice president of Le Pen’s anti-EU and anti-immigration Front National Party (Florian Phillippot) sent out a celebratory tweet: “The freedom of the people always ends up winning! Bravo United Kingdom. Now it’s our turn!”

These statements need to be considered in the light of circumstances reported in the Economist: in a recent Pew Research survey, it was shown that in France (one of the founder members of the EU and a key role player), only 38% of people interviewed were in favour of the EU – this figure was six points lower than EU support in the UK. Some of France’s challenges (a weak economy and a high terrorism threat) have been blamed on EU membership.

In the Netherlands – Controversial far-right and anti-immigration leader Geert Wilders called for a referendum in his own country. “I think [Brexit is] historic, I think it could also have huge consequences for the Netherlands and the rest of Europe.

Now it’s our turn. I think the Dutch people must now be given the chance to have their say in a referendum.” In another statement, he said that “we want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy.”

In Germany – Beatrix von Storch of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland also celebrated the result: “The 23 June is a historic day. It is Great Britain’s independence day. The people were asked, and they decided. The European Union as a political union has failed.”

In Italy, Matteo Salvini (leader of the far-right Northern League party) echoed similar sentiments: “Hurrah for the courage of free citizens! Heart, head and pride beat lies, threats and blackmail. THANKS UK, now it’s our turn.”

Why is a significant proportion of Europe becoming so negative about the EU as a whole? The Economist reports that there are different key issues in different countries: “Each country feels resentment in its own way. In Italy and Greece, where the economies are weak, they fume over German-imposed austerity.

In France the EU is accused of being ‘ultra-liberal’ (even as Britons condemn it for tying them up in red tape). In eastern Europe traditional nationalists blame the EU for imposing cosmopolitan values like gay marriage.”

The Washington Post also looked at the ‘EU situation’ in other countries: in Sweden, there are struggles with immigration integration; while in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not particularly friendly with the EU and plans to hold a referendum for Hungarians to decide whether they agree with the EU’s right to resettle refugees against the will of national governments (a challenge to Brussels’ authority).

The Guardian summed up the Brexit effects on the EU as follows: “The biggest threat from this referendum is, in truth, not to Britain but to the rest of Europe, which is why the EU should think carefully about how to respond. It has been judged by this referendum and found wanting. Britain will not be the last to tell it so. Polls have shown between a quarter and third of people across Europe are now deeply hostile to the European project.”

David Charter shared his opinion in the Times: “The dream of a united Europe is over. Born in the ruins of a continent torn apart by war seven decades ago, Britain decided to walk away, Brexit will strike terror into the hearts of European governments and force a dramatic rethink of the organisation which aimed to bind nation states tightly together in the name of peace and prosperity.

Britain, the EU’s second-largest net funder, is the first country to walk away and the fear of contagion is real. Most European leaders also know they would struggle to win an in-out referendum. In ten European countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, just 51% of voters had a favourable view of the EU, 42% per cent wanted power to be returned to national capitals.

There will be many declarations around the continent [after Brexit] that the show must go on and the British must not be allowed to bring the whole edifice crashing down. However, Europe’s ruling elite knows that the EU has to change.”

What happens now?

Brexit was a landmark vote for the EU, so there is no clear way forward in terms of how the breakaway will actually happen. The Washington Post writes that “although Britain may not actually leave the EU for years, Thursday’s vote fires the starting gun on what is widely expected to be a messy proceeding as Britain and EU officials begin untangling the vast web of connections between this island nation and the other 27 members of the bloc.”

As a basic outline, the New York Times explained the following steps:

1. Britain officially informs the European Council (made up of one government leader from each of the 28 EU member states) of its intentions to exit. This will trigger ‘Article 50’ of the Treaty on European Union and the official exit process. It is as yet unclear when exactly this will happen, but once things are set in motion, the process must happen within two years.

2. Britain and the EU will negotiate the terms of separation, during which time Britain will function as part of the EU as normal.

3. When both sides agree on the terms, the exit will be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. If negotiations are still ongoing, the 2-year deadline can be extended (provided the European Council votes unanimously to do so).

The Financial Times describes this process as the “world’s most complex divorce” and a “legal and political no man’s land” with the goal being to “unwind Britain’s 43-year membership of the bloc, disentangle and sever the legacy of shared sovereignty, and then re-shape the biggest single market on earth”.

It is not going to be easy: “Across the continent, markets, officials, presidents and prime ministers know that Britain and its former partners in the EU are embarking on a potentially dangerous political voyage, navigating largely in the dark.” The article quotes a senior EU official as saying that “we are faced with a million mad questions and we won’t have answers any time soon”.

According to the Economist, trade issues are vitally important to the whole negotiation process, and as these may take longer than two years to sort out, Britain may be hoping for ‘informal negotiations’ with the EU before officially invoking Article 50. However, it is likely that EU leaders will refuse to talk until the intended exit is officially declared.

Analysts also believe that the EU is not going to make things easy for Britain, in an attempt to dissuade other EU countries from following a similar route: “The priority for the rest of the EU will be to make sure that nobody follows Britain’s example. That precludes giving Britain a good deal.

Leavers have retorted that, because Britain imports more from the EU than it sells to it, the other countries must offer a generous free-trade deal. But this betrays a misunderstanding of both EU politics and trade talks. The EU cannot let Britain have full access to the single market without its obligations lest others ask for similar treatment.”

The same Economist article outlined possible scenarios and challenges:

“In practice the EU will offer Britain only two possible deals. The first is to join Norway in the European Economic Area. This would preserve full access to the single market. But, like Norway, Britain would have to make a hefty contribution to the EU budget (Norway pays about 85% as much as Britain per head), observe all EU single-market regulations with no say in making them and, crucially, accept free movement of people from the EU.

It is hard to imagine a post-Brexit government accepting this. The second is a free-trade deal like the EU’s with Canada. Yet this does not cover all trade, does not eliminate non-tariff barriers, excludes most financial services and could take years to agree. The other option for Britain is to revert to trading with the EU as America, China and India do, under normal World Trade Organisation rules.

However most economists say this would make the economic damage from Brexit worse. The economic and trade problems arising from Brexit will dominate British politics for years to come. Security and foreign-policy concerns will also emerge.

The home secretary, the security services and the police may try to replicate the co-ordinating measures that they have in place now with the rest of the EU, notably on intelligence-sharing. The Foreign Office may try to maintain its input into the EU’s foreign-policy discussions. None of this will be easy and some may be impossible.”

According to Aljazeera, Manfred Weber of the EU parliament said that Britain should not expect a “free ride” in the departure negotiations: “There cannot be any special treatment for the United Kingdom. The British people have expressed their wish to leave the EU.

Leave means leave. The times of cherry-picking are over.” Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker (the European Commission chief), said the EU will “not be bending over backwards” in order to help Britain negotiate trade deals with EU countries.

Mr Cameron is scheduled to meet his EU colleagues on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, so things might become a little clearer after that (regarding the time frame for invoking Article 50). Meanwhile, British leaders face an immense struggle of uniting the country, with the deep divisions and polarisations now clearly on the surface.

Over the weekend, approximately 2 million ‘remain’ voters signed a petition calling for another Brexit referendum, and while this is highly unlikely to happen, it reflects the desperation of those who feel that their future is falling apart.

The Washington Post writes that much of the pre-referendum campaigns was characterised by “fear and loathing” rather than “hope and aspiration”, and these issues now need to be addressed. Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said that “notions of Britain as a deferential, consensual society at ease with itself have been thrown out the window. This campaign has revealed a very profound mistrust among a substantial segment of society toward conventional political authority, the EU became a lightning rod for mistrust of politics more broadly.”

From a Christian perspective

Britain has a long Christian history, which has impacted the world in major ways. From a missions perspective, many Britons left their homes in order to share the Gospel among the nations to which God called them. Inside Britain, an open door to foreigners and strangers reflected Biblical principles, even if the nation became largely secular in recent decades.

Now analysts are speculating that an independent ‘Great Britain’ could become ‘Little Britain’, and that xenophobia and an inward-looking focus are likely to take root. On the other hand, the converse is possible. Ff the ‘remain’ voters are angry enough with the referendum result, they may intentionally rebel against the ‘new order of things’, which could in turn lead to an active embracing of the global community and British Christians being stirred to reach out at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, the world watches in suspense to see what Brexit will mean for the EU and the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties that seek to overthrow the current establishment. In the middle of all this are the increasing numbers of refugees who have fled to Europe seeking peace, stability, welcome and a future.

At this time, it is very easy for the British Church (and the wider EU Church) to get caught up in the rapidly shifting politics and fears about the future. May we pray earnestly for believers throughout the region: that the Church would be an audible voice of reason, unity and hope; that Christians would not be caught up in negativity and personal fears and concerns; and that they would focus on reaching out to others (from their secular neighbour to the foreigner in their midst) at every opportunity.

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