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Brexit’s Phoney War

If you are confused by what is happening in Britain, you are not alone. First, Britain voted to leave the European Union, when all the “smart” money was on it to remain in the EU. Mr David Cameron said that if British voters chose to leave, he would trigger the formal process of exiting immediately, known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. He did not. Then he fell on his sword by resigning, except that he is still Prime Minister.

Brexit’s Phoney War

Men draped in European Union flags among the tens of thousands demonstrating against Britain’s vote to leave the union, near Big Ben in central London, July 2, 2016. Photo: New York Times

If you are confused by what is happening in Britain, you are not alone. First, Britain voted to leave the European Union, when all the “smart” money was on it to remain in the EU. Mr David Cameron said that if British voters chose to leave, he would trigger the formal process of exiting immediately, known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. He did not. Then he fell on his sword by resigning, except that he is still Prime Minister.

The markets crashed, and then bounced back (a little) as people realised Article 50 had not been triggered yet. Mr Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign leader, looked poised to swoop in as leader of the Conservative Party, except he declined. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, who successfully got his party to back Remain as per the party’s wishes, faced an open revolt from an overwhelming majority of his Members of Parliament.

It is all very confusing. In 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, but then did nothing for nearly a year, aside from pulling out its troops from the mainland. It was called the “Phoney War”. Britain’s referendum is similar: The people’s will has been declared, but legally, nothing has been changed, and nothing will change until Article 50 is triggered. Mr Cameron, by resigning without pulling the trigger, has ensured that no one can do anything until the Conservatives elect a new leader. All this mess has taken place under this shadow of Phoney War.

Several problems remain unresolved. The Lisbon Treaty requires free movement of people, if you want tariff-free and quota-free access to Europe’s single market. Most of those who voted Leave did so on the understanding that the UK would control migration. How they can reconcile that with maintaining access to the single EU market is still unclear, but the prospects of having their cake and eating it too are grim.

So too is the question of how EU-distributed funding would be managed: Access to the single market would require a subscription fee similar to what Britain is already paying (Norway pays a per capita fee similar to Britain’s, without being a member of the EU). However, the money has been promised elsewhere, such as to Britain’s National Health Service, and, to maintain EU subsidies to key industries such as agriculture and research, that would be lost.

Finally, any recovery is based on the realisation that Article 50 has not yet been triggered. The markets will react the same way they did on June 24 if the triggering of Article 50 is not handled with extraordinary care. While the EU has ruled out “informal” negotiations before Article 50 is triggered, they are also pressing Britain to do so quickly.

It is conventional wisdom that people vote based on their self-interests. This simple reading of the referendum would imply that voters were irrational, stupid and maybe should not be trusted with a vote again. That conclusion would have troubling implications for democracy. Is it possible that voters did vote for their own interests, and this was the result?

For all the economic ramifications that were warned about (dismissed by Leave as “Project Fear”), the political drama has overshadowed everything else. As Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam pointed out, “the profound questions revolve around politics”.

Anyone who predicted that Britain would ultimately vote Remain did so because they could not see how people could vote against their economic interests. But much more fundamental was the question of the political structures of decision-making, and the heightened struggle overshadowing all of British politics is bearing this out.

When one looks at the polling data, some patterns emerge. Scotland and the Republican half of Northern Ireland voted clearly for Remain. The reason is clear: The EU provides an effective check on Westminster in their respective regions. So far so good.

But the rural heartlands of England voted decisively for Leave. Older people voted for Leave. Less educated people voted for Leave. People who did not feel they had a stake in European integration voted for Leave. They wanted their country back, and felt that politics had abandoned them. The EU was symptomatic of this, but was far from being the only cause of political alienation.

DIVIDED COUNTRY

Mr Cameron thought he was holding a referendum on membership of the EU. What he got instead was a referendum on politics itself.

The EU warned about the economic problems that would result, but stayed silent on the political question. The chaos unleashed since the referendum has been coming for some time, and it does not make sense unless one understands the fundamental discontent people had with politics. That discontent is pulling people (and parties) in all directions, but in the raucous transition, what exactly needs to be done is far from clear.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the political centre-ground has vanished. The Liberal Democrats — typically squeezed between the right and left — took a beating in the last election. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted: “The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”

After the crisis, Britain embarked on an austerity programme that often hit poorer groups. There was little sense of justice, as elites were not held to account in the multi-faceted financial crisis. Many have argued that austerity and the populist redirection of anger onto migrants and the EU have led to the current situation. Having decided to leave the EU, the anger has not abated and perhaps even increased, if the recent spate of xenophobic incidents is indicative.

The surprise of a Tory leadership contest without Boris Johnson shows that no one is safe in this mess. Continued infighting in both parties does not bode well for their ability to be responsive to people’s concerns.

As long as questions about Britain’s (and possibly Europe’s) political structures and their legitimacy are not resolved, Britain will find it difficult to emerge from its second Phoney War.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Joel Ng is a PhD candidate in International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He formerly worked as an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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