Recently, there has been a heated debate in Europe, widely known as ‘In or Out’ or ‘Brexit’, as the UK was approaching one of the most important referendums in its history. Soon after the June 23 referendum, the world saw 52 percent of Britons choosing to leave the EU signifying the UK’s future is going to lie outside Europe. Economically speaking, most analysts have judged that the darkest side of the exit will be in economics. Unsurprisingly, right after the result of the referendum came out; one of the signs of economic push back has been witnessed by the sharp devaluation of sterling. However, what really surprised us is the fact that the result led to contentious reactions and social complications as it exposes deep divisions across the country, apparently between the old and the young, the North and the south, the rich and the poor, London and the provinces as well as the British and the Scottish. A week later after the resignation of David Cameron, there was another surprise when the two chief figureheads of Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, ruled themselves out of leading the EU Leave campaign. Obviously, such decisions to step aside has worsen the situation and left with a massive political vacuum at the top of British politics. This is the first case of regional disintegration in which the country leaving the bloc now plunges into turmoil, surrounded with a cloud of uncertainty with many more questions than answers.
In history, Britain has been unenthusiastic about the European project since the early stage of European integration. In fact, Britain was not fully opposed to European cooperation, but it was doubtful about the close ties between France and Germany as well as its preference for intergovernmental cooperation over supranational authority. Instead, it decided to form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960, together with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, as a trade-bloc alternative to rival the EEC. While the European side continued to make impressive economic and political progress, the EFTA achieved only little due to the fact that its members traded more with EEC members. Later, it became clear that staying out of the EEC would risk economic and political isolation. Just 15 months after its creation, Britain left the EFTA to apply for EEC membership, as did Denmark and Ireland, leaving the short-lived EFTA faltered and inactive. However, Britain did not join the EEC immediately as its applications were denied twice because they had a disagreement with French President Charles de Gaulle’s Franco-German policy. Following his resignation from office, it took until January 1973 before the third application and membership negotiation went through allowing Britain to join the EEC.
Throughout the period of EU membership, Britain has been acting as an awkward partner. Its government officials have often opposed further integration and several European initiatives. Moreover, Britain has been the main source of Euroscepticism for decades. The British media market has been dominated by Eurosceptic headlines and attitudes, frequently raising the debate of national sovereignty, as well as having less knowledge about European integration. Among member states, the level of EU support is lowest in the UK in which its citizens are not interested in European projects and barely feel a sense of European identity or belonging to the community.
As suggested by Integration theories, regional integration is an irreversible process because it involves voluntary supranational commitment as well as high degrees of institutional arrangements and interdependency. This is particularly more obvious when considering the implementation of single currency and supranational foreign policy. Beyond this theoretical perspective, only a few scholars have tried to look at the consequences of European disintegration. It is among one of the least studied areas in political science and it undoubtedly requires interdisciplinary and overarching understanding. However, in the view of author, the case of Brexit can provide some perceptive insights for a general audience as well as countries involving in integrating regions.
Firstly, the case of Brexit has prompted researchers and investigators to question the role of mainstream media, how well-informed are citizens about pros and cons of European integration and how the scheme works. Before the referendum, the British media was poor at informing the voting citizens and balancing the content in mainstream media. Recently, Google revealed that “What is the EU?” was the top question in the UK both before and after the result of referendum was confirmed (http://www.m2now.co.nz/13-what-was-the-british-medias-role-in-the-brexit-referendum/). Another good example could be that before the referendum the Leave campaigner’s catchphrase about “taking back control” resonated more strongly in British society, compared to the Remains’ one. Depressingly, in this kind of situation, people need to be given the facts, the arguments or, if possible, the results from a dedicated research project, not slogans or PR. Perhaps, British media’s biased attitude towards the European Union is actually the one to blame. Throughout the history of 40 years within the union, the British media has published numerous lies, half-truths, misleading stories and misunderstandings in order to persuade the public, ranging from “the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned).” – see the Economist for details (www.economist.com/node/21700849)
Secondly, the Brexit campaigners failed to present a clear and decisive plan of what to do next to the public. Soon after the result was confirmed, the country was largely mute and no one was capable of stepping forward to offer proposals, setting out a path or ensuring the Leave voters that we all can get through it. Moreover, all the figureheads of Brexit campaign did not think it was their responsibility and just walked away like rats fleeing a sinking ship. According to Mr. Jean-Claude Junker, president of the European Commission, “the Brexit heroes of yesterday are now the sad heroes of today”. This is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes made in British history. Instead of rushing forward to the referendum, talks should have been held between British and EU leaders and technocrats to discuss a viable framework or to depict the future of Britain after Brexit as well as other substantial details, such as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The final lesson to be learned is the notion that people should not trust politicians, celebrities and ordinary common sense but experts. In this case, it may also include some biased unprofessional journalists. According to a YouGov poll before the referendum, Remain voters were far more trusting in academics, while the majority of Leave voters mistrusted experts on whether or not to leave the EU, reflecting another clash between academics and politicians. Fundamentally, experts and academics offer research-based evidences to back their arguments, while politicians are imagining things. It is surprising that the UK is among the world’s education hubs containing a lot of world class universities and scholars, but what has happened so far is a reflection of a triumph of passion over rationality. And now they were betrayed by politicians.
On the whole, though lawyers claim that the Brexit vote is not legally binding and not a formal process of withdrawal from the European Union, but “Brexit means Brexit” as stated by Theresa May, the newly-appointed leading Brexit campaigner. For the next decade, Britain would rely on its future relationship with the European Union and negotiations for striking a good deal from the European market as well as new non-European trading partners, however desirable outcome cannot be guaranteed. This is not in the 1950s when national sovereignty and past supremacy were prevailed. Rather, it is a decade of cooperation and tiding over the influence of globalization. Unfortunately, despite the mounting economic consequences of disintegration, the new government also has to deal with racist attacks on immigrants, calls for a second Scottish independence referendum, the Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the deep division within British society. They surely have got a lot to do.
Dr. Pattharapong Rattanasevee is a lecturer at Burapha University, Chonburi, Thailand.