By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Monday, June 27 2016
Beirut -- To say the political establishment in the U.K. has been rocked to its foundations by last week’s historic vote to leave the European Union is, for once, an understatement. The shocked reactions of leaders around the world reveal that most have not yet fully absorbed what has happened. They are not alone. Neither have the U.K.’s political leaders.
The U.K. voted to withdraw from the EU by a narrow margin. Leave won the referendum with 51.9 percent of the vote, while Remain finished on 48.1 percent. The turnout was 72 percent. It’s interesting to note that roughly 75 percent of the U.K.’s over-65s voted Leave, while a similar number of under-25s voted Remain. A clear case of the old deciding the future of the young. Whether older heads are wiser remains to be seen, but I have my doubts.
As a long-standing Euroskeptic I have many misgivings about the EU: There is its lack of political accountability, its wasteful bureaucracy and idiotic regulations, its diktats and increasing centralizing tendencies. The EU is an open goal when it comes to its shortcomings. But the EU debate, while masquerading as an argument about economics and sovereignty, was really about immigration. There was a pikestaff link between hostility to immigration and support for the Leave campaign, the so-called Brexit vote.
Over the last 20 years, the foreign-born population of the U.K. has increased from around 3.8 million to 8.3 million. Brexit campaigners were quick to blame immigrants for increased pressure on schools, hospitals and housing and promised tighter immigration controls and that money the U.K. currently sends to Brussels would instead be used to relieve this pressure.
But since winning the vote Leave campaigners have spent the weekend insisting they never promised there would be a decline in immigration, and have now said it was a mistake to tell voters there would be more money for the U.K.’s state-run health system.
Meanwhile the mayor of Calais demanded France scrap the 2003 Touquet agreement, which keeps thousands of asylum-seekers on the French side of the Channel Tunnel, living in the notorious “Jungle,” the name given to the makeshift camps that have developed around the tunnel.
Calais is just part of a far wider refugee crisis across Europe, which has been grappling with its biggest influx of asylum-seekers since World War II, as people flee conflict-ridden zones in the Middle East, and Africa. It is this crisis, even more than the 2008 financial crisis, which has done the most to destabilize the European project, and secured the Leave vote.
The dodgy deal the EU brokered with Turkey to lock Middle East refugees outside Europe’s borders, a bribe predicated on allowing Turks visa-free travel across the EU, was used as a stick to beat the Remain camp as Leave campaigners noisily shouted about millions of Turks flooding into the U.K.
The European issue has now accounted for the scalps of three British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and now David Cameron, who announced his resignation Friday. All three were leaders of the right-wing Conservative Party, which in the last 30 years has been bitterly divided over Britain’s role in Europe.
However, in the aftershocks of last week’s historic vote, the ghosts of the left-wing Labour party’s own Euroskepticism, which had been dormant for almost four decades, have come back to haunt them.
Yesterday Hilary Benn, a leading pro-EU Labour politician and the party’s foreign policy spokesperson, was unceremoniously sacked by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for criticizing the leader’s lackluster support for the Remain campaign. Ironically, Corbyn’s political hero was Benn’s father, the left-wing and anti-EU politician Tony Benn. Following Benn’s sacking, half of Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet quit and demanded he stand down as Labour leader.
In the vacuum of leadership since the vote, the unity of the entire U.K. looks under threat. Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the ruling party in Scotland, where people voted to remain in the EU by a wide margin, has called for a second referendum on Scottish independence, enabling Scots to break away from the U.K. and remain in the EU. The Brexit vote has even led to calls for a referendum that would effectively unite Ireland and Northern Ireland to enable the latter to remain in the EU.
Modern British politics hasn’t been enveloped by such chaos since the Suez crisis.
More importantly for the Middle East is the impact the U.K.’s withdrawal could have on the EU’s role in the Middle East.
The domino effect of Brexit could see other Euroskeptic member states, most notably Denmark, but also more recent complainers, such as the Netherlands, forced into calling their own referendums on EU membership. Geert Wilders, head of the Netherlands’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom gleefully said: “The Europhile elite has been defeated.” French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the vote a “victory for freedom.”
A weaker EU means its long-aspired role as a counterpoise to U.S. power in the Middle East will be firmly placed on the back burner. The EU played a leading role in brokering the deal that saw Iran curb its nuclear program. Within the so-called Union for the Mediterranean it has also created myriad trade deals with Middle East states, and funds projects linked to the beleaguered Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A disunited EU, distracted by both negotiating the U.K.’s withdrawal and holding the ring with other potentially recalcitrant members, will clearly lack the clout and inclination to carry out its admittedly second tier role in the region.
Considering the U.K.’s role as bridgehead into Europe for America, it appears likely that Russia, and indeed Iran, could also increase their influence in the region, particularly in the current situation in Syria.
In terms of the U.K.’s own role in the region, U.K. Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood bullishly insisted it would be business as usual. He said the U.K.’s role in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) and wider Islamic extremism would continue. But in reality, the U.K.’s punching power in global politics has been diminished by last week’s vote.
As for Cameron, by calling for this referendum he blithely sailed his country into choppy waters, crashed it on the rocks and then promptly jumped ship. The referendum, which voters here never demanded, on the U.K.’s membership of the EU, was designed as a tool for Cameron to lever his Euroskeptic party into obedience. The tool broke in his hand when the referendum became a vote about immigration and disenchantment with the nation’s body politic. Somehow, the U.K. feels like a smaller nation this morning.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of THE DAILY STAR on page 7 on Monday June 27 2016.