For a European expat living in London, Brexit is a touchy subject. Not only because of the complexity of the topic, but also because it is a geopolitical issue that has a direct and very tangible impact on my personal and professional life. However, the intricate melodrama of Brexit is also an extremely interesting political subject that offers a glimpse on what happens when populism, national interests, direct democracy and technopolitics collide.
The last few weeks have been dominated by the attempt of Boris Johnson to push a last minute No Deal through Parliament by the deadline of 31st October – via highly questionable and potentially unconstitutional loopholes. How did we get to this and can we attempt to predict the long-term geopolitical implications?
Brexit was born out of political opportunism and it is likely to lead to the end of the bipolarism that has traditionally dominated UK politics. The 2016 referendum was a desperate attempt of the Conservative Party to lure back the most right-wing voters, in a context where the UKIP was growing at a tremendous rate. Cameron never really wanted to leave the EU, and what he failed to anticipate was the toxic combination of social distress (the woodchips), lack of trust in traditional politics (the fire) and the impact that highly targeted social media comms can have on the most vulnerable part of the population (the fuel), which led to the unwanted result. It is now common knowledge that the Brexit referendum was a testing ground for controversial data companies (amongst which, Cambridge Analytica of course) to then successfully influence the US presidential elections only a few months later.
Regardless of the political propaganda and whether we like it or not, there is a clear democratic majority to leave the EU. What is lacking is a majority to decide exactly how to leave the EU, and after two and half years of negotiations nothing has been narrowed down yet. Two are the main obstacles: the trading agreement between the UK and the EU and the Irish Border. Unfortunately, these two issues are interlinked and almost impossible to untangle. Most interestingly, while the EU seems aligned in its position on both subjects, the UK is not – what is missing is a clear understanding of what the UK actually wants from Brexit.
With the deadline of 31st of October quickly approaching, anticipating the immediate outcome is difficult – however we can attempt some long-term geopolitical analysis.
Finding a last minute deal seems the most reasonable scenario. This will be in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement that Theresa May failed to take through to the Parliament, or a similar version to it. There is a vested interest in both parties to find a friendly deal: the UK wants and needs to keep trading with the EU, especially in a world where the US empire is not as strong as it used to be and where China’s economy is slowing down; for the EU too, a deal would help facilitate a profitable relationship. Most importantly for Europe, a clear message has been already sent to the other single-market countries – leaving is painful, messy and expensive.
Finding a deal however will be very hard, and with unintended nasty long-term implications. It will force the UK to heavily compromise on its position with the EU and it will require Boris Johnson to postpone the leave date again (which may result in new elections with uncertain results). Moreover, if we end up with a particularly ‘soft’ Brexit this would play into the hand of Eurosceptic parties, revitalised by the narrative that it is never really possible to get out of the EU completely.
Credits: James Claffey
The UK will have to compromise as the EU won’t - what is at stake for them is far greater. Ever since it was still in the proto-form of European Coal and Steel Community, Europe was highly successful in achieving three key objectives: offering an antidote to extreme nationalism in the aftermath of the Second World War, guaranteeing decades of peace within the continent (mainly by providing a buffer between France and Germany) and driving economic growth. For the two main beneficiaries of this pact - France and Germany – a hard Brexit and its impact on the UK economy is something they may be willing to accept. What is not acceptable is a threat to the existence of the EU through compromise and through making a full “Leave” an easy option to other markets.
Economic turmoil, and more likely a recession, is the most probable immediate outcome of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. More importantly, this outcome may also lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Over the last two decades there has been a synergy of economic interests between England, Northern Ireland and Scotland; a No Deal scenario will put that into question, sparking a new referendum in Scotland (this time, with a different outcome to the one of 2011) and leading to new tensions in Northern Ireland.
The last scenario calls for a cancellation of Brexit through another popular referendum. While this may sound appealing - especially to a European expat like myself - the long-term consequences would be disastrous. At the very least, it will wipe out the Conservative Party and plunge the UK into years of social unrest caused by a class war between Europeists and Hard Leavers. Most importantly, it will lead to the sudden and sharp growth of nationalist and ultra-nationalist movements which will come together in the name of a “betrayal of democracy”. Revitalised by the Brexit cancellation and capitalising on the subsequent widespread social angst, a fully-fledged populist, nationalist and anti-EU party may end up winning the elections. It is hard to predict what may happen then, but the results may be deeply worrying. What is certain is that another Brexit referendum would then be the first item on the new Government’s agenda. We have gone full circle.
In a nutshell, no scenario is a positive scenario at this stage. What we can do is brace for the impact and hope that Brexit will not lead to the entire dissolution of Europe. While reforms are desperately needed to end the EU crisis, a world without Europe may open a Pandora’s Box and plunge us into deeply unstable times that we should hope to have left behind.