By Nathan Baumgartner
For a majority of people living in the United States, June 23 2016 went on like an average day: we went about it like any other Thursday. In the United Kingdom, however, the story went quite differently, with a unique referendum held to determine the future of its people through one question: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or not? During my lunch break at work, I remember constantly being on my phone to measure the expected results from constituency to constituency. For a majority of constituencies, it was expected that the vote to remain in the European Union would win, if just by a small percentage of votes. I went to sleep thinking that I would wake up with news that citizens of the United Kingdom voted to remain in the European Union.
However, on June 24 2016, the result had become clear: with a voter turnout of 72 percent, and 52 percent of those voting to leave and 48 percent voting to remain, the United Kingdom has the right to leave the European Union. The effects of such a vote were just as tremendous and unexpected, if not because many people expected the United Kingdom to stay within the European Union. Within a matter of days, the British pound fell to a thirty-three year low. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister. Nigel Farage resigned as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the party which religiously campaigned for such a referendum, leaving a huge mess for everyone else to clean up. Controversies surrounding the fates of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar – all of which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union – have only begun.
There seems to be no end as to the fates of these three entities: Should Northern Ireland attempt to become a part of the Republic of Ireland to its south, which is still a member state of the European Union, and potentially renew The Troubles, a period of heightened tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland over affiliations with the United Kingdom? Should Scotland pursue independence and effectively pick back up where the United Kingdom left off and potentially integrate more than the United Kingdom ever did? Should Gibraltar become a part of Spain, as its support for continued involvement was the highest expressed as a percentage? We are left with a plethora of questions, but not nearly as many answers.
It remains clear that multilateralism remains the best option for all states involved, especially the United Kingdom, whose potential departure from the European Single Market will likely complicate business relations between the United Kingdom and its European market. London’s economy overwhelmingly relies upon the financial and business sectors, so it should come to no surprise that London voted to remain a part of the European Union. In other parts of the United Kingdom, such a reliance on the European Union for continued economic success is not directly felt. Take into consideration the constituency of Boston, where over three-quarters of the population voted to depart from the European Union. Various news sources from inside the UK and out have described it as a “sleepy market town” where “not much happens.” Yet it has also received a tremendous growth in immigration from European Union member states – a 400-percent growth from 2004 to 2014 – and the backlash has been tremendous, with much of the elderly being born in the United Kingdom and an increasing amount of younger generations having ancestry from the European Union, in particular member states like Poland and Lithuania. This can generate tensions between different identities, and xenophobia has been on the rise in the United Kingdom since the vote to leave the European Union. The United Kingdom garnered the attention of the United Nations, whose High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein issued a statement saying, “I urge the UK authorities to act to stop these xenophobic attacks and to ensure that all those suspected of racist and anti-foreigner attacks and abuses are prosecuted.” As a result, it can clearly be seen that leaving the European Union was not just about allegedly-practical reasons like gaining back over £350 million for the National Health Service. It was about the idea that the United Kingdom somehow remained better than the rest of Europe. It was about the idea of driving out people who supposedly lacked a “British” identity. It was about the idea of “taking our country back” from “oppressors” and “foreigners” who “refuse” to accept some notion of “British” culture.
It was effectively about xenophobia, at least to a limited extent.
It also remains clear that a full federal Europe – something analogous to the United States of Europe – cannot be achieved, at least for the time being. There are limits to Europeanization, and sovereignty remains a necessity for many Europeans skeptical of continued efforts to push social, economic and political integration. Despite the general benefits to supranationalism in certain respects, such as economic cohesion as evidenced through the Eurozone and the Common Market, there also exist benefits to keeping aspects of the European Union located within individual member states. This concept of subsidiarity was cemented into the European Union with the Maastricht Treaty, regarded as one of the most controversial treaties to be drafted within the context of the European Union because it added so much, from a Common Foreign and Security Policy to what would eventually become the Eurozone. This made Farage angry, and therefore UKIP, and therefore people who could not – or would not – take into consideration that the European Union was not completely depriving people of their freedoms, but making attempts to further them.
But what about the twenty-eight percent of eligible voters who didn’t vote? Did they just not care? Did they not have the time? Did they lack the effort to go to a polling station? Again, here we have another set of many questions with the lack to answer them all. What we do have are various surveys which indicated that, of people ages 18-24, 75 percent of people voted to remain in the United Kingdom. But what about people immediately under that age bracket? The support for remaining in the European Union was even higher, with people talking about losing opportunities to study abroad with relative ease through the Erasmus Programme and losing opportunities to freely move around the European Union and now lacking the ability to freely work in European Union member states. The lost potential for younger generations is extraordinarily high: as one 20-year-old from West Sussex put it, “A leave result means more anxiety for me, more instability to navigate and try to understand.” For someone whose life has effectively taken place within the United Kingdom and not the European Union – as is the case with many British people of older generations – the benefits to membership in the European Union may not be clear. But when someone talks about “sovereignty” and “winning,” leaving the European Union sounds attractive. It would be incredibly easy to tell the older generations to “do their homework” before leaving to go to the polls. But something must also be done to encourage younger generations to vote, especially when it can be an annoying process to go through the paperwork necessary to cast a mail-in vote. To a certain point, political participation seems infeasible, if not unnecessary, for younger generations because of the increased time commitment necessary to do so. To a certain extent, a lack of political participation among younger people contributed to the Leave vote, yet the younger generations will have to deal with the fallout for a longer period of time when compared to their older counterparts.
But through voting to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom voted to leave what essentially held them together. I have no doubts that Scotland will pursue independence, though it will not happen right away because of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to pursue other alternatives to enjoying a cordial relationship with the European Union as well as one with the United Kingdom. But Scotland will get tired and restless of feeling underrepresented – if even represented at all – in Westminster. Gibraltar will turn to Spain, as all important political parties in Gibraltar clearly have expressed support for staying in the European Union, the sentiments of which have been matched by the populace there. Northern Ireland will become the messiest of them all: unification of Ireland still remains a contentious issue, and it likely will not be resolved soon. But why does Farage care? He’s not involved in politics anymore, and yet has some degree of responsibility to effectively creating chasms in British society.
What will happen next? Stay tuned because history could repeat itself right outside your front door.