By Jacqueline S. Gehring
Americans awoke Friday to news of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, with commentators portending that this vote brings the US one step closer to Donald Trump’s presidency. Donald himself proclaimed “I hope America is watching.” Of course, Trump also congratulated the Scottish people for taking “their country back” even though they actually voted to stay in the EU. (If they were voting to take their country back, they would have done so by declaring independence from Britain, not the EU. Hasn’t Trump ever seen Braveheart?)
It is not only Trump, however, who believes that the Brexit vote may predict the American presidential race. A look at today’s media coverage, or the twitter feeds of many American political scientists, show similar fears. At the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum claims Brexit is “a warning to America,” while the New York Times suggests that populist anger driving Trump is also the main driving force of the Brexit vote.
I will not argue here that Brexit does not have supporters who are driven by xenophobia and populism. It certainly does. The British wish to leave the European Union, however, is not an inherently xenophobic or populist wish. Instead, Britain has been ambivalent about the European Union since its founding, when Britain chose not to join. Later, as the British economy struggled, European membership began to look better and better. So much so that they applied to join the EU twice in the 1960s. French President De Gaulle vetoed the British application both times, an experience not easily forgotten by the British. Finally in 1973, Britain joined the European Community (what we now call the European Union). Even at this moment, when Britain had been trying to join the EU for over a decade, there was still significant domestic concern about how membership in Europe might affect British independence, and fear among trade unions that Europe would decrease worker’s protections. These concerns were so significant that Britain held a referendum just two years after joining Europe. With British economy and political power waning, 67% of voters supporting membership because they hoped it would strengthen Britain. It did.
Since that time, although the EU has been a boon for British economic and political influence, there has been a resurgence of anti-EU sentiment in Britain. Much of this has to do with domestic British politics, and divisions within the Conservative party. In many ways, the move towards Brexit shows a failure of political leadership, especially from Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced today that he will soon resign. The suggestion that Britain should leave the EU has been simmering within the Conservative party for decades. And, Britain has successfully used the threat of leaving to exact more and more exceptions from European policy. Although the fact that Britain does not use the Euro, and still maintains border control are well-know, Britain has also negotiated many other ‘opt-outs’ of European rules. Britain is, in many ways, already a less integrated member of the EU.
Furthermore, that fact that the wish to exit the EU is not driven primarily by the current migration crisis or acts of terrorism, is perhaps best illustrated by the polling history on the question. The Financial Times gathered major polling data on Brexit from 2010 to the present. It shows that well before the 2015 migration crisis, or the most recent terror attacks, British people supported Brexit. In addition, the rise and fall of support does not correlate with the major immigration or terror events of the last five and a half years. Brexit may have been pushed somewhat by recently increasing xenophobia or populism, but it is not its primary motivator.
Interestingly, the British that were most likely to vote to stay in Europe–those who have lived in other European countries for a long time–were prevented from doing so by a rule that does not allow British citizens to vote if they have lived outside Britain for more than 15 years. The number of these people, estimated to be over one million, may have swung the vote towards staying in the EU. Thus, the Brexit vote excluded the most European of British citizens, which overly magnified the anti-European voice.
Since it is unlikely Brexit is about Trump or American politics, take a moment to consider who the Brexit vote will affect. First and foremost, those British living and working in other EU member states, as well as EU citizens living and working in Britain will have their lives thrown into uncertainty. The British economy, and its political influence, will most likely suffer greatly The British pound has already experienced a dramatic fall in its value. Leaders in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already suggested that they might seek their independence from Britain. Ireland will likely suffer as well, as Britain is one of their most important trade partners.
It is less clear to me what the impact of Brexit will be on the EU. In many ways, the EU has been in crisis in the last decade. Economically, recovery has come, but slowly. Internally, the EU faces rising anti-European sentiment among right-wing populists (especially in light of increasing migration pressures), and the challenge of governments in Hungary and Poland that are moving away from the core democratic principles of the EU. Externally, the movement of peoples towards Europe, who seek the benefits of European economic stability, and political freedoms, and the resurgence of a militaristic Russia, are forcing Europe to become more politically integrated in order to survive and thrive. Brexit might throw a further wrench in the gears of European integration, may encourage other skeptical countries like Denmark to also hold referendums. On the other hand, Brexit could be an opportunity for Europe to address its image among the far-left and far-right. It could be an opportunity to make a case for its existence by highlighting its significant achievements: the prevention of World War Three on the European continent, and increasing economic and political stability over the post-World War Two period.
Without Britain as a consistent opponent to greater European integration, we might even see a stronger, more robust Europe emerge out of the ashes of Brexit. As Camille Pecastaing argued in his recent Foreign Affairs piece “Please leave,” a Europe free of Britain may be a stronger and more perfect union.
Brexit provides European leaders with an opportunity to truly lead. Only time will tell how they take advantage of this opportunity. Indeed, only time will tell whether or not Britain will really leave the EU. What? Yes. The Brexit referendum is a message to the British government, not an application to Brussels to leave the EU. How will the post-Cameron British government respond? Will negotiations to leave being immediately? Will Britain attempt to gain concessions from the EU in order to hold another referendum about staying or leaving? Only time will tell.
In the end, Brexit is about Britain first, the EU second, and the United States almost not at all. Just as Donald Trump’s rise to political influence is about the United States, our failing political institutions, changing demographics, and lack of real political leadership more than it is about European political machinations.
Jacqueline S. Gehring is associate professor of Political Science at Allegheny College.