Back in the 1930s, a British newspaper ran the headline “Fog on the Channel, Continent Cut Off”. This demonstration of the UK view of the world neatly sums up why I have been so worried about Thursday’s referendum ever since David Cameron announced his intention to hold it. The headline is telling, of course, because the British view was never that Britain, the island on the Western periphery of Europe might be isolated from the mainland. No, the view was that those unfortunate Europeans would be cut off from the all-powerful, all-important United Kingdom.
This outlook explains why the UK has always been an uneasy partner in the European Union. Our British neighbours, having dominated global trade, economics and politics for centuries, simply found it impossible to reconcile their former global dominance in the days of the Empire, with the sort of concessions and partnership that were necessary to underpin the European Project. It is a project, incidentally, which is all about embedding peace, opportunity and prosperity across Europe. You might easily forget that these days given the lies, dishonesty and fabrication which we have been treated to by Leave campaigners, not just in recent months, but over the past few decades.
As of yesterday, the hateful, insular, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric of condescending superiority has won out in the UK. Those of us who believe in the ideals of peace building and partnership in Europe are supposed to “respect” the referendum result and to somehow embrace this as an expression of pure democracy. But it is not. It is an expression of insularity, of the triumph of suspicion and hate over collaboration and cooperation and an expression of the victory of naked untruths and feverish emotion over facts and rationality. During the campaign Michael Gove said the British people are “sick of listening to experts”, as if a move to anti-intellectualism is a good thing. I am not aware of any period in global history when heated emotion, dangerous rhetoric and a rejection of well thought out rational arguments have led to anything other than destruction, chaos and suffering for human beings.
The fallout from Brexit will be immense and jeopardises everything good we have achieved in Europe over the past 60 years. Brexiteers like to think this will lead to a domino effect across the Union, bringing down the carefully constructed architecture which has bound us together for decades. Sadly, they might very well be right. This is bad news for everyone.
There are of course the economic implications for the UK, for Ireland, for the rest of the EU and for the world. We have already had a flavour of this in the past 24 hours with sterling plummeting and the markets in disarray. Financial services companies in London, the lifeblood of the British economy, are already looking at alternative EU destinations to relocate. The lies of the Exit campaign are already being laid bare. They told the British people they would save billions of euros in membership fees to the EU – but yesterday, in the space of ten minutes £120 billion was erased off the FTSE 100, far more than the UK would pay in membership fees in a seven-year budget cycle.
More profound are the long term political consequences. There has been much analysis and speculation about contagion – the likelihood of other countries wanting to leave the EU in the medium term. The common view is that other EU countries will try to punish the UK for exiting. It is assumed that a bad deal will be negotiated in order to punish and make an example of the United Kingdom. Frankly, I think this is an irrelevant issue. The spill-over from Brexit is unstoppable and will disrupt the status quo in Europe without a doubt – whether the UK is seen to be ‘punished’ or not. Populist politicians all over Europe have seen the potential to disrupt and destroy. This is what they feed off electorally – it is like a drug. They will seek out opportunities to introduce similar referenda in other EU States and I believe they have a relatively easy task in succeeding.
Any number of Member States – France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland and even Germany – face extremist, anti-immigrant, anti-European movements which could in time trigger referendums and ultimately vote to leave the EU. This may be a worst case scenario – but then so was Brexit, until yesterday. It is very difficult to see how the centre can hold in the absence of strong leadership within the EU.
There is and will continue to be a chorus from the media demanding leadership from within the European institutions, but in reality, this political leadership must come from the European capitals. Eurosceptics always have us believe that Europe is run by “Faceless Bureaucrats”. I have spent a long time working with all of the EU institutions, both as a parliamentarian and a Minister and the reality is that the European bureaucracy really takes its lead from Member State Heads of State and Government. The Council is where the political decisions and direction are set out to a very large degree. This is where the political power exists. The problem is that leadership has not been forthcoming from the member states for quite some time and the UK is guiltier in this regard than any other Member State.
The only way to save Europe now, is for strong visionary leaders to emerge within the Council, representing all Member States, in particular the larger ones. The sort of leadership that is required would be bold, courageous and prepared to stand up to Eurosceptic populists. It would challenge their lies and inspire European citizens to once again believe in the values and common purpose of European countries working together – acknowledging that yes there will be sacrifices, but that the overall reward is so great it will be worth it. Sadly, I do not see this leadership emerging. Instead I see Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, the hard right ‘Alternativ Fur Deutschland’ in Germany, the Austrian Freedom Party, Syriza in Greece, the Law and Justice Party in Poland and so on.
It is hard to be optimistic for the UK or Europe in light of Brexit. It is a stark manifestation of the breakdown in the European ideal of cooperation and partnership which emerged from the ashes of World War 2. We are in for turbulent times ahead, characterised by suspicion, paranoia, inward nationalism, jingoism and extreme political dishonesty. A fog has surely descended and it is difficult to imagine a bright future beyond it.