The United Kingdom referendum on whether to withdraw or not from the European Union resulted in 52% of the voting population deciding to ‘Leave’. The resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and the collapse of the pound sterling were immediate consequences of a ‘Leave’ campaign grounded on numerous lies and already, as the days after the result proved, a number of broken campaign promises. The referendum results were received enthusiastically among far-right nationalist politicians in other countries, despite the fact that profound splits within the UK (i.e., in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London) were also made evident immediately afterward.
The Brexit referendum and day after
United Kingdom (UK) voted in a referendum that would determine whether or not the state left the European Union (EU) on 23rd June, 2016. The ‘United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union’ referendum, better known as the British Exit (Brexit), had 52% of the voting population cast ‘Leave’ votes and 48% vote ‘Remain’. The result – that the UK voted and decided against continuing to be a member state of the EU – stunned the world, but it also stunned British politicians and citizens, despite the fact that it was one of the two only possible results. The very next day, David Cameron announced that he was resigning as Prime Minister and that his successor should be chosen by October 2016 at the latest.
To be clear, Cameron had offered the referendum in 2013 as a demagogic strategy to appease an ever-stronger anti-EU faction within his Conservative Party as well as to ensure his reelection with the support of mostly conservative, older, anti-EU voters at the time. The reactions of the referendum were immediate and demoralized even those that voted to leave the EU: the pound sterling collapsed to its lowest price in 31 years, and the stock and other markets were hit hard not only in the UK, but in nearby Europe and distant Japan. The Bank of England had already warned – during the campaigning for and against EU membership – that a recession could and can occur after a ‘Leave’ result.
Despite the referendum results, leaving the EU is not immediate. Besides the fact that the UK must follow its own national requirements first before it activates Article 50 of the European Treaty in order to inform the EU of its intentions. Negotiations will then determine the exact details of the withdrawal and the terms that will define the future relation between the EU and the UK. These negotiations could last up to two years. Once concluded, the European Council must then vote with an approval from 20 of the now 27 members states on the details and terms mentioned. If the EU and the UK reach no agreement, the latter can leave the former without it – and, as a consequence, be excluded from access to the European market. That would require, in turn, that the UK decide whether it would join the European Economic Area (EEA) in similar terms to other non-EU states (i.e., Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway).
A web of lies
Only hours after the results were announced, Nigel Farage, leader of the provocatively-named called UK Independence Party (UKIP) – an anti-EU, far-right, nationalist, and populist party that campaigned avidly for the ‘Leave ‘vote – started breaking earlier campaign promises. The UK Statistics Authority had refuted a claim by the ‘Leave’ campaign that the UK paid 350 million pounds every week to the EU repeatedly. The campaign in question had guaranteed that this figure would be spent on the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s state-funded health care services. However, when Farage was asked about the promise immediately after the vote, he dismissed it as “a mistake” and explained that it would not happen, adding that he had never made the promise himself. A poll indicates that more than half of the UK voting population had taken the figure and the promise to be true during the campaign. A video from a BBC show evidences that Farage promised exactly what he denied later: there is no doubt that he lied not only once, but twice, regarding the NHS promise.
The ‘Leave’ campaign also promised that voting for Brexit would lead to a significant reduction of immigration in the UK. After the result, however, politicians related to the campaign have stated that immigration “could remain unchanged” despite the referendum and regardless of whether the UK withdraws from the EU. Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and also a member of the Conservative Party, campaigned strongly for the ‘Leave’ vote. After the results, Johnson stated that he did not believe “anxieties about immigration” informed the opinions and reasons of the voting population who decided for Brexit. The fact that ‘Leave’ campaign posters showed refugees crossing the border of Croatia from Slovenia, with ‘Breaking Point’ and ‘The EU has failed us’ written on them, evidencing that anti-immigration and anti-asylum sentiments part of the nature of the campaign in favor of leaving the EU.
Furthermore, vocally anti-immigration politicians in other countries have quickly shown their approval of referendum results, evidencing that Johnson couldn’t truly be unaware of this aspect of the ‘Leave’ campaign and its supporters’ motivations. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom – an anti-EU, far-right, nationalist, and populist party in the Netherlands – and who leads opinion polls for becoming the country’s prime minister next year, declared that were he to be elected, he will also offer a referendum to leave the EU. Donald Trump, US presidential candidate for the Republican Party, was in Scotland reopening a golf resort the morning that the results were announced, and stated that the UK’s vote to withdraw from the EU was “a great thing”.
Facts such as that the UK has no legal requirement to take in a “quota” of refugees, no matter what EU relocation policies are decided upon, because EU laws on refugee asylum and border controls do not apply to the UK, exceptionally, unless it opts in to them, was conveniently ignored by the ‘Leave’ campaign.
A disunited kingdom
No matter than the institutional and formal activation of Article 50 is pending, the referendum results have already left the UK divided. Gibraltar and Scotland, where 96% and 62% of the voting population was in favor of the ‘Remain’ campaign, have started talks to determine how they can remain within the EU. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, visited Brussels in order to meet in person with EU officials and explained that both attempting to block the necessary legislation for the UK to leave the EU and a new independence referendum are options that the Scottish parliament can consider.
Northern Ireland, where 56% of the voting population were in favor of the ‘Remain’ campaign, has found its politicians at a crossroads on whether a border poll on the reunification of Ireland should be offered or not. Were the UK to leave the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be a stark reminder of the political reality of their division.
London, where almost 60% of the voting population was in favor of the ‘Remain’ campaign and where the vote to stay within the EU was more than 70% in some boroughs, saw tens of thousands of people marching in its streets and protesting against the referendum results.
The opposition Labour party is also divided as a result of its inability to have secured the victory of the ‘Remain’ vote. Jeremy Corbyn, chosen as the party’s leader by its members, has faced the resignation of the majority of his Shadow Cabinet and a motion of no confidence. Corbyn has rejected the call for his resignation because the motion is not legally binding, although only 40 Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) supported him against the 172 MPs who are against his continued leadership. Corbyn argues that since the party elects its leader – not the MPs – he will continue as such. It is important to note than more than 100000 people have become members of the Labour party after the revolt, which amounts to the largest membership spike of any political party in British history.
Miguelángel Verde Garrido is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Global Politics (GSGP) at Freie Universität Berlin. The original article was published as part of the Blog Series of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics on the 6th July 2016. The views expressed are those of the author, unless stated otherwise.