I must admit that I have been taken by surprise by the ‘sky is falling’ reactions to the vote by the UK to leave the European Union. This is my fault in that I, like so many Americans, wasn’t paying close attention to what was going on in Europe and while it appears that dire warnings about the consequences of leaving were commonplace over there, this news did not really register for me in the days before the vote.
One suspects that the economic impact of a withdrawal will be much larger for the UK than for the EU, since the size of the economy of the former is much smaller than that of the latter, and a useful rule of thumb is that larger institutions can withstand upheavals more easily than smaller ones. The EU can find a new equilibrium fairly easily after the ripple effects of the UK exit subside. This may explain why EU leaders are urging the UK to start the process of leaving soon so that they can return to a new normalcy, while even those British politicians who were so gung-ho about leaving have suddenly become coy about when they will do so.
In the UK, while any economic impact will start to be felt later, there has been considerable immediate political fallout. That prime minister David Cameron has resigned is not a surprise because in the parliamentary system, the prime minister is expected to take responsibility and quit in the event of a major defeat. But what has been surprising is the tumult within the opposition Labour Party, with many members of the shadow cabinet quitting or being fired for plotting against their leader Jeremy Corbyn. These people are calling for Corbyn to resign. Corbyn seems determined to fight them on this even if a secret ballot of party MPs goes against him, and the rank and file who voted him in are rallying to his support.
Why did Labour Party MPs decide that the very moment when the Conservatives were in deep disarray and likely to call for a general election soon was the time to create their own party crisis? It has been no secret that the leftist Corbyn was the choice of the party rank and file but that many Labour MPs are part of the neoliberal establishment that has a strong presence in the US Democratic Party establishment too and they were not happy with his election to the leadership. To choose this moment to launch what seems like a coup against Corbyn seems to suggest that their main goal is to regain control of the party from the insurgent leftists even if it undermines the party’s effort to become the next government.
The other major political fallout in the UK have been the geographical divisions within the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland both voting against withdrawal, the former by a large margin. Those two regions are seeking to find ways to remain in the EU even if England and Wales leave but it is not clear how that could possibly work. There seems to be no precedent for parts of countries to be in the EU. The closest is Greenland which is an “autonomous country within the Danish Realm” (whatever that means) that voted to withdraw from the EU in 1985, while Denmark remains within it.
But Greenland has a tiny population of just over 50,000 people, making it the least densely populated country in the world. It is also isolated and has no land borders with any other country, making it easier to make special accommodations for it. For Scotland to remain in the EU while England leaves would be far more complicated since they are so integrated and share a land border. Would that mean the erection of border checkpoints to impose tariffs and travel restrictions? Such things are not uncommon between different countries but would be highly unusual between two parts of the same nation.
A ‘simpler’ solution would be for Scotland to become an independent nation and there have been calls for a new referendum on that very question. There have also been calls for Northern Ireland to secede from the UK and join up with the Republic of Ireland that is part of the EU but such a move risks opening up bitter old wounds between Protestants (who are the majority in Northern Ireland) and Catholics (who are the majority in Ireland).
John Oliver looks at the possible breakup of the UK.