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Britain is leaving the EU: What happens next?

Bruce Newsome, Lecturer in International Relations | June 24, 2016

The British voted on 23 June to leave the European Union (EU). The result was confirmed early in the morning of 24 June, British time. What happens next? I have the following ten forecasts and predictions:

Britain will leave the EU
Don’t be in any doubt, Britain will leave the EU. The result is decisive and binding: 52 percent of voters chose to leave, 48 percent chose to remain, which over-states British satisfaction with the EU. The current political administration, the Conservative Party, was elected a year ago with 36 percent of the vote. Yesterday the turnout was huge: 72 percent, larger than any national vote since 1992, larger than the most recent national referendum, which took place in May 2011 and involved changing the voting system.
The referendum was set up as a binding popular vote, and the prime minister has confirmed his respect for the popular decision this morning, as has every other major party leader.
Opponents will undermine the British choice
Others than the prime minister have already claimed that the majority was corrupted by other issues, but they are conflating the issues to which they want to pivot. For instance, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said after the ballots were counted that the vote was against government austerity. Former party leader Tony Blair and allies have blamed Corbyn. The Corbyn-supporting Guardian newspaper has blamed the “dispossessed.” On the other side of the political spectrum, The Economist magazine characterized the vote as an “outpouring of fury against the establishment.”
BrexitBlowingFlag-750In reality, the majority cannot be dismissed so partisanly. The voters were not confused by the question or other elections: no other questions were asked, and no other elections were held. The electorate was engaged and attended: over the last few weeks, British television and radio stations have hosted huge live debates, at a frequency and size never before seen in a British political campaign, as British politicians traditionally eschew live debates outside of Parliament. All three main parties campaigned to remain, and the government utilized its own capacity in the campaign to remain, despite complaints that this was unfair.
The question was biased against Brexit, since respondents naturally prefer to be affirmative and to stick with the status quo, particularly in a society where anti-EU sentiments have been caricatured as racist. The proportion who chose to leave is a huge under-count of British dissatisfaction with the EU, since surveys showed that a larger proportion of Britons wanted to reform the EU, but were unwilling to give up the free trade area, or were scared by the warnings of economic collapse if they voted to leave, or were confused by the many issues raised.
The British executive will change soon
Prime Minister David Cameron had said after the last general election in May 2015 that he would not stand as prime minister at the next general election. When he announced this referendum in May, he gambled his political legacy and the life of his premiership: he hoped to win this referendum, and use this win as a mandate to extend his premiership as long as the constitution allows – up to May 2020.
Given the results of the referendum, his reputation for astute understanding of British views is broken: in his first public statement this morning, he said he would remain only weeks or months, long enough to find a successor to start the negotiations for Britain’s exit, without him.
The next prime minister will be more Eurosceptic. The prime minister has said that his successor must be suitable to oversee Britain’s exit. Before the Brexit vote, the best-placed successor was Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the finance minister who is traditionally the second most powerful member of the government and first in line to succeed the prime minister. Osborne had spoken vociferously about the economic risks of leaving the EU – his credibility is shot. He was never popular: Conservatives doubted his charisma to lead the party and the country, while opposition parties characterized him as the “austerity chancellor” for cutting public spending since Britain’s recession of 2008-2009.
The minority of Cameron’s cabinet who rebelled against him by campaigning to Brexit are now well-placed to lead. The most popular Brexiteer is Boris Johnson, who used his post as mayor of London to transform himself from a bumbling elitist to a principled leader of the ignored majority, and who manages to gain support across the social classes.
The best placed Cabinet member who campaigned to remain is the home secretary, Theresa May, widely regarded as Eurosceptic, chose to align with the prime minister on this referendum, although she barely campaigned. She will now try to present herself as sufficiently Eurosceptic to negotiate Brexit, while talking up her loyalty to her leader, without coming across as disloyal to Euroscepticism.
Britain will hold its next general election early
A change of British prime minister does not need to involve a general election. Cameron’s successor within his own party must hope to demonstrate some administrative credibility before calling an early general election in order to confirm it. Presumably that administrative credibility must involve the completion of the process of Brexit, which will take around two years. The British constitution allows up to five years between general elections, so the next general election must occur within less than four years from now). I forecast that it will happen in about two years.

The economy won’t collapse

The value of pound sterling fell strongly overnight on foreign markets, but will rebound.

Part of this fall is a self-fulfilling prophecy by the chancellor, who warned that the British economy, family wealthpensions, house prices, and public spending would collapse the morning after a vote to leave. Financial markets effectively bet against a Brexit, so must naturally adjust quickly. The prime minister spoke to reassure the markets after the votes were counted, reminding people that nothing will change in how Britain trades for years.

One benefit of the weaker pound is cheaper British exports, which will help to correct the imbalance in Britain’s trade with the EU. Additionally, British businesses will rush to expand their opportunities in the rest of the world.

Britain will remain in the European free trade area

Norway, Iceland and Switzerland already are members of the free trade area, without being members of the political union. Brexiteers repeatedly pointed to these countries as inspirations for the sort of relationship with the EU that they would prefer. Britons voted to join the free trade area in 1975, in their first chance to vote on supranational membership. The United Kingdom Independence Party always campaigned for Britain’s return to a free trade area without the political union. UKIP leader Nigel Farage said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that he looks forward to Britain’s exit from the EU while retaining access to the free trade area.

Too many commentators mischaracterized Brexiteers as opposed to free trade or globalization, or as selfish rebels against personal failure to gain economically, but Brexiteers campaigned for Britain to negotiate free-er trade with the rest of the world, which the EU forbade, while surveys showed that a large majority of Britons wanted to remain in the free trade area, even if they wanted to leave the EU.

EU’s directive to “ever closer union” will stop, may reverse

The EU was failing before this referendum: it was weakened most dramatically in the last couple years by its own failings to control risks arising from Russian aggression and uncontrolled migrations. But the trends against the EU are longer term, since the EU became effective in the 1990s, with such fanfare but so little substantive commitment to resolve the fundamental problems of democratic deficit, political under-accountability, and accelerating social destabilization.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center found that only about half of Europeans across all 28 members want to remain in the EU. Many countries have larger majorities in favor of exiting – including founder-state France (61 percent) – not just disaffected failures such as Greece (71 percent). More than twice as many Europeans want powers returned to national governments than want to give more powers to the EU. Austria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and others have parties in government that are committed to national referenda. More referenda will happen; more members may exit.

The EU may survive, but its directive towards an “ever closer union” is over; it will talk more seriously about reform, which may stabilize it in its present form, but the union has peaked. Britons have made clear the reality that most European leaders chose to ignore: most Europeans want a free trade area, but they don’t want a closer political union.

United Kingdom nations will devolve further

The last referendum, in September 2014, decisively defeated the Scottish nationalists, when 55 percent of Scots voted against leaving the United Kingdom, but Scottish Nationalists successfully pointed out that Scots were alarmed by fear-mongering about Scotland’s economic prospects, while their nationalism remained strong. In the general election in May 2015, Scottish Nationalists took most Scottish seats in Parliament with a manifesto to hold another referendum. All Scottish districts voted to remain in the EU, while the vast majority of English and Welsh districts voted to leave, although these districts are irrelevant in any referendum except for administering the count.

Scottish Nationalists confirmed the day after the Brexit vote that they think this result proves Scotland’s want of another referendum on separation from Britain. The British government may grant more powers to the Scottish parliament, as it did before the last Scottish referendum to buy more votes to remain. But more devolution to Scotland will encourage more English demands for their own parliament: Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures, but England does not. Irish nationalists (Sinn Fein) have already said that the result justifies their calls for a union of Northern Ireland with Eire, but the loyalist districts of Northern Ireland strongly voted to exit the EU.

Political science must admit repeated failings 

British political scientists consistently erroneously forecasted the last general election of May 2015, mostly forecasting a strong victory for the Labour Party, even given exit polls on the day, but the Conservative Party won. They did not foreseet the strong vote to remain in the Scottish referendum on Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom. Similarly, in the months before this referendum on the EU, most British political scientists and pollsters forecasted a vote to remain – even late last night. Worse, British political scientific commentators, like too many of my American colleagues, have mis-characterized the electorate – reducing voters to selfish economic interests and nationalist prejudices that do not empirically or ethically represent tens of millions of people.

We should also consider the woeful state of European studies in America.