How the Brexit will turn Great Britain into Little England

The United Kingdom might still remain a political and economic force to reckon with, but...

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Britain woke up yesterday to the beginning of a prolonged period of uncertainty. Unless it is handled with care and competence it will put the country’s future prosperity, role in the world and prestige under a real danger. By a small margin, but still a quite decisive one, the British people voted to leave the European Union. Winston Churchill is attributed with the quip that “when America sneezes Europe catches the cold." This time it was the British sneeze that immediately shook an already fragile European supranational experiment and the rest of the world’s financial markets. The British currency instantly dropped in value, and even before London’s notorious rush hour started, David Cameron, the British prime minister, fell on his sword and resigned.

The astounding results of the Brexit referendum will be studied for many years to come, as a classic case of a political spin getting out of hand, resulting in disastrous unintended consequences. More than three years ago Mr. Cameron pledged to conduct a European in/out referendum if he were to be re-elected in the next elections. As it happens he won last year’s elections, but now the country lost the European Union. He and his political allies thought they pulled a brilliant political trick to take the sting out of the Eurosceptics venom from within his own Conservative party and from outside it. Behind this apparent ‘grand design’ was a misperception that by avoiding turning the last elections into a mini-referendum on EU membership he would achieve both winning the elections and avoid the dreaded EU exit.

Stage one of this plan –winning the 2015 elections –worked according to plan. However, stage two failed because he overestimated impact of the concessions he could extract from other members of the EU to satisfy the British electorate. He also underestimated the appeal of the Leave campaigners. They aggressively and shamelessly, though effectively, employed the politics of fear, especially vis-à-vis immigration policies to eclipse almost all rational arguments in favour of staying in. Moreover, there was a belief, without any firm evidence, that when push came to shove the majority of the British people would vote to stay in Europe. Last night these misperceptions came crashing down on those who were guided by them.

The United Kingdom might still remain a political and economic force to reckon with, but without its influence from within the European Union it is severely disadvantaged in conducting its foreign policy

Yossi Mekelberg

Now that the campaign is over, the British society is deeply divided between those who are jubilant in the illusory prospect of resuming full sovereignty free of Eurocrats’ shackles, and those who are in a state of shock and despair, fearing for a British decline at home and abroad. It is difficult for me to see how the United Kingdom can maintain its international credibility and respect after turning its back on the EU at times when it is needed more than ever, considering the immense challenges Europe and its neighbourhoods are facing at the moment. It also begs the question, as to how long Britain can lay a claim to a seat as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council? Even at the time of the UN’s inception, the powerful position granted to the UK was based more on past glory rather than a reflection of its international standing at the end of the Second World War. The United Kingdom might still remain a political and economic force to reckon with, but without its influence from within the European Union it is severely disadvantaged in conducting its foreign policy.

A turn for the worse?

Things might turn even worse when, more than if, the Scottish independence question returns to take centre stage in British politics. Nearly two years after independence was rejected by the Scottish people in a referendum their leadership is calling foul. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party, declared that it was “democratically unacceptable that Scotland faced the prospect of being taken out of the EU against its will.” After all, the margin of support for the Remain campaign in Scotland was 62% to 38% in support of staying in the EU. It would not be surprising if before long a new referendum is called, resulting in an independent Scotland. Northern Ireland, which also voted in favour of keeping the EU membership, will find itself divided by a border with an EU member, the Republic of Ireland. This has already provoked an immediate call, not that surprisingly, from Irish nationalists to unite the island as part of the Republic.

For decades Britain projected power in international affairs as a result of a combination of factors including the strength of its economy, its political stability, special relations with the United States, historical ties with many parts of the world, its scientific base and yes, being part of the European Union. Without being at the heart of the European Union, it is disadvantaged in any future trade agreements and in playing a role in diplomatic negotiations, including for instance in the Middle East. Whether in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or on the Iranian nuclear programme, even in efforts to bring an end to the war in Syria, being part of the EU has granted British diplomacy much of the necessary clout.

For the foreseeable future the UK will be self-absorbed, trying to deal with life outside the EU. Internationally Great Britain is running the risk of becoming inward looking and less engaged with the world. After more than forty uneasy years as part of the European Union, Great Britain is entering an unchartered territory of the excruciating process of a long good-bye. By the end of this Britain might end not only marginalised on the international stage, but also bringing to a sad end three hundred years of a United Kingdom. Mr. Cameron will most probably be judged by history as the one that reduced Great Britain to Little England.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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