Is Brexit the End of European Integration As We Know It?

Is Brexit the End of European Integration As We Know It?

Sam Poon

The United Kingdom’s secession (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) will forever shape the history of the UK and of European integration. While the full impacts of Brexit are unknown, Brexit is the actualization of latent discontent about extensive integration of the European continent. In part, Brexit signals deep dissatisfaction with the concept of free movement of peoples and more porous borders. However, Brexit does not necessarily signal a complete failure of European integration.

Brexit signals the first, and possibly only, ever substantial member state withdrawal from the EU.[1] Britain has always been wary of EU integration and its role as a supranational organization in Europe. The first serious talks of Brexit, as it is now conceived, began during David Cameron’s 2013 re-election campaign.[2] Playing at discontent with the EU, he promised to negotiate new terms with the EU and hold a referendum to let the citizens of the United Kingdom choose whether they want to stay in the EU under these new terms.[3] The Conservative Party unexpectedly won, David Cameron carried through on his promise, and eventually, the European Union Referendum Act of 2015 was introduced in Parliament.[4] Thus, the campaign for the UK’s future in the EU commenced.

The two main campaigns were colloquially known as the “Leave” or “Vote Leave”[5] and the “Remain”[6] campaigns, with their respective titles denoting the positions the campaigns took on Brexit. The Vote Leave campaign realized that their economic argument held little weight and shifted towards severe, anti-immigration rhetoric.[7] Leaders of Vote Leave asserted immigration and national sovereignty as the reason for a decline in economy, loss of jobs, terrorism, the migrant crisis, and more.[8] The simplified message was persuasive: remaining in the EU meant support of failed EU policies that perpetuated the migrant crisis, exhausted jobs, and drained money from the British economy. To paint a poignant picture, Nigel Farage, one of the campaign’s leaders, released a poster of thousands of seemingly Arab refugees coming to the EU.[9] The poster was captioned: “Breaking Point—the EU has failed us all,” and at the bottom, “we must break free of the EU and taken back control of our borders. Leave the European Union.”[10] It was clearly designed to illustrate that “swathes of brown-skinned foreigners were trekking towards Britain’s ‘open borders.’”[11] Thus, the Leave campaign had a simple, strong, xenophobic, and compelling message, albeit misleading and false.[12]

In contrast, the Remain campaign was unorganized, incoherent, and unable to create a singular message around Brexit, an immensely complicated issue.[13] On the defensive, the Remain campaign weakly stirred fear about economic risk.[14] The Remain campaign tried to combat the Leave campaign’s rhetoric with the fact that a withdrawal from the EU held infinite unknowns and potential repercussions. However, the anxiety that the Leave campaign stirred was not petered with the Remain campaign’s slogan of unknown risk of Brexit’s economic impact. In the end, the haphazard, poorly planned campaign failed. With the world watching, on June 23, 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU.[15] Leave won with 51.9,% to Remain’s 48.%, with approximately 71.8% of the population voting.[16] The Parliament confirmed the referendum results with the European Union Notification of Withdrawal Bill on March 13, 2017.[17]

The existence of the EU requires supremacy, free movement of people, and member states to cede a certain amount of state sovereignty. Ultimately, Brexit was the UK’s sign of dissatisfaction with the EU to some level, even if the Leave campaign played on xenophobia and relied on half-truths. However, the UK has always been skeptical of integration and even of the EU. This skepticism is demonstrated in the UK’s history of involvement leading up to the EU, refusal to join the Eurozone, and declination to take part in the Schengen Area. The Leave campaign wove together lies and misleading facts to create a strong message that was easy for voters to understand. Thus, though the results of Brexit are unpalatable, the history of the UK’s approach towards integration signaled a resistance to integration throughout the history of the EU.

Though Brexit will certainly change the trajectory of the UK, it does not signal the demise of European integration post-World War II. There are still organizations, member states, and non-EU countries that support the idea of integration. In fact, states are still seeking to join the EU as part of their national goals. Nevertheless, the EU should take note of the dissatisfaction leading to Brexit and attempt to seek understanding as to why Brexit was able to occur, particularly as it relates to the free movement peoples. The EU must be proactive about stamping out xenophobia and providing platforms for informed debate for its citizens. Doing so will prevent another Brexit, or Grexit, Spexit, Frexit, etc., and further the goals of integration well into the twenty-second century.

 

[1] Sans Greenland’s exit in 1985.

[2] David Cameron Promises In/Out Referendum on EU, BBC (Jan. 23, 2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21148282.

[3] Id.

[4] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/36/contents/enacted

[5] See About the Campaign, Vote Leave, http://www.voteleavetakecontrol.org.

[6] See Britain Stronger in Europe, http://www.strongerin.co.uk/.

[7] Paul Stocker, Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the British Far Right, London School of Economics and Political Science (Oct. 5, 2017), http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/10/05/brexit-and-the-mainstreaming-of-the-british-far-right/.

[8] Id.

[9] See Anealla Safdar, Brexit: UKIP’s ‘Unethical’ Anti-Immigration Poster, Al-Jazeera, (June 28, 2016) http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/brexit-anti-immigration-ukip-poster-raises-questions-160621112722799.html.

[10] See id.

[11] See Stocker, supra note 29.

[12] It is far easier to understand and join a simple, yet misleading message, while far more difficult to understand a complex but more accurate message. Similarly, it is easier to create a xenophobic, false message, but more difficult to craft a coherent, accurate message that takes into account nuances of reality.

[13] See Tortsen Bell, The Referendum, Living Standards and Inequality, Resolution Foundation (June 24, 2016) http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/blog/the-referendum-living-standards-and-inequality/ (“The legacy of increased national inequality in the 1980s, the heavy concentration of those costs in certain areas, and our collective failure to address it has more to say about [Brexit] than shorter term considerations from the financial crisis or changed migration flows.”).

[14] See Rafael Behr, How Remain Failed: the Inside Story of a Doomed Campaign, The Guardian (July 5, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/05/how-remain-failed-inside-story-doomed-campaign.

[15] Alex Hunt & Brian Wheeler, Brexit: All You Need to Know About the UK Leaving the EU, BBC (Sept. 26, 2017) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

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