Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The Brexit vote in favor of leaving the EU ranks as one of the most significant events of the last decade. It is an earthquake which, in addition to its immediate consequences, will be followed by aftershocks by years if not decades to come. It is an event of first-rank significance for not just the increasingly dis-United Kingdom, but also the EU, US, Russia, and much of the rest of the world.
Brexit is, so far, the most powerful manifestation of the “boomerang effect” of the West’s post-Cold War expansionism. Much of the West’s prosperity in the last two decades has been underwritten by one factor alone: the ability to expand its economic power into the post-Soviet space and into developing world countries aligned with USSR. This so-called “Third Way”, which was promoted by leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and which in the 1990s was spearheaded by military interventions in the name of “human rights,” was never sustainable. Once a country or an empire (and “the West” as a whole today can be best described as a US empire, with its various members enjoying varying privileges and obligations) adopts expansion as its default political-economic model, it must continue expanding. Until it can’t.
And now Western neocolonialism is encountering resistance from Russia and China and feeling the boomerang effect of the instability Western policies have fostered. The anxiety concerning refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is building on the pre-existing resentment of economic migrants from EU members of Eastern Europe. The resentment toward Eastern Europeans in the UK was a major factor that propelled David Cameron into power and led him to propose the Brexit referendum before Middle Eastern refugees have washed up on Greece’s shores.
But Cameron miscalculated. The first was his feeling he could pursue “regime change” policies around the world without the slightest fear of consequences. To an extent he was correct–Hague Tribunals do not punish British Prime Ministers for crimes against humanity. But he failed to anticipate the effect on public opinion of masses of refugees in European cities, the sex crimes during public holidays, and, ultimately, the refugees becoming the sea in which the Islamist fish can swim. Paris and Brussels attacks sent the message that London could be next. Thus Cameron ended up hoist by his own petard–two, in fact. The first was the referendum which he used to pressure the EU into concessions, and the second were regime change policies.
The dis-United Kingdom
Brexit leaves the UK in a state of political, constitutional, and even territorial crisis. It has rendered David Cameron and his political cabinet impotent, with no apparent successor in the wing. It has badly damaged the anti-Brexit Labor Party. There is no clear way forward from the vote, as British laws do not have a clear-cut set of rules dealing with referenda or departing the EU. To top it all off, even the future of the UK as it currently exists is in some doubt. The Scots want another referendum on leaving the UK, since their earlier vote to remain was predicated on UK staying in the EU. Senior Northern Ireland politicians have raised the possibility of holding a referendum of their own to…reunited with the Republic of Ireland. Even the tiny Gibraltar, whose equally tiny population voted overwhelmingly in favor of Bremaining, is no longer terrified by the prospect of Spain reclaiming this piece of Iberian territory.
It also does not appear likely that the referendum will be overturned. Maneuvers such as the second referendum petition drive or the threat of a Scottish veto seem motivated by either desperation or, in the Scottish case, a desire to blackmail London in its moment of weakness in order to obtain further devolution concessions. Ignoring, or setting aside, the referendum and pretending it never happened is theoretically possible since it is perfectly legal–the referendum only plays an advisory role and is not legally binding. At the same time one has to keep in mind that the British political system is remarkably ramshackle and improvised, with precedent, usage, and custom providing the system’s stability in lieu of an actual written constitution. In practical terms it means that once the rules of the game have been agreed on, all sides must respect the game’s outcome. Ignoring the referendum would therefore set a precedent that would simply destroy British politics as we have known them for the last two centuries. It would be the political equivalent of Ukraine’s Maidan–a desperate move in order to gain a short-term political advantage at the cost of long-term unraveling of the state. Nobody wants that, least of all the British financial sector whose dominance is dependent on continuing the fiction of stability and predictability of British politics. Even those politicians like Boris Johnson who don’t seem to be in a hurry to invoke the EU-exit-triggering EU Treaty’s Article 50 appear to be doing so in order to get the best possible set of concessions out of the EU on this final occasion to blackmail the Union.
Having said that, UK will not make a total and complete break with the EU. While 52% of UK voters voted against EU membership, nobody knows what they voted for. Which gives Cameron’s successor considerable leeway in interpreting the referendum.
As the graphic above shows, there are many layers to the EU, including the outer Customs Union and Economic Area rings, and it appears very unlikely the UK would drift beyond those rings. Boris Johnson said as much on June 26, when he intimated that Brexit would extricate UK from EU morass of legislation while leaving it within the economic framework of the union. That would place the UK somewhere on a park with Norway, or possibly Switzerland.
The European Dis-Union
One of the big Brexit unknowns was the EU reaction to it. Would it attempt to shove the UK out, or try to look for reasons to prevent it from leaving? Well, the reaction has been unanimous: everyone is in favor of shoving the UK out, the only difference being the timetable. This is easy to understand. EU is not about come begging and offering concessions to London for fear of encouraging similar behavior by others. Moreover, the uncertainty concerning UK’s legal status vis-a-vis the EU threatens to do more damage to EU’s integrity than a swift British departure, particularly if said departure is sufficiently damaging to the British economy to discourage any imitators. Therefore London probably shouldn’t count on any “golden parachutes” as it is preparing to bail out.
But while in the short term Brexit will be a source of instability to the EU, in the longer term it might strengthen it. UK has always been a discordant factor within the EU. No big surprise there–the long-standing British “permanent interest” has been to prevent European unity. Its unwillingness to join the common currency or even the Schengen Zone greatly complicated its inner workings and placed a de-facto ceiling on the highest achievable level of integration. With the UK gone, EU can start thinking of doing things that were unthinkable for as long as London’s veto loomed over Brussels. With the UK gone, EU also becomes more of a European and less of an Atlanticist project.
Still, UK’s absence does not automatically turn EU into a success story. Its worst problems are actually home-grown, with roots in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Berlin, though Washington and Ankara have been doing their best to make EU’s life miserable, too. Brexit’s success will empower like-minded peoples on the Continent. It means that Brussels will have its hands full keeping EU in one piece for years to come, and considering Brussels’ degree of alienation from reality, one cannot rule out the possibility that it will fail, with Brexit being followed by an EU break-up, or at the very least many other EU members following UK and migrating to the outer European Economic Area ring.
Obama’s Final Legacy
For that reason, Washington is also one of the big losers of Brexit. Obama, after all, made a personal effort to bolster the Bremain effort, though he did so in a typically clumsy, arrogant, and “American Exceptionalist” fashion, namely by threatening the British with economic consequences. There is strong evidence suggesting that, ironically enough, it was Obama’s intervention that provided Brexit with a much-needed popularity boost in the final months of campaign. I guess it never did occur to Obama that even in the UK people do not like decisions to be made for them in Washington.
That which hurts Obama naturally hurts Hillary and helps Trump, who is America’s equivalent of Brexit. For all the talk of a US “silent majority” which will turn up in November to elect Trump out of sheer spite toward the pollsters, the media, and the establishment as a whole, Brexit suggests such an outcome is actually possible. Trump already responded to it in a typically triumphalist way; Hillary’s response was more of the usual scaremongering which was a transparent attempt to mask the first time genuine worry has crept into that campaign, now that Sanders’ threat has been definitively dealt with.
There’s also the matter of Brexit and the US role in the EU. Some of the member states, seeing that the EU has suffered a reverse, might want to cluster around the US instead. The more Russophobic states of Eastern Europe will no doubt be the first to do so. But is the US willing to maintain these satellites? US stinginess toward Ukraine hardly implies a willingness to subsidize Poland.
“Ukraine is (not) Europe”
Bringing up the end of the Brexit’s list of losers is, unsurprisingly enough, post-Maidan Ukraine, which has been on the losing side of every major world event that takes the world’s eyes off Kiev. But this time the level of damage is extreme. The prospects of Ukraine joining the EU, never very great, have gone down to zero. Speaking on behalf of the French government though the reflecting the sentiments of tens if not hundreds of millions, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in reaction to Brexit that EU has certain borders and boundaries, both geographic and cultural, and its purpose is not an endless quest to admit new members. While he did not name Ukraine by name–that would have been simply undiplomatic–the sentiment in favor of retrenchment, border control, and internal consolidation, was heard loud and clear in official Kiev which has been in a veritable state of mourning ever since the Brexit referendum. While some Kiev officials made absurd statements to the effect that Ukraine is ready to take UK’s place in the EU, Brexit probably penetrated even their impressive armor of self-delusion.
“Links to the Kremlin”
Russia emerges as a major winner. The importance of this win should not be overestimated–this was a battle, not the war–but it should not be ignored either. Russian policies were predicated on the well-founded assumption that all one needs to do to defeat an expansionist Western power is to deny it outlets to expand. It was as true in 2014 as it was in 1941 or 1812, these earlier eras of European integration and expansion that foundered upon entering into direct confrontation with Russia. What Russia has done in Ukraine and in Syria was merely a more effective, less bloody, means of checking Western expansion. The results were not long in coming: first the refugee crisis that swamped EU’s politics, now the Brexit, and who knows what will follow? For now, it’s enough that EU has lost one of the most ardent Russophobes in the person of David Cameron. That in itself is a major win, and with the UK gone, Vladimir Putin’s vision of a trading zone “from Vladivostok to Lisbon” (tellingly, not “London”), becomes that much more plausible. And, of course, the prolonged campaign of demonizing Brexit supporters as being sponsored by Moscow proved to be a measure born of desperation that failed to have a substantial impact on the votes. Perhaps we’ll see fewer such tactics in the future.
Moreover, to the extent that Brexit empowers Euroskeptics, it should also be seen as a net positive for Russia, since the “skeptics” are far more Russia-friendly than the “integrators”. It’s not just the case of UKIP’s Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson–France’s Marine Le Pen is similarly well predisposed toward Russia, whom it views as an important ally in the fight for European stability.
What lessons will Brussels and Washington draw from it? Because the US is not immune from the “boomerang effect” either–it’s impossible to imagine the rise of Donald Trump without the international instability promoted by the Obama Administration. Like any fading star that is burning its last fuel reserves, it has two options: collapsing on itself or a supernova-style explosion. The supernova option does have supporters. The renewed interest in bombing Syria emanates from political factions which know time is not on their side, and which are willing to take risks to prolong the West’s neo-imperial model. Brexit, however, weakens their stature and credibility, and will continue to do so for as long as Brexit-induced instability persists.
Brexit’s fall-out will not only be short-term or psychological. It will have many concrete, long-term effects, none of which will favor the Euro-expansionist forces. Polish media, for example, is full of articles worrying about the numerous Polish migrants to the UK who might have to return. The ability to migrate was a major EU “selling point” that persuaded these countries’ electorates to swallow the expansionist agenda. Will these policies enjoy the same support? Furthermore, UK’s departure will deprive the EU of a major financial contributor, which means that the countries of Eastern Europe, many of which have been dragging the EU toward a confrontation with Russia, will now receive less EU largesse. One also has to consider the reputational damage Brexit has inflicted on Anglo-Saxon countries, which have now shown themselves willing to place other countries in harm’s way while remaining above the fray.
Brexit will not transform the world overnight. Euroatlanticist elites just might attempt something desperate to reverse the process. It is nevertheless grounds for cautious optimism that world affairs are about to take a fundamental turn for the better.