A friend of mine, who is French and lives in London, returned from holiday the day after the referendum. In an email to me, she wondered why she had bothered: she felt as though her home had been “vandalised” by half the people in the country. Most people I spoke to reported feelings of anger, shock, and disbelief in the immediate aftermath. These strong emotional reactions were entirely understandable given that their future right to work and live in the UK as EU citizens had just been put into question.
On second thoughts, however, why were we shocked? The Brexiters had run a very effective campaign, with slogans along the lines of “We want our country back” and “Let’s take back control”. The Remain camp had no response to this. David Cameron and George Osborne were simply not the right people to remind voters of this straightforward fact: it was not uncontrolled immigration from the EU that was responsible for the decline in public services throughout the country, but the austerity politics driven by Conservative Party ideology since 2010. The Brexiters had won the campaign effortlessly.
More importantly, we are not talking about mendacities, myths, and misinformation that were spread over the course of a two-month long referendum campaign. We are talking about the wilful and sustained distortion of the European project by British politicians and journalists from the very beginning, and especially since the date of accession in 1973. Could a referendum on EU membership ever have been won in the last 20 years, I ask myself? And should we not be positively surprised that almost half the British voters elected to remain in the EU?
Anger and irritation soon gave way to analysis and interpretation. The referendum was clearly not about the European Union. It revealed something significant about the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom was not unanimous, but split down the middle: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, England and Wales voted to leave. The two main political parties were not putting forward helpful proposals regarding Britain’s future relationship, but were in open meltdown over the Europe question. Embarrassingly, Britain had once again set itself up to fail over a serious policy choice. In 2003, Britain went to war upon the basis of unreliable information and without an exit strategy. In 2016, it conducted a referendum upon the basis of false promises and without a Brexit strategy. This is not a good time to be British, and it certainly is not a good time for Britain.
Constitutional analysis proved to be my pathway to hope and optimism. There is no way the UK can withdraw from the EU and expect to survive politically. European law is woven into the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which stands testament to a rare and recent British diplomatic achievement. It has brought peace to Northern Ireland and improved the relations between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. It is, of course, possible for the UK to leave the EU. But to begin that process without second thoughts for the Irish peace process is borderline criminal. Something similar needs to be said in relation to Scotland. The governing SNP have been quietly waiting for an excuse to hold a second independence referendum, and David Cameron has single-handedly given them a reason.
Few countries display much enthusiasm for the European Union. British people are certainly amongst the least knowledgeable in this respect. Ignorance about European institutions is one matter, but ignorance about one’s own constitution (and yes, the UK has a constitution) is unforgivable. At the very least, the 52 per cent should stop claiming that their slim majority should in any way be decisive.
As a state, the UK is neither centralised nor unified. It is de-centralised and fragmented. Scotland and Northern Ireland reveal the UK constitution at its most fragile. The new Prime Minister will need to tread very carefully. So far, only the homes of the 48 per cent have been vandalised. Pretty soon the UK, the home of 100 per cent, could cease to exist. No one voted for that in June 2016.
* This essay is from a Working Paper of the European University Institute, Department of Law, entitled “Brexit and Academic Citizenship” (LAW 2016.20, San Domenico di Fiesole 2016, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2871428). The paper, edited by Christian Joerges, collects a series of personal reflections on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The essays do not engage with the legal and constitutional issues that arise from this event – these aspects have received comment elsewhere. Rather, the editor has solicited personal reflections from a group whose scholarly journey included the European University Institute, a hub for transforming, and integrating Europe. Aware of this privileged position, the authors shed light on how the result of the referendum and its aftermath may impact on the UK and the European Union.