Monday, Nov 28, 2022

Shocked Nation Grapples With The Future

It was Prime Minister David Cameron's election manifesto commitment, but one that has become his undoing.

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

The enormity of the seismic decision reverberated across the world when it became clear in the early hours of the morning that UK will leave the European Union. It has shocked the country so severely that within hours of the result EU supporters have resorted to an online petition on the parliament website demanding a second referendum. It reads: 'We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the "remain" or "leave" vote is less than 60% based on a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum.' The site is getting about 1,000 signatures per minute, and such was the rush that the site collapsed. It has already crossed the 100,000 mark, which requires any petition to be considered by Parliament.

The coming days and weeks will be action-packed. The atmosphere is a heady mixture of fear and excitement as the UK prepares to rewrite a 43-year history of being within the EU. The petition for a second referendum does not come as a surprise as even voters for the Leave campaign did not believe Brexit would win. As the counting began, a narrow win for Remain was being seen as the obvious outcome. But the verdict was otherwise. And the country went into a spin. The Pound went into a freefall, as was expected. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, addressed the markets to calm it and assure stability.

The referendum has displayed that voters were keen to participate in this process. The issue had been festering for years and had to be faced. It was Prime Minister David Cameron's election manifesto commitment, but one that has become his undoing. At 72 per cent, the voter turnout was at the highest level since the 1992 general elections. While Brexit won at 52 percent against Remain at 48 percent, it clearly has split the country down the middle, which will not only have economic implications but severe political and constitutional ramifications.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly for Remain, but the overall decision opens the doors to further possible referendum demands. Spain has not wasted time and has already said that the sovereignty of Gibraltar needs to be shared. The only land border the UK has with EU is Northern Ireland. So will the border with Republic of Ireland, which is part of EU, have custom checks? Sinn Fenn has already said that a referendum needs to be held to find out if Northern Ireland will leave the UK.

As for Scotland, as its first minister Nicola Sturgeon has already made it clear that a second independence referendum is "highly likely". In England and Wales, which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, London stood out by voting for Remain, with only the council of Hillingdon voting Leave.

This referendum has undoubtedly thrown the entire political jigsaw out of the table. Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the Remain campaign, announced his decision to step down and make way for a new leader in a few months. As for Labour, what was striking is that Labour strongholds have voted Leave, which has played an important role in the final outcome. This has put the party's leader Jeremy Corbyn's future in doubt. He had remained very lazy during the campaign, and the vote now has shown the disarray in Labour. Labour MPs have already submitted a motion of no confidence in Corbyn.

Boris Johnson, leading the Leave campaign and Michael Gove were very somber in victory. Johnson tried to assure the youth that the vote does not make UK less European. But he added that the decision has taken the "wind out of the sails of extremists and those playing politics with immigration."

Across the Channel, Europe has reacted with shock as they woke up to the news. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed 'great regret" so did the French President Hollande. Although Cameron has correctly said he will not be invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty right away for UK's exit, a thought echoed by Johnson, Jean Claude Junker, the European Commission president said, after an emergency meeting with other EU leaders, that 27 member states wanted to negotiate its exit plan "as soon as possible, however painful this process will be".

The UK's decision, has undoubtedly sent a stinging message to political elites in the EU. There is increasing concern that Britain's decision could lead to further rifts in the EU and several senior Europe watchers opine that the migration crisis in Europe is driving away countries like Austria and Switzerland. There is a strong view that Brexit will trigger a new beginning for Europe which may try to seek a new mode of governing that better acknowledges national realities while preserving the open market.

In the UK, the referendum has also exposed a Western reality — that centre-Left and centre-Right politics is failing and needs course correction. The vote has left the country deeply divided, which needs healing.

But right now all politicians, across party lines need to put together a top negotiating team, and burn midnight oil to prepare for the exit. And amidst this upheaval the possibility of a general election within the next few months looms large. Johnson is bound to be a frontrunner to replace Cameron. But will Cameron's legacy be that he not only led Britain to leave the EU but also bring the end of Great Britain?

It will surely be a very hot summer for the UK.