It was first set of regional elections in the United Kingdom since Brexit.
But the impending conundrum of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland — the future of vital EU subsidy funds and the reintroduction of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that had become all but invisible within the European Union — wasn’t the only issue on the minds of Northern Irish voters when they went to the polls last Thursday.
The snap election followed a corruption scandal implicating first minister Arlene Foster — leader of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — that caused then-deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to resign from the power-sharing executive, forcing new elections, just 10 months after the prior 2016 elections.
Politics in Northern Ireland runs along long-defined sectarian lines. Most of the region’s Protestant voters support either of the two main unionist parties — the socially conservative and pro-Brexit DUP or the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which backed the ‘Remain’ side in last June’s Brexit referendum. Most of the region’s Catholic voters support either of the two republican parties — the more leftist Sinn Féin or the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), both of which are fiercely anti-Brexit. An increasing minority of voters, however, support the non-sectarian, centrist and liberal Alliance Party.
Since the late 1990s, when the Blair government introduced devolution and a regional parliament at Stormont, and when the DUP and Sinn Féin displaced the UUP and the SDLP, respectively, as the leading unionist and republican parties, the DUP has always won first place in regional elections. That nearly changed last Thursday, as Sinn Féin came within just 1,168 votes of overtaking the DUP as the most popular party.
It leaves the DUP with just one more seat than Sinn Féin and below the crucial number of 30 that it needs to veto policies. Without 30 seats, the DUP will no longer be able to block marriage equality (Northern Ireland lags as the only UK region that hasn’t permitted same-sex marriage) or an Irish language bill that would give Gaelic equal status with English in public institutions. It was high-handed for Foster — and Peter Robinson before her — to block the popular will on both of those issues over the last decade. That, in turn, is not helping the DUP in its bid to negotiate a new power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin.
More consequentially, it leaves unionists with a clear minority for the first time since devolution — just 40 seats in the 90-seat parliament (the number of deputies dropped from 108 members for the 2017 election). Most crucially of all, the election result creates a new equilibrium for the post-election talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which are now one week into a three-week deadline to form a new power-sharing executive, as guided by the British government’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. Continue reading Northern Ireland struggles to form government after close vote→
There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November.
But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?
Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.
Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.
At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters. Continue reading Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum→
With every big-name endorsement that Owen Smith wins in his quest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s leader, his chances seem as remote as ever.
It’s not that Labour voters don’t respect Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, or London mayor Sadiq Khan or even Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale or former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn or any other of dozens of high-profile Labour officials.
But the Labour rank-and-file, which elected Corbyn as its leader with a first-ballot victory only last September, seem just as determined to deliver another mandate in three weeks when ballots close in this year’s Labour leadership contest. It’s entirely possible that Corbyn will even exceed the 59.5% of support he won in 2015.
So when Labour gathers for its annual conference on August 24, there’s little doubt — at least today — that Corbyn will emerge as the winner once again. It’s especially likely after his opponents failed to force him Corbyn to win renomination from sitting Labour MPs and after the same Corbyn opponents failed in court to prevent new (likely pro-Corbyn) party members from voting in the 2016 contest. That means that Labour’s parliamentary party will remain at contretemps with a twice-elected party leader. Smith, for all his qualities as a potentially unifying successor to Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership, is not yet breaking through as a genuine alternative, even as Labour voters begin to vote.
A strong Corbyn effort might embolden him and his increasingly isolated frontbench to force Labour MPs to stand for re-selection in their own constituencies, essentially forcing a primary-style fight for all of his critics. That may not matter to many MPs in marginal constituencies, who would lose reelection if a general election were held today, many polls show, whether they are automatically re-selected to stand for parliament or not.
The fear of both widespread de-selection from the left and a landslide defeat to the right, however, could force a formal splinter movement from Corbyn’s Labour, and that could conceivably, with enough support, become the ‘new’ official opposition in the House of Commons.
Given where Labour today stands — divided and electorally hopeless — it’s truly incredible that Smith’s chances seem so lopsided.
When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.
Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.
That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.
Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.
May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.
May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.
It’s staggering to think that the man who stood in front of a drab yellow backdrop earlier this month, still defending his decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, was the same man who once charmed the British electorate with a staggering electoral haul of 418 seats in the House of Commons that once reduced the Conservative Party to a rump movement in British politics.
Nineteen years ago, Blair bestrode British politics with a mandate that not even Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher ever claimed. To this day, the 418 seats that Blair won as the head of a re-energized, re-focused, and rechristened ‘New’ Labour in 1997 is the most sweeping victory that any prime minister has claimed since the 1930s. To put that into perspective, if Conservative prime minister Theresa May called a snap election today, polls show that Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, would do better than the Tories in 1997, when Labour swept to power on a 12.5% national margin of victory.
Blair pulled his party out from the disastrous shadow of the 1970s, when Labour’s Britain was falling far behind continental Europe, infamously amending the Labour Party constitution’s ‘clause IV’ that committed the party to socialism and nationalization. There’s no dispute that Blair approached ‘New Labour’ with enthusiastic acceptance for much of Thatcherism and free markets. Of course, it’s fair to say that 18 consecutive years of Conservative government and dysfunctional divides in the later years of John Major’s cabinet left British voters willing to take a chance on anything. It’s not incredible to surmise that a lesser political talent — like Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, or the late John Smith, whose 1994 death paved the way for Blair’s ascension — would have won the 1997 election with ease.
But with the release of the Chilcot report’s damning verdict about the leadup to the Iraq invasion, just six words from a pre-invasion memo in 2002 to then-US president George W. Bush will forever define Blair’s legacy:
I will be with you, whatever.
Six words. But they contain everything explaining how Blair went in two decades’ time from electoral behemoth to politically radioactive. The Chilcot Report, commissioned in 2009 by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, found that Saddam Hussein in 2002 and 2003 posed no imminent threat to the United States or to the United Kingdom, that both American and British leaders embellished intelligence suggesting the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and that post-invasion planning by both US and UK officials was horrifically inadequate. In short, the worst British foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis in 1956 and, perhaps, even worse than that.
Just as David Cameron’s legacy will now begin and end with Brexit, Blair’s legacy will forever begin and end with Iraq.
It’s been a busy three weeks in British politics, but it’s been an especially busy 36 hours since Theresa May became the new prime minister and rolled out the key appointments of what will be the country’s government for the foreseeable future.
The most important role goes to Philip Hammond, who is now chancellor after three years as foreign secretary, and Amber Rudd will replace May as home secretary. But the biggest surprise was May’s decision yesterday to appoint former London mayor Boris Johnson as the new foreign secretary.
In one sense, it’s a perfect move for Johnson, who is perhaps the most well-known British politician abroad, who was born in New York City, and who (mostly) served as a capable ambassador for London in his two terms as mayor, most notably during the 2012 Olympics. It’s a remarkable comeback for a politician who lent his star power to the ‘Leave’ campaign, then watched as his ally, Michael Gove, brutally nudged him out of the Conservative leadership contest. Despite his humiliating withdrawal from the contest, Johnson is still one of the most potent political talents on the Tory benches.
It’s as if an entire season of Game of Thrones swept through British politics in the space of two-and-a-half weeks.
The list of political careers in ruins runs long and deep. Prime minister David Cameron himself. Chancellor George Osborne. Former London mayor Boris Johnson. Justice secretary Michael Gove. Nigel Farage, the retiring leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Maybe even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who may enjoy the support of grassroots Labour members, but not of his parliamentary party.
Monday brought another casualty of the post-Brexit era: energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, who withdrew from the September leadership contest for the Conservative Party leadership. The decision came just four days after Tory MPs pitted Leadsom (with 84 votes) in a runoff against home secretary Theresa May (with 199 votes), eliminating Gove (with just 46 MPs supporting him).
Leadsom, who supported the Leave campaign in the June 23 referendum, had garnered the support of the eurosceptic Tory right, including endorsements from former leader Iain Duncan Smith and other Leave campaign heavy-hitters like Johnson and even Farage. But Leadsom struggled to adapt to the public stage as a figure virtually unknown outside of Westminster a week or two ago (reminiscent in some ways of Chuka Umunna’s aborted Labour leadership campaign last year).
Though she promised to bring far more rupture to Conservative government than May, Leadsom also struggled to defend against charges that she embellished her record as an executive in the financial sector before turning to politics. Over the weekend, she suffered a backlash after suggesting she would be a better leader because she (unlike May) had children.
It was always an uphill fight for Leadsom, despite the rebellious mood of a Tory electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and was clearly attracted to Leadsom’s more radical approach. May, a more cautious figure, supported the Remain campaign during the referendum, though she largely avoiding making strong statements either for or against EU membership. At one point, she argued that the United Kingdom should leave the European Court on Human Rights (a position that she has disavowed now as a leadership contender).
It was a standard assumption throughout the United Kingdom’s EU membership referendum that former London mayor Boris Johnson supported the ‘Leave’ side due in large part to his ambitions of succeeding David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and then as prime minister.
At one point, Amber Rudd, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, in a debate over Brexit, argued that the only number that Johnson was interested in was the number 10 — as in 10 Downing Street. And that was from a rising star in Johnson’s own party.
When Johnson made his high-profile decision to join the Leave camp, he did so shortly after another top figure in Tory politics made the same decision — Michael Gove, previously a close Cameron confidante and justice secretary, but whose main mark on government had been four years of tumultuous (and often divisive) reforms as Britain’s education secretary.
Gove entered politics at Cameron’s request, and he was so close to the prime minister that he served as godfather to Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan (who sadly died in 2009). It was a blow to Cameron when Gove declared his support for the Leave campaign, and the two’s once-solid friendship is reportedly strained.
After weeks of campaigning alongside Johnson and emerging on the winning side of the referendum debate, however, Gove’s declaration this morning of his own leadership contest has strained far more than a friendship, upending British politics in a week when every hour seems to bring a shocking new twist. Indeed, Gove’s leadership challenge and his ‘more in sadness than in anger’ conclusion that Johnson wasn’t up to the task of being prime minister will now define Gove’s political future. Just as Ed Miliband never fully escaped the cloak of treachery in pipping his own brother, the far more experienced former foreign minister David Miliband, for the Labour Party leadership, Gove’s eleventh-hour change of heart will dominate the narrative of the campaign ahead. Nigel Evans said that Gove had ‘stabbed Boris in the front,’ and even Johnson, in his remarks in withdrawing from the leadership race, paraphrased Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, subtly comparing Gove to Brutus, the friend-turned-assassin.
When a private email to Gove from Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, was accidentally leaked to the press yesterday, it showed that Gove and his private circle held considerable doubts about a Johnson government. In closing out her email, Vine advised Gove to ‘be his stubborn best.’
It seems that Gove was far more stubborn than anyone believed possible when he made a late-night decision to stand for the leadership himself — Johnson found out along with the British press this morning as Gove announced his plans:
In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take.
Gove will be a formidable candidate. He comes to the Tory leadership race, presumably, with many (though not all) of the MPs who were prepared to support Johnson and Gove as something of a joint ticket (with the implication that Gove would serve as Johnson’s chancellor and a guarantor that a Johnson government wouldn’t go wobbly on Brexit).
But while Johnson may have indeed been a fair-weather convert to Brexit, no one should doubt Gove’s long-held euroscepticism. It comes, in part, from Gove’s own background, watching the fishing business that his father and grandfather built destroyed by European competition in the 1970s. If Johnson brought the personality and ‘star power’ to the Leave campaign, Gove brought with him the accumulated credibility of one of the Conservative Party’s brightest and most committed reformists. Though Johnson and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage perhaps won more headlines, Gove was also in the mix, making a credible case for Brexit, earning plaudits as the ‘brains’ of the Leave campaign.
After leaving Oxford, Gove entered the media world and quickly became one of the lights of the right-wing press. When he came to politics in 2005, winning election to parliament from the southeastern English constituency of Surrey Heath, he was part of Cameron’s original ‘Notting Hill’ set that included chancellor George Osborne, whose vigorous support for the Remain campaign eliminated his long-held wishes of succeeding Cameron as prime minister. On social policy, Gove has always been as progressive as Cameron or Osborne — he supported providing marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the 2013 landmark parliamentary vote, for example.
Upon the Conservative victory in the 2010 general election and Cameron’s governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gove became secretary of state for education, and he used the position to upend the state of English education for the next four years. To this day, Gove is a figure of hatred and scorn among British teachers for the pace and extent of the policy reforms he initiated. As education secretary, he uncoupled schools from local authorities (giving them more freedom) while introducing all sorts of micromanaging revisions to the English curriculum (thereby taking away much of that freedom). He made it easier for researchers to access information about education and schools to determine which strategies are performing well.
Though Cameron, in part due to howls of protest from teachers, demoted him to chief whip in 2014, Gove was appointed secretary of state for justice in 2015, where he has had much less time to implement deep reforms. (He did, however, discontinue a court fee introduced by his predecessor Chris Grayling).
Gove will now make the case that only a Leave supporter — unlike his chief competitor, home secretary Theresa May — can credibly assume the premiership after the decision in last Thursday’s referendum. He will also argue that, unlike May, he alone is willing to hold firm in negotiations with the remaining 27 member-states of the European Union. As one of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Gove will begin with significant support among the Tory eurosceptic backbenches. If he winds up as one of the final two contenders, he may find that his Leave support will be rewarded among those rank-and-file Tory members who will determine the winner of the runoff this summer. His starring role in the Leave campaign may have made him far more palatable to Tory rank-and-file who now see him less as an Oxbridge policy nerd and more of a crusader for their own (anti-EU) values.
But as Hugo Dixon noted earlier today, Gove is a something of a radical — more so than just a small-c conservative — and that separates him from Cameron, May and perhaps even Johnson. In light of the rapid pace of political developments, however, there’s no guarantee that Gove will even make it into the wider runoff. Work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb has already amassed several high-profile endorsements and the support of nearly 20 MPs. If Gove helped put Johnson on the pile of so many would-be prime ministers who never quite made it out of the starting gate — Michael Portillo, Kenneth Clarke, David Miliband — no one should be surprised if Gove himself winds up behind May and Crabb in the parliamentary voting that will take place in the first two weeks of July. Unlike Johnson, May or Crabb, Gove has something of an awkward, even oddball, personality, and Gove himself has many times said that he lacks the talent to be prime minister.
Then again, after getting the best of one-time mentor Cameron and one-time ally Johnson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gove thrive, either.
A few months ago, I argued that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a tailor-made opportunity with the EU membership referendum.
Given that working-class Labour voters would be likely to determine the result, Corbyn could have shown that he has what it takes on the most crucial national referendum in decades. Most importantly, for a nervous set of Labour MPs warily eyeing a general election in 2020 or even sooner, it would show that Corbyn could actually win votes.
Corbyn, who fought a lonely fight in the 1970s and 1980s against Margaret Thatcher, then increasingly against his own party’s moderate ‘third way’ leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, was uniquely placed to win back those voters in northern England, many of whom supported Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 general election. Of course, they are the voters who also voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Sadly, Corbyn had the kind of credibility that could have brought more working-class voters in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands to the Remain camp.
As it turns out, Labour supporters backed Remain by the considerable margin of 69% to 31%. But that 31% that supported Leave could have made the difference between failure and victory.
Normally, when a politician — especially a president or a prime minister — resigns, he or she is met with effusive praise.
There’s the defeat. Then the stepping down. Then a deluge of pieces heralding the peaks as well as the valleys of the political career that’s just ended.
Not David Cameron, who stepped out of 10 Downing Street this morning to step down as British prime minister, a day after he narrowly lost a campaign to keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union. For Cameron, today’s political obituaries, so to speak, are absolutely brutal. The Independent called him the ‘worst prime minister in a hundred years.’
And that’s perhaps fair. He is, after all, the prime minister who managed to guide his country, accidentally, out of the European Union. His country (and, indeed all of Europe) now faces a period of massive uncertainty as a result.
The man who once hectored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ has now been done in over Europe — just as the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
He’ll leave behind a Scotland that wanted to stay inside the European Union by a margin of 62% to 38% and that will now have the moral and political capital to demand a fresh independence referendum to become an independent Scotland within the European Union. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, of course, knew this all along, and she wasted no time in making clear that a second vote is now her top priority.
He’ll also leave behind an awful mess as to the status of Northern Ireland, which also voted for Remain by a narrower margin. Its borders with the Republic of Ireland are now unclear, the republican Sinn Fein now wants a border poll on Irish unification and the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence might have to be amended.
He’ll leave behind an angry electorate in England, sharply divided by income, race, ethnicity and culture — if the divide between England Scotland looks insurmountable, so does the divide between London and the rest of England. Despite the warning signs, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron failed to provide English voters with the devolution of regional power that voters enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even London.
Cameron showed, unlike Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, he was willing to accede to the wishes of Scottish nationalists and give them a say in their own self-determination. Given the corrosive nature of the eurosceptic populism within his own party and in UKIP, it wasn’t unreasonable that Cameron would force them to ‘put up or shut up’ with the first in-out vote on EU membership since 1975, when the European Union was just the European Economic Community.
Polls are now open across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where voters are deciding whether to either remain a member of the European Union or to leave the European Union. It’s home to the largest city in the European Union (London) and, with 64.9 million people, it’s the third-most populous state in the European Union, after Germany and France.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. — that means that here on the east coast of the United States, polls will be closing at 5 p.m. ET, with the first results to arrive shortly thereafter. No official exit polls are being conducted, but private hedge funds are believed to have commissioned exit polls and early financial indictors could tell us know traders believe the result will go. In any event, the final result is expected to be announced by ‘breakfast time’ on Friday morning.
Turkey is not going to become a member-state of the European Union anytime soon.
No matter what joint talks take place next week, next month or next decade between Turkish and European diplomats, it is absolutely incomprehensible that the European Union, with or without the United Kingdom, would be willing to grant membership to a state with the level of economic corruption and political authoritarianism as Turkey. Full stop.
Even if European diplomats did, though, and even if each of the other 27 member-states of the European Union wanted to admit Turkey — which today borders war-torn Syria and destabilized Iraq — all it would take is for a British prime minister to say, simply, ‘No.’
That’s because EU membership is one of a handful of issues accomplished only by unanimity of the European Union’s member-states. For example, Greece has held up Macedonia’s EU accession hopes for years over a long-simmering conflict over the name ‘Macedonia,’ and the Greeks, for the better part of the last century, have been none too keen on doing many favors for their Turkish rivals, either.
Last week, EU officials cheekily informed Turkey that the country has not yet met all of the EU conditions for visa-free travel to the European Union, one of the rewards that Turkey received as part of a controversial deal to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi migrants from Turkey into the European Union. Though critics of German chancellor Angela Merkel argue that she sold out EU values in exchange for a Turkish solution to the EU migration crisis, Europeans are holding firm in requiring that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop using ‘anti-terror’ laws to arrest journalists, academics and political opponents. This is hardly the stuff of happy Turkish-EU relations. Continue reading ‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics→
Stripped of distractions, it comes down to an elemental choice: whether to restore the full self-government of this nation, or to continue living under a higher supranational regime, ruled by a European Council that we do not elect in any meaningful sense, and that the British people can never remove, even when it persists in error.
For some proponents of the ‘Leave’ campaign, sovereignty matters so much that the warnings of a significant short-term disruption to the British economy simply do not matter. In the long run, Brexit’s benefits will come, supporters hope, from the ability of future British policymakers to enact laws and regulations unhindered by the grinding bureaucracy of Brussels and Strasbourg.
That Brexit will lead to such full-throated British sovereignty is not so clear — at least if the United Kingdom wants to leave the European Union while still retaining access to the single market, one of the world’s most integrated free-trade zones.
Britain, contemplating divorce, already has a ‘separation’ with Europe
It’s not always easy to sort the alphabet soup within the European Union, let alone the rest of Europe that lies outside the technical European Union. But arguably the United Kingdom today enjoys much more freedom than any of the other 27 member-states of the European Union. As British voters consider divorce from Europe, they would do well to consideration that their country is already in something of a separation with Europe.
Today, the United Kingdom is neither a member of the euro currency zone and monetary union, nor (like Ireland) the Schengen zone of free movement. The former means that the United Kingdom still has its own currency, the pound sterling, and the Bank of England controls British monetary policy. The latter means that the United Kingdom retains more control over its borders than even non-EU states like Switzerland and Norway (both party to the Schengen Agreement). Continue reading Why British sovereignty would be even weaker after leaving the European Union→
Germany was still divided into east and west, and Portugal, Spain, Austria and Sweden were all still outside the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today’s European Union.
But it marked the first — and, so far, the only — time that any territory voluntarily exited the European Union.
It was Greenland, then and today an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark. In the 1980s, Greenland was fresh off winning a new layer of home rule in 1979 from the Danes. Angry about the fact that its own local fisheries were forced to compete with more industrial fishing outfits from the European Union, Greenlanders voted to leave the European Economic Community, many of them noting that Greenland is closer, in geographic terms, to the North American continent than to Europe.
In the intervening years, of course, several rounds of treaties have refined the European Union’s structure, including the Treaty of Lisbon, which for the first time introduced in Article 50 a legal mechanism for a member-state’s exit from the European Union that establishes a two-year framework for negotiation from the moment of withdrawal notification to final exit.
Greenland, however, set the only real-world precedent that British voters and policymakers have if, indeed, the country decides to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.
Flush off the excitement from winning a modicum of self-government from Denmark nearly 3,500 miles away, the eurosceptic, left-wing and outright separatist Siumut (Forward) soon won the first local elections after the introduction of home rule. Among other things, Greenland’s prime minister Jonathan Motzfeldt scheduled a referendum for February 23, 1982, in which Greenlandic voters would be asked whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community after becoming a member, nearly by default, when Denmark acceded in 1973.
Imagine yourself as a typical, middle-class voter in Northumberland.
Two years ago, you watched as your Scottish brethren to the north held a vote to consider whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom.
When they narrowly voted against independence, you watched as prime minister David Cameron renewed not only the Conservative, but the Labour and Liberal Democratic promise to enact ‘devolution max‘ for Scotland. He also declared, within hours of the vote, that he would seek to prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on local English matters in Westminster, thereby correcting the long-discussed West Lothian question. (He managed mostly to annoy Scottish voters, pushing them in even greater numbers to the Scottish National Party and its talented leader, first minister Nicola Sturgeon). As the independence threat receded, however, Cameron failed to follow up on either the Scottish or the English side of the federalism issues that the referendum brought to the fore.
Now imagine that you feel like your fraught middle-class status is threatened — by the global financial crisis of 2008-09 or by the widening scope of inequality or even by the rising tide of immigrants to your community, making it even more difficult to compete for dignified and meaningful work.
Maybe you even decided to abandon the Tories or Labour in the 2015 general election, voting instead for the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a way to send a message to Westminster about immigration or globalization. But with the first-past-the-post system, 12.7% of the vote for UKIP translated into just one seat among the 650-member House of Commons. Within England alone, UKIP won an even larger share of the vote (14.1%) than it did nationally. Again, you might have felt that your vote counted for little. Or nothing.
And so, as another referendum approaches this week on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, you might feel doubly disenfranchised. First, to the nameless bureaucrats in Brussels that you believe dictate too much in the way of the laws and policies that govern England. Secondly, within a national political system whose rules minimize third parties and whose leaders have devolved power to all of the regions except, of course, the region where nearly 84% of the population lives: England.
Leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign make it none too clear that, among their goals is this: Take. Back. Control. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the parts of the United Kingdom with the greatest amount of regional devolution — London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — largely support the ‘Remain’ side in the Brexit referendum, according to polls. If ‘Leave’ wins on June 23, there’s a very good chance that it will do so despite the firm opposition of non-English voters.