Brexit (for Americans)
First things first: I’m an American political scientist! I’m not, by any means, an expert in UK politics, European politics, or for that matter, economics, immigration, or parliamentary democracy. But if, like me, you woke up in one of our six time zones and are wondering exactly what the hell is going on over there, then I can help you out.
What exactly did the UK do?
The UK held a nationwide referendum to either stay in, or leave the European Union. A referendum is a form of direct democracy; it gives everyone who votes a direct say in whether or not a law passes. Usually, decisions like this are handled through your legislative representatives: Parliament in the UK, Congress over here. Referendums in the UK are rare - this is only the third in its entire history.
The UK’s referendum is nonbinding, which means that the result of the referendum does not actually have the force of law behind it - Parliament still has to vote. More on this later.
Is it possible they thought they were all voting on a new, less boring flag?
What’s the European Union, again?
The EU is, at its most basic level, a collection of European nations that have all agreed to the same common system of laws and economics. On things like trade, economics, agriculture, development, and free movement of citizens throughout Europe, the EU has agreed to all play by the same rules (more or less). The aim of the EU is, essentially, a Europe united by trade, freedom of movement, a single currency, and shared citizenship.
The EU has its own system of government, not unlike the US or the UK. The Council of the EU and the European Parliament legislate and have control over the budget. The European Commission acts as an executive branch, and is responsible for implementation of the laws - it’s even led by a President. The EU has a system of courts, a central bank, its own system of auditors, a diplomatic corps - it’s basically a nation made of smaller nations.
The EU operates on a system of shared competence, which means that the member-states have given up their authority to make laws in certain areas that affect other member-states. So, for example - France, Germany, and the Netherlands are all beholden to the laws that the EU makes about fisheries. If their own legislatures suddenly decided that a fishery overhaul was absolutely necessary, then whatever law they made would be superseded by EU laws. On the other hand, the EU also agrees that matters of culture, industry, tourism, education, sports, and a whole swath of other issues are best handled by the member-states, and stays out of them - by and large, European member-states still mostly govern themselves.
What are the arguments for the UK leaving the EU?
There are a few of them, and they largely originate from one of two similar ideological camps: The nationalists and the anti-immigrationists.
Boris Johnson attempting to express the human emotion which we call “happiness.” Don’t give up, Boris! It’s hard!
The nationalist argument for leaving the EU, largely put forth by people like former Mayor of London and Trump Hairstylist Boris Johnson, says that the EU is a threat to British sovereignty. They are uncomfortable with the idea that they have to give up authority to the EU bureaucracy. They argue that the EU’s executive branch isn’t directly accountable to voters in Britain, and that there’s no way for your average British citizen to affect things that have a direct impact on their daily lives. Additionally, the nationalists have characterized the regulations the EU places on British businesses - things like “work safety standards” - as “burdensome.” They often cite things like power regulations for vacuum cleaners and toasters or an EU-wide ban on oddly-shaped bananas, which led the BBC to publish a compilation of debunked “Euromyths.”
The anti-immigrationist argument for leaving the EU revolves around conservative insecurity that EU immigration policy is too lax, and that immigration to the UK is a drain on public resources. Anyone who has been paying attention to American politics recently will recognize a certain Trumpian aroma to this line of thinking. People like Nigel Farage, head of the very conservative UK Independence Party (UKIP), believe that the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe has negatively affected the wages and job prospects for native-born British workers, and are crowding out already-scarce public resources like the National Health Service. This movement is, unfortunately, nothing new on either side of the Atlantic - immigration is a historically popular scapegoat for economic, political, and cultural distress. We’re seeing a lot of that over here this year, too.
Nigel Farage poses in front of an anti-immigration poster that invokes similar imagery from Nazi propaganda.
What are the arguments for staying in the EU?
There are a lot of arguments to remain. About three million UK jobs are linked in some way to the EU and will now experience a great deal of uncertainty. In the 24 hours since the referendum to leave the EU passed, the UK’s economy has experienced a significant shock, with the value of the pound sterling dropping to all-time lows and shares of British banks falling by as much as 30%. The European market is the UK’s biggest trade partner, and a lot of that depends on the free movement of goods from the UK to the continent. EU supporters also say that the severity of regulations are exaggerated, that the EU doesn’t actually care what the shape of your bananas are, and that the folks who use immigration as a scapegoat are being reactionary and xenophobic. Additionally, leaving the EU reduces the power and influence the UK has on the world stage and adversely affects its standing with the European community, of which it has been a part for decades. And to think that regulation would simply cease with Britain’s exit from the EU is ludicrous - the source of regulation would simply move one rung lower down the ladder, and the ire of conservative pundits would shift from Brussels back to Downing Street.
Well, so far, a lot of the Remain arguments seem to be playing themselves out. Economic markets all over the world are down, including our own here in America. David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, who was a vocal supporter of Remain, has announced that he will resign in October, after he begins the process of overseeing Britain’s transition out of the EU. Chances are, he’ll be replaced by someone a good deal more conservative. Nigel Farage has already gone on record as saying that the UK deserves a Brexit Prime Minister, and that’s probably what they’ll get.
Turns out, allegedly having sex with a dead pig is only the second-most embarrassing part of Cameron’s political career.
Internationally, the UK may already be facing problems. As soon as the referendum to leave the EU passed, the Scottish First Minister began making noise about holding another referendum to secede from the UK - after all, membership in the EU was a huge deciding factor in the Scottish referendum in 2014, in which Scotland decided to stay a member of the UK. Additionally, Sinn Fein, Ireland’s oldest political party and political wing of the IRA, began talking about Irish reunification. This possibility is a good deal scarier for citizens of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and brings to mind the not-too-distant Troubles. It is also a less likely outcome; even though Northern Ireland on the whole voted to Remain, Sinn Fein is in the political minority and should probably not be taken as a consensus on the Irish view of the situation.
The last thing to keep in mind is that this entire referendum was non-binding - it didn’t have the force of law behind it. Parliament still has to vote to invoke Article 50 of the EU Charter, which is what officially starts the process of their exit. And if the 24 hours of economic turmoil and buyer’s remorse are any indication, there is a chance that Parliament may decide to go against 52% of the British public and vote to stay. But that process is largely up to David Cameron, who during the lead-up to the referendum repeatedly promised that the results would stick. The shock to the world economy that occurred today is only the beginning of a long period of uncertainty for the future of the United Kingdom and of Europe as a whole.
To my UK readers, of which I know I have more than a few: Stay safe.
For more information, The Guardian and The BBC have been running stories about this all day, and will continue to be doing so for the foreseeable future. For example:
I found these extremely helpful, and if you want to learn more, I hope you will too!
As always, thank you for reading. If you have anything to add - I’m sure that I oversimplified a great deal, for example - feel free to shoot me an ask or reblog with your comments!