The European Union arguably faces its greatest crisis so far, with the covid-19 entering and United Kingdom definitely leaving its borders. But, what about Britain? Voting to keep it sovereignty, national interests and protecting its borders, it looks that instead of emerging from Brexit as solid an united, its future remains shaky and uncertain. Looking at Brexit from a (post)Yugoslav perspective – conveniently summarized by a verse of a popular Yugoslav rock group Bijelo dugme, that who doesn’t listen to a song will listen to a storm – I see spectres of a storm that the Brits have chosen affecting all of us; (not anymore so) Great Britain, the EU, and thereby us in the Western Balkans as well.
Firstly, I am not alone in the belief that Brexit means Gone with the Wind for Britain that we knew so far. Sure, the islanders voted in various ways before, but the still current divides expressed along the referendum lines are so deep that it is hard to imagine their resolution within the existing political order. The deepest, but also most politically benign, is the generational rift; while 2/3 of young people aged between 18 and 24 voted Remain, frightening 83% of the Brits aged 65+ chose Leave. Two young Brit’s Tweets conveniently summarize typical dissatisfaction of the entire generation: “I’m so angry. A generation given everything: free education, golden pensions, social mobility, have voted to strip my generation’s future.”
“The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of its predecessors.”
NEITHER BRITAIN NOR EUROPE
Ethnic divide expressed by Brexit is politically more devastating that the generational rift. This primarily applies to Scotland, where 62% or nearly 2/3 voted for Remain. In the hours and then days following the referendum, highest Scottish officials anticipated a new referendum on Scottish independence, and they continue to do so. Soon, early voices from the EU were heard saying that the Union is quite happy to keep the Scots in. The outcome of the prospective referendum is rather predictable Namely, in 2014, the Scots voted 55 against 45% to stay in the Great Britain for the most part due to the warning issued by the government in London that their vote out of the UK would mean out from the EU as well. In addition, they were threatened that the separation might mean their end to using the pound, which did very well at the time, as their currency. With some hesitation, the Scots then voted against independence and uncertainty it would bring. Brexit turned the tables upside down, and so now Scottish leave UK would be a vote to stay in the EU. If we add to the equation current downfall of the British pound which is not likely to be undone soon, it is more than likely that the Scots will not hesitate very much to turn their back on the UK, and that a new referendum is likely, if not inevitable.
If this happens, it is hard to imagine that the destiny of Northern Ireland, where majority voted Remain, will be decided without a referendum as well. Sinn Fein, once mighty and now somewhat silenced IRA political wing, instantly and loudly proclaimed that the time for the ultimate unification of the Irish people has finally come. But even if we disregard the right wing, moderate Irish from both sides are appalled by the idea of resurrecting the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which Brexitde factomeans. Further, how will British Gibraltar react to all that, given that over 90% of the people there voted to Remain within the EU? At the last referendum, held some 15 years ago, around 95% of its inhabitants voted to remain subjects of the British crown. So, their message is, both UK and EU. Well, as the saying goes, they won’t be able to have the cake and eat it anymore. And, finally, how to reconcile London, with ¾ of voter for Remain, with the rest of England? Ok, one would say that London cannot leave the UK just like that, but it can become a state within the state; unsurprisingly, its mayor did not wait long after results to demand immediately more autonomy for London within the UK. All in all, even if the English and Welsh in the upcoming years do not become significantly poorer than they are now, I am afraid that in the future they will live in an ideologically tougher and spatially smaller country. Observed through Balkan lenses, this does not bring benefits on the long run.
ENGLISH NATIONAL REVOLUTION
Among numerous comments and analyses notable were the ones that applied a neo-Marxist perspective to claim that the seed of dissolution that gave birth to Brexit has been planted in the 1970s and 80s, when Thatcherism created armies of unemployed in Britain that never recovered after losing their jobs and the disappearance of whole industrial sectors in central and northern England. It was precisely these losers that formed a stable group of voters who bought the story of the future paradise that will come after Poles and Lithuanians leave the island and immigrants are denied access to it.
I believe that efforts made to show the inaccuracy of claims that foreign workforce is bad for the British economy – which formed the backbone of the pro-EU campaign – have missed the target. Certainly, foreign labour force is not the cause of the economic problem, on the contrary; economic policy of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson only concealed racism and xenophobia which, as I believe, were the real driving forces behind this whole narrative about foreigners, security, protection of borders, markets, jobs etc.
In my view, best diagnosis came from the most brutal analysts, who described the Brexit story as an English national revolution, which it essentially is. Thereby, it comes as a paradox that it was exactly those nationalists, who swear to the marry old England and preach national unity, actually showed how little they care for their country by making a decision that spreads divisions among British nations and endangers its existence. To us from the former Yugoslavia, display of such patriotism evokes disturbing memories of the devastating consequences it could bring.