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Brexit: Roots and Repercussions

By Ananya Pandey and Loveleena Sharma

The voting hours of July 23, 2016, marked one of those defining moments in history, which has the power to alter the future. On one hand, it brought to the fore the complexities of how nations and groups imagine themselves; on the other hand, it also opened up the crack for possible repercussions of such decisions. Recent discussions have been mostly dominated by the politico-economic aspects of the decision, leaving aside the psychological and cultural aspects. The latter are as crucial as the former. It is because they have the same capability to disrupt and deconstruct the world structure; and they are less apparent, which makes them all the more important to discern.

Roots of Brexit: Within or outside Britain?

Tracing the roots of Brexit referendum becomes crucial in order to understand how public opinion is shaped, which in turn has the ability to shape political decisions. In the case of the recent Brexit, David Cameron – the torchbearer of the ‘Remain’ vote – and the larger public opinion were at odds with each other. The reason for such difference emerges not only from how the British see the EU (European Union), but more from how they picture their own being. The zeitgeist of the present day resonates with that of the days of colonial expansion. This is evident from the pro-Brexit groups’ slogan which reads: “Let’s make Britain great again”.

The cultural and psychological motivation behind such a spirit is as crucial as the economics of such a decision. The slogan and the result of the referendum reflect an unequivocal verdict: Britain is strong on its own and the membership of the EU makes it weak. This belief system is not perpetual; it goes back to the changing history and identity.

Tracing it historically, the period when Britain joined the EU was one of national decline, accompanied by the shrinking of colonial possessions. EU’s survey, called the Eurobarometer, provides the longest time series available on attitudes towards the EU. It shows that “from a clearly negative balance of views in the early 1980s, until the early 1990s, a steadily increasing proportion of the population saw ‘Europe’ in positive terms” (Henderson, 2016). This is not surprising, given that the 1980s were a decade of perceived success for European integration.

As of today, the results of referendum reflect a reversal of outlook towards EU. Currently, the migration issue emanating from the refugee crisis in EU has served as one of the main motivations behind Brexit. Britain is, and would have been, the least affected state in this manner, keeping in mind its tight border control. Thus the scapegoating of the refugee crisis seems rather unfair.

The fact that after joining the EU, Britain restrained itself from the Schengen and the Euro zone says a lot in itself. It shows that Britain did not want to see EU as a super-state. Britain’s vote today is also a reflection of similar apprehensions towards the increasing importance of the EU. The referendum shows that Euroscepticism has taken a more blatant form; i.e. the present day British nationalism has been wrongly linked to Euroscepticism. The ‘independence day’ phrase being used after July 23 reflects the mood of the British with regards to the issue.

The results of referendum also reflect racism and xenophobia, which were also the belief system of the British colonial set-up. Moreover, the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland feel differently from Britain unearths the fault lines within the United Kingdom. It projects a shrinking UK. If England hangs on to the nostalgia of the empire, it has the potential to not only cost Britain and the EU gravely, but also alter the present world dynamics.

Repercussions: EU and rest of the world

With the formation of the EU, the world began to put their faith in the idea of peaceful co-existence through collective measures and cooperation. The EU institutionalized this cooperation through regional integration and creating a sense of civic internationalism. However, now the world is witnessing a revisionist approach towards regionalism and internationalism, and it just could be the commencement of altered beliefs and ideas. Brexit has the potential to serve as a game-changer for not just EU, but the world at large.

Firstly, the idea of regionalism has hit the ground hard with Brexit, as the EU marks the beginning and an epitome of regional integration. Since the precursor of the EU was formed in 1957, 28 countries joined it and none opted out of the union (other than Greenland, a Danish territory, and Algeria, which ceased to be part of the EU upon independence from France).  Brexit will fortify the wave of Euroscepticism prevalent in the other parts of Europe, traces of which have been witnessed now and then in the region.  This might prompt other countries to follow the lead. The world is already contemplating as to who will be the next. It could be France, Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden as they have vigorous anti-EU public opinion. However, their departure will be problematic, owing to the common Euro currency in some of these states. If not a new ‘exit’, the Brexit has certainly inaugurated the possibility of one, which looked rather impossible in the past.

At the global level, the Brexit will affect the conviction that shapes regional integration. Regions which followed the steps of the EU to establish an institutionally integrated region could fear the same fate of disintegration in the near future. None of the existing regions are as cohesively integrated as the EU, and unfortunately Euroscepticism might transmute into regional-scepticism, where states might be reluctant to increase the regional integration at the institutional level. This scepticism will profoundly affect the developing countries which highly rely on regional grouping for development. These countries are already carrying the post-colonial baggage, which make them sceptical about putting their national sovereignty at stake for the regional integration. Brexit might tilt them back to national interests from regional interests.

The second factor that has been affected with Brexit is internationalism. After the end of communist and capitalist internationalism, civic internationalism, which has been represented by the EU, might witness a downfall. But, rather than getting superseded by the other sort of internationalism, the world will experience the rise of national conservatism. Brexit has marked the beginning of the rise of national conservatism in Europe and if the USA gets Trump as its President, then the wave of national conservatism will permeate the world. These repercussions would not show their immediate impact, but coinciding with other events, they will decide the fate of Britain, the EU and other regional entities. Brexit will not only affect the economic and political scenario but also the psyche of the world regarding national interest, regionalism, internationalism and which one of these holds the supreme priority in the eyes of states as well as people.

Upcoming turns of events will decide whether Britain will become ‘great’ again. But whatever may be the case, Brexit will remain an episodic event in the history of world, changing several dynamics at the state, regional and international level.

Ananya Pandey is a postgraduate in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She recently concluded her internship at UNIDO, Vienna.

Loveleena Sharma is a commissioning editor at E-International relations. She is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi, India.


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