Article / 28 June 2016 at 14:52 GMT

European disunion and an untied Kingdom

Managing Partner / Spotlight Group
United Kingdom
  • 'Political vacuum' at the heart of Westminster
  • European project endangered by populist sentiment
  • Scottish, Northern Irish questions still open

St. Paul's Cathedral, London
The UK's Brexit vote now wends its way through the corridors of power in London 
and Brussels, and the process is anything but orderly. Photo: iStock 

By Stephen Pope

We are now five days on from the UK's decision, via referendum, to leave the European Union. Today, European leaders may approach outgoing UK prime minister David Cameron and paraphrase the words of Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel:

“…That’s another fine mess you got ‘us’ into!...”

An empty house at Number 10

The decision to leave the EU taken by the electorate of the UK and associated territories was won with a small majority of just 3.8% (Leave 51.9% and Remain 48.1%). The margin of the vote was just 1,269,501. Hardly overwhelming, but a majority nonetheless.

We have a genuine sense of political vacuum in the UK at the moment as the prime minister has clearly lost his desire to carry on. He really couldn’t after having staked so much political capital on remaining in the EU. How could he lead a country that disagreed with him on this issue?

It is hoped that the Conservative Party will select a new leader and hence prime minister sooner rather thn later. Indeed, that process will get under way this week and hopefully by the start of September, if not sooner, a new occupant of 10 Downing Street will be place. 

The early front runners are leading Leave campaigner Boris Johnson and the current home secretary Theresa May. Whoever emerges as successful may well be tempted to exploit their popularity and their opponent’s weakness by hold a snap general election.

Labour’s civil war

If these were normal or even near normal times in UK politics, this could prove to be a great opportunity for the opposition Labour party to make political hay in advance of a potential October election. Instead, last year, by a wave of popular support Labour chose as their leader an idealistic but out of touch left-winger, an old fashioned socialist in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.

His populist touch had a curious charm at first and yet is it is evident that for all his good intentions, he has not been effective in the country at large and his efforts at campaigning for the Remain campaign were half-hearted at best.

Since the referendum, it has been realised by the parliamentary MPs for Labour that Corbyn will not win a general election… in fact, Labour would likely lose a further 60 seats.

Jeremy Corbyn has lost two thirds of his shadow cabinet and seen over 40 of his MPs rebel against his leadership over the last 48 hours. Today it is expected that up to 150 MPs are expected to join together in a vote of no confidence as they seek to remove the inept leader. 

The result should be known by 17:00 BST today.

However, as is his right, Corbyn has promised to fight on and has said that if there is a challenge he will seek re-election. He may have a struggle on his hands as to stand, candidates have to be nominated by at least 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, i.e. 35 MPs.

It will be tricky for Corbyn to find such support at Westminster and certainly no one this time round will lend him their support with a view to having a wide spectrum of political opinion. Last time, with many favours being granted, he had just 36 nominations i.e. 15.56% of Labour MPs.
When the final results came through on September 12, 2015 Jeremy Corbyn had won 59.5% of the vote of the entire Labour Party on the first ballot. 

He had a great deal of support among younger voters. But there is the rub… many young voters wanted to remain in the EU. So given the weakness of Corbyn’s campaigning he may not have their support any longer.

Scotland wants in!

On June 17 I suggested that Scottish National Party leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon would see a decision to leave if driven by a small English majority as a material change in circumstances that justifies a fresh independence referendum for Scotland.

My model of national voting intention showed that in England, if Leave garnered 52% of the vote, then the UK would have a majority for leaving of 414,912. My error was because I assumed the Welsh would want to stay. In fact, in Wales Leave was in a majority by 5.0%.

The English had 53.4% of the electorate voting to leave; this was equal to 87.2% of the entire UK leave vote. It also almost fully matched the UK vote to remain; England’s Leave vote equalled 94.1% of UK remain vote.

So with Scotland voting by 62.0% to 38.0% to remain in the EU, the first minister is determined to fight for the Scottish nation to be part of the EU. Sturgeon will today be holding a meeting with Martin Schulz, a German politician serving as the president of the European Parliament.

The Scottish desire to simply hold onto EU membership may be wishful thinking as the process of negotiating the UK's exit, i.e. Article 50, is a process to be handled by the Westminster government and civil service. The UK prime minister said yesterday in the House of Commons that the decision about taking the UK out of the EU was a matter for the UK parliament, not for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  

Given the Scottish preference, it would make sense for Scotland to start the groundwork of holding a new independence referendum and simultaneously hold discussions with the EU. Even if Scotland were to separate, the extraction from the UK could take a year to manage and so it may well be a minimum of three years before an independent Scotland could join the EU.

I do not see it being straightforward. We know that Spain will not want to offer any encouragement to the Basque region of Catalonia which has its own separatist ideas. Nor will the EU be overly enthusiastic about admitting a new member that will most likely need to be a net cash recipient. 

Edinburgh's strengths as a potential partner may be called into question. Photo: iStock 

I sense that the EU would not be an option for Scotland but committing to the Eurozone may be placed on the table.

That will tilt the balance of opinion – why gain political independence if monetary sovereignty has to sacrificed? It could possibly leave Scotland out of the UK, not in the EU, rejecting the Eurozone, and so left to struggle on in a world of weaker oil prices.

The Irish issue

Northern Ireland voted by 55.8% to 44.2% to remain in the EU; the preference, however, was overwhelmed by the overall UK decision. Northern Ireland's deputy first minister Martin McGuinness quickly called for a border poll on a united Ireland as the region shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland. 

At the moment it is unclear how the relationship between the two countries will be affected by the UK decision to leave.

Northern Ireland has a vested interest in remaining in the EU as it has in recent years received considerable financial support from the EU in the form of “peace money” aimed at financing projects aimed at supporting the region's peace process following theTroubles era.

However, Cameron has rejected any suggestion of a Northern Ireland border poll. He, in fact, said the prospect of holding a referendum on Irish unity was in the Good Friday agreement; but the criteria for holding such a poll had not been triggered.

I wonder if the final decision should be left to the new prime minister or even until after a general election. Whatever way one looks at it, this is far from a United Kingdom”.

Europe's land of broken dreams

Life is not so rosy on the continent either. After the UK decision to leave the EU, the call for other nations to have a say on their own membership has gathered pace.

The leader of the French Front National party, Marine Le Pen said the French must now also have the right to choose. Last Friday, she told a gathering of far-right parties in Vienna:

"…France has possibly 1,000 more reasons to want to leave the EU than the English. …The EU was responsible for high unemployment and failing to keep out smugglers, terrorists and economic migrants. …”

Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders said the Netherlands deserved a "Nexit" vote.

"…We want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy. …As quickly as possible the Dutch need to get the opportunity to have their say about Dutch membership of the European Union. …”

The Netherlands faces a general election in March and some opinion polls suggest Wilders' Party of Freedom is running ahead of the other parties. A recent Dutch survey suggested 54% of the people wanted a referendum.

Just after Italy has seen the eurosceptic Movement Five Star win the mayor’s office in Rome, Turin and Carbonia so the difficulties for prime minister Matteo Renzi keep coming. Mateo Salvini, the leader of Italy's anti-immigration Northern League, tweeted:

"…Hurrah for the courage of free citizens! Heart, brain and pride defeated lies, threats and blackmail... THANK YOU UK, now it's our turn…"

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats wrote on Twitter that "…now we wait for swexit!…"
Kristian Thulesen Dahl, leader of the populist Danish People's Party, said a referendum would be "…a good democratic custom…".

The US-based Pew Research Center collected data in multi-nation survey that indicated a significant decline in the degree of favourable opinion toward the EU. In short, even before the UK voted to quit, the evidence suggests Euroscepticism was on the rise across Europe.

In response to the sudden wave of referendum demands, European Parliament president Martin Schulz denied the Brexit decision would trigger a domino effect, saying the EU was "well-prepared".

However, it may be a hard tide to turn as Beatrix von Storch of Germany's Eurosceptic AfD party – who did so well in recent local German elections  – praised "…Independence Day for Great Britain…" and demanded that Schulz and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker resign.

She added: "…the European Union has failed as a political union…"

Ripped apart at the seams

In a paper prepared by the German Finance Ministry, France, Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Hungary could all follow the UK out of the EU as a wave of anti-Brussels rebellion gathers momentum.

There has been plenty of talk over the past few days from leading European politicians as to the need for reform, but when French and Italians are the ones making such comments it beggars belief. Neither nation has done anything approaching enough to reform their own situations, so it is simply too much for even pro-EU, anti-bureaucracy people such as myself to take such comments seriously.

The EU elite have to wake up and recognise that the region has to be rescued from the debilitating level of red tape that stifles growth and wealth creation. Part of that is reducing the numbers of the unelected rank and file that contribute little and yet claim much in terms of compensation and expenses. 

But this is not a time for Europe to lurch to the left as an answer to growing inequality. That is a result of limited job creation, so it is time for the EU to slash and burn needless regulation so as to allow the entrepreneurial spirit to prosper. 

If not, within five years’ time there may be no euro and no EU.

And Brussels, while retaining its charm, will see a significant 
downgrade in its status. Photo: iStock 

— Edited by Michael McKenna

Stephen Pope is managing partner at Spotlight Ideas
28 June
marran marran
Very well written article Stephen you make some very good points. Personally i think Scotland is totally screwed whatever it does!
28 June
okancakmak okancakmak
Welcome back Steve, we missed you :)
29 June
Krunil48 Krunil48
Just because a majority in Scotland voted Remain does not mean those same people would see themselves better off outside the UK. It's known they would be financially worse off and that's without taking into account the fall in the price of oil. Nicolla Sturgeon's an anti UK obsessive. The Scottish are financial beneficiaries, they have control over their own health, education and police, they have security through being part of the UK. Its only a matter of time before sensible Scottish voters eject both Sturgeon and Salmon. Until then, when do the English get a right to eject those who are hanging around only for a pay day?
29 June
marran marran
absolutely agree with you Krunil68
30 June
Krunil48 Krunil48
Thanks marran, I don't actually believe the English, Irish or Welsh (not necesarily in that order) want to see Scotland leave. Nevertheless, as with any relationship, after a while you start to wonder what the other side's moaning about, especially when they are not getting (in your opinion) a bad deal. I really wonder why Nicolla Sturgeon is so keen to try lead the Scottish down this path. Stephen Pope's observations were confirmed by the Spanish leader on TV last night - they seriously have no intention of negotiating with Scotland outside the UK.


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