Watson Faculty Respond to Britain's Exit from the EU

June 24, 2016

On June 23rd, 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union, and Prime Minister David Cameron resigned.

Europe challenged

It continues to be in America’s vital interest to promote a united Europe. Republican and Democratic American Administrations have supported the evolution of the European Union for 5 decades.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), part of an effort to “contain” the Soviet Union, supported the political evolution. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union broke apart there was an aggressive effort to expand NATO into the territory of the old Warsaw Pact, in Central and Eastern Europe and into the Baltic region.

Nations in these regions wanted the deterrent protection of NATO’s Article 5, meaning that an attack on one was an attack on all. While there were efforts in the Clinton Administration to bring Russia into a Partnership for Peace with NATO, the Bush Administration seemed more interested in encircling Russia. They invited nations like Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO and, after abrogating the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty; they convinced Poland and the Czech Republic to place ABMs on their land. The overall effect was to encourage Russia to rebuild its military capacity and to aggressively defend Russian speakers in its “near abroad. “ This aggression led to the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea and to a direct confrontation with the European Union and NATO.

Other Russian efforts to undermine the European Union are not quite as obvious to Americans. Populist parties that support “traditional values” are being financed by Russia. Soft-power propaganda in the form of news programs that challenge the concept of a united Europe is being used as well.

(Read full presentation here)

J. Brian Atwood
Senior Fellow for International and Public Affairs

Looking back for a way forward

The British vote to leave the EU represented a slim majority overall; two of the United Kingdom's four countries (all of which field national soccer teams, and claim distinct cultural heritage) voted to remain, 62-38 (Scotland) and 56-44 (Northern Ireland). This split will make for additional challenges for David Cameron's successor, and drive debates about the solidity of the bonds in the Union. Unlikely as it might seem, policy-makers may find the break-up of federal Yugoslavia, a quarter of a century ago, carries important lessons. Where Slovenia--a relatively homogenous unified Republic--was able to exit Yugoslavia relatively smoothly, other Republics with internal borders and strong regional identities faced a more complex process. For Northern Ireland in particular--with its own history of sectarian strife, where many citizens feel strong affinity with EU member Ireland, and where the UK has its only land border with the EU--this vote may reinvigorate passionate debates around the meaning of loyalty and identity as well as economics.

Keith Brown

Director of Postdoctoral and Undergraduate Policy Programs

Impact of Brexit: positive for oil consumers, negative for markets?

Global oil markets plunged on the news of Brexit, in anticipation of lower energy demand in Britain and Europe as economic production stalls or declines. This comes at a tough time for oil producers, including those in the U.S. industry, as oil prices were just beginning to recover from their low point earlier this year. Lower expected European demand, just as Iranian oil supplies are returning to the global market, are not what producers wanted to see. For consumers, though, lower oil prices is a boon. On climate, the uncertainty about the UK’s future role in the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) for greenhouse gas emissions is probably bad news for the environment.

Jeff Colgan

Richard Holbrooke Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs

Will Brexit weaken global efforts to pursue peace and stability?

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation have profound implications for American security and foreign policy. The “special relationship” with the UK has resulted in greater harmonization of US and European foreign policy positions, especially critical during the negotiations with Iran leading to last year’s landmark Nuclear Agreement. Intelligence and defense relations between Great Britain and the US will continue unabated, but the absence of British leadership in corralling 27 other nations into common and coordinated policies means less influence and greater complications for American cooperation with Europe.

In terms of defense relations, NATO will continue as the essential organization for cooperative security initiatives, and largely be unaffected by the UK’s exit. The EU Common Security and Defence Policy, however, which has been the cornerstone for European leadership in promoting peace and rule of law, especially conflict prevention (with 30 peacekeeping missions/operations since 2003 contributing to stability and security globally) will be significantly weakened. The diplomatic heft of the EU inevitably will be diminished at a time when Europe is struggling to address refugee crises, terrorism, and continued conflict in Ukraine. The UK’s departure will leave Germany– a country reluctant to embrace the kind of muscular diplomacy backed by military force that the UK has championed – in the drivers’ seat. The lengthy and complicated divorce negotiations under Article 50 procedures (designed to deter a country leaving the EU) will detract from the important and growing role Europe has played as a partner to the US in foreign policy issues, from sanctions to nonproliferation and terrorism  Moreover, the UK itself is likely to be weakened and distracted, as Scotland, Northern Ireland, and perhaps Wales too, pursue leaving the United Kingdom.

As President Obama stressed, both the UK and Europe will remain “indispensable partners” but the breakup complicates the already difficult process of coordinating American and European foreign policy, which until recently, has been the critical recipe for diplomatic accomplishments.  

Sue Eckert
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

Brexit could be a blow for US national security and for global privacy

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union could be a big blow for United States national security, and for global privacy.  

Having the UK as a member of the EU was quite helpful for the United States national security community because the UK has always served as a bridge between America and Europe. Although the EU does not formally have a role in defense and security matters, the decisions of its institutions on issues like digital privacy can still have a big impact on intelligence and security. The United States has lost a vital friend and partner inside the European tent.

At the same time, the EU has lost considerable leverage in the continuing debate over reforming mass surveillance. This is a loss for privacy because the EU’s privacy rules are among the strictest in the world. As a result of Brexit, the EU’s influence over the UK’s mass surveillance programs is greatly diminished.

While the United States shares intelligence with many EU countries, the relationship between US and UK intelligence truly is a special one. The NSA cooperates closely with the signals intelligence services of the “five eyes” nations – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UK is the only member of the “five eyes” that is also a member of the European Union – but apparently, not for long.

Timothy Edgar

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

A Fatal Blow

Brexit promises to shatter the post-war order in Europe, to remove the British as intermediaries between the United States and “the Continent,” and to deal a potentially fatal blow to Britain’s special relationships with both.  All this as ill-considered proposals to renegotiate U.S. trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliances, the global trade regime, and US-Russia and US-China relations ring out on the campaign trail in the United States.  

(Read Ambassador Freeman’s full speech here)

Ambassador Chas Freeman

Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

The politics behind Brexit

The Exit vote is a vote against the anti-democratic politics of the EU and the British political establishment. The European Union is an arena where national politicians make decisions, mostly in secret, and then present these decisions to their own publics as fait accompli. It is a mechanism by which national politicians bypass the normal mechanisms of accountability and allows them to favor the interests of the most powerful and propertied.

Those who think that the Leavers are just xenophobes and racists are part of the problem. They trade one prejudice for another. They refuse to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of those who lost by this undemocratic way ruling. They also refuse to acknowledge the role of the EU in, among other things, the refugee crisis and the economic travesty of austerity. The real problem is that only right-wing populists like Farage and UKIP are willing to speak of the importance of self-rule. What is most needed is a proper democratic alternative to the nationalist interpretation of self-rule.

That holds as true in the United States as it does in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. The US election is shaping up to be an analogous competition between the anti-establishment con man, Trump, and Hillary Clinton, the most establishment, status quo candidate in decades.  

Alexander Gourevitch

Faculty Fellow; Assistant Professor of Political Science

Breaking a System Does Not Fix the Problems

There are winners and losers in Brexit, but the stakes are bigger than a redistribution of power and privilege. We need to focus our attention on the alternatives in formation.

The most apparent loser today is David Cameron, the Prime Minister who resigned after losing the campaign to remain in the EU. But it was his gambit that put the EU referendum on the table in the first place. He may be remembered best in a way that Polish Senator Marek Borowski tweeted, “Cameron: the bloke who burned his house to the ground because he wanted to check if its structure was fireproof”.

The most apparent winners in Brexit are its advocates, including Tory Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party. But their victory signals more than the circulation of elites. It trumpets the triumph of a leadership style. Regaining democracy from Brussels bureaucracy expresses its advocates’ most noble claim, but xenophobia and racism are the currents that charge the mobilizing affect animating this new faith.

(Read the full text)

Michael Kennedy

Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs; Director of Graduate Studies, Master of Public Affairs Program

Brexit —a stern rebuke to arrogant elites

European unity remains a splendid idea. It is in trouble for two reasons. First, it places utopian dreams of cooperation above the reality of nationalism. People want to be governed by leaders from their own “imagined community,” not by outsiders. They want at least the illusion that they control their own fate. The EU has pretended this deep need does not exist, or that it can be wiped away with glittering phrases and promises. Ignoring the deep cultural roots of nationalism has not made it disappear. On the contrary, by attacking the principle of sovereignty so directly, the EU inadvertently fed the nationalist backlash that is now sweeping Europe.

The second reason the Maastricht project collapsed is the EU itself. It is run by a corps of unelected bureaucrats, many of them unconnected to traditional society and contemptuous of public opinion. Visionaries who promoted European unity in the years after World War II saw it as a gift to the continent’s people. But their successors have rarely consulted those people, listened to their complaints, or adjusted EU policies to meet their needs. Instead, they embraced the ideology of deregulation, privatization, and reduced social spending. They imagined Europe as a free-trade zone with open borders but little social protection for ordinary people. That is hardly a vision to stir people’s hearts.

(Read more on bostonglobe.com)

Stephen Kinzer
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

Implications of Brexit for the Caribbean

The British exit from the EU also has implications for the Caribbean region, in particular its regional integration scheme, the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the CARIFORUM-EC Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which was signed in 2008.  

CARICOM was modeled off European integration and continues to be influenced by its evolution. Its decision to consolidate itself into a single market and economy, to embrace limited mobility, to open its membership to neighboring countries from the French and Spanish speaking Caribbean and to establish a regional court, the Caribbean Court of Justice, are instances of this. This direction of deepening the process has increased conflicts within the group, especially around trade imbalances and immigration. Jamaica which, like Britain, has tended to operate somewhat on the periphery of the group and whose conservative Jamaica Labour Party has repeatedly questioned the benefits of participating, has recently set up a Commission to assess its relationship with CARICOM. Brexit is likely to strengthen secessionist voices in Jamaica and could well destabilize CARICOM’s fragile unity, which has taken a beating from the financial crisis, global recession and austerity programmes.

The fate of the CARIFORUM-EC Economic Partnership Agreement also hangs in the balance. One would imagine that Britain’s exit from the EU would inevitably lead to its exit from the EPA. Britain is CARICOM’s major trading partner in Europe, so its interest in the EPA without Britain, could well lead to its collapse. The precise outcome of this depends on how Britain exits the EU. Nevertheless, the Caribbean is in for a period of uncertainty and turbulence.

Patsy Lewis

Watson Faculty Fellow; Visiting Scholar in Africana Studies

Brexit shakes me up

In the late 1940s, England was for me, a German youngster who grew up in an anti-Nazi family, the model of a civilized, tolerant, and democratic society, more attractive than the rambunctious other country that demonstrated democracy’s viability and strength, the United States.

As I learned more about history, Britain became even more appealing, because it lost its worldwide empire with greater dignity than other imperial nations, such as Germany, France, and now Russia.

What happened last week makes me sad and far more critical. Brexit, it seems to me, was the result of a very intense nationalism as well as a vast hostility against foreigners. These prevailing sentiments negated decades of earlier attitudes, when migrants from the countries of the former Empire and the current Commonwealth were welcomed better than in other European countries, compared for instance to the misery of Arabs in France.

Hysterical labels like “welfare tourist,” applied to Polish workers who received regular welfare payments for their families, derive from a fury about long-term economic suffering that is insufficiently mitigated by social policy, in Britain as well as in the United States. The campaign to leave the European Union exhibited traces of fascism culminating even in a political murder. Remarkably, those were absent or much weaker in similar periods of the British past such as during the Depression of the 1930s.

Dietrich Rueschemeyer

Charles C. Tillinghast Jr. Professor Emeritus of International Studies

What role did xenophobia play in Brexit?

The UK Independence Party's (UKIP) anti-EU campaign has both incited and capitalized on anti-refugee sentiment through these last two years of the refugee crisis in Europe. This was most brashly displayed in the poster its leader Nigel Farage unveiled as part of the Brexit campaign. It showed a winding stream of mostly non-white and male migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.” The poster was denounced as racist and promoting hate and xenophobia by many in the UK, including by some supporters of Brexit. This image was also compared in social media to images from a 1930s Nazi propaganda film where “Eastern Jews who flooded Europe’s cities after the last war” were called “parasites undermining their host countries” and “bringing with them crime, corruption and chaos.” The anti-semitism of the inter-war period, and the Islamophobia of our times are sobering comparisons. The Bexit vote reveals the populist strength of xenophobic politics – and for migrants and refugees displaced in a world of deepening inequalities, climate change and wars, this vote is not just about Britain leaving the EU – it marks the rise of racist ethno-nationalist chauvinism, that resulted in some of the most catastrophic forms of violence in the mid-twentieth century, that should make us all wary. 

(For image of UKIP poster)

Vazira F-Y Zamindar

Associate Professor of History; Co-Director of South Asian Studies

A sign of Democratic discontent

Europe's political leaders have, for the last 25 years, steadily refined the machinery of international economic integration without reinforcing the political ties that hold the European Union together. The vote for Brexit illustrates a very severe level of democratic discontent that rejects the politics of economic efficiency at the expense of all other goals.  

J. Nicholas Ziegler

Professor (Research) of International and Public Affairs