UCL European Institute


It's Brexit.

27 June 2016, 12:00 am

It's Brexit. First reactions.

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A first round of reactions from UCL staff to the EU referendum results.
24 June 2016

Tim Beasley-Murray, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
To understand one rather local, UCL facet of the EU referendum, consider this image: if you had walked into the UCL quad a few weeks back, in the midst of referendum campaign poisoned by xenophobic and racist discourse about migrants, and if you had looked up to the flagpole on top of the main UCL building, you would have seen a curious silver banner. This banner was an art project by UCL Slade students, "The New European Flag", made out of the foil blankets used to drape refugees from Syria who wade ashore on the Greek of island of Lesbos. Raising the flag, its makers tell us, was "an attempt to create and disseminate a powerful social and humanitarian message marked by solidarity". While the flag was raised on 9 June, moreover, a string quartet and singer performed Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'. Walking into the quad today, I half expected to see the New European Flag at half-mast. The results of the referendum tell us that many who voted Remain were predominantly young and educated and that their strongholds were the University cities of London, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge, Edinburgh and Exeter: experts, the liberal elite. The tragedy of the referendum is that many of those who voted out - those who rightly feel that they get a raw deal in modern Britain - were encouraged to do so by another elite: self-serving, mendacious, and illiberal. Remain voters feel upset, betrayed, and angry. But many of them were those who most obviously benefitted from the EU and its free movement for study and employment. This liberal elite will survive and most likely still prosper. Many of those who voted Leave, if the experts are right, will suffer. As the post-referendum dust settles, the liberal elite on the Remain side needs to move beyond mourning and consider the part that it can play in creating a society of productive solidarity - not only with refugees from Syria, but also with those in the shires, small towns and post-industrial cities of Britain.

Christine Reh, UCL School of Public Policy
It's Brexit. The shockwaves from an acrimonious campaign and a close vote against Britain in Europe leave the UK a far less united Kingdom; this morning, they will also hit Brussels and national capitals across the continent. Britain has always been an 'awkward partner', more flexibly integrated into the Union than most other members, and more deliberately at the margins of EU decision-making since 2010. But Brexit is about much more than the UK. For the first time in history a country wishes to leave rather than join the Union. Populism and nationalism, on the rise across the continent, may be galvanised. Hard-pressed governments in Europe may attempt better settlements and referenda in their own countries. Or Brexit may be a wake-up call for the remaining 27 member states to close ranks, to opt for openness and inclusiveness, and to reform a European Union that needs to connect better with its citizens. More mundanely, Brexit now means long and complex negotiations about the UK's new relationship with Europe. Out means out-just not for a while, when London and Brussels are agreeing their divorce. Divorces are expensive, and this morning we may focus on the costs and the markets. But divorces also break hearts, and as a committed European, who believes in cooperation and compromise, my heart is broken today.

Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit
Now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, the process of withdrawal will dominate the work of Westminster and Whitehall for years to come. But other problems created or highlighted by the referendum campaign itself also deserve our careful attention. First, the political divisions created by a very fractious debate will need to be healed - which will be no small task, particularly in the Conservative Party. Second, the deeper social divisions that underpin the patterns of voting will have to be addressed. The widespread distrust of 'establishment' or 'expert' advice may be depressing, but it reflects a sharp disconnect between different parts of society and a sense many people have that no one listens to them. Third, a careful review is needed into how we conduct referendum campaigns. The debates around the referendum have been characterised by widespread, deliberate misinformation, and mechanisms to counter that have been too weak. Concerns have also been raised as to whether the roles played by the government and the media have adequately protected fairness between the two sides. Referendums will never be perfect, but we ought to be able to do better than we just have.

Uta Staiger, UCL European Institute
After two and a half years of preparations, four months of campaigning, a thundery poll day and a seemingly endless night of counting, the results are in. It is over. The UK is leaving the European Union. We are in uncharted waters and at this early hour, all is speculation. Who will replace the Prime Minister? When will Article 50 be invoked? What plan, what vision do the incoming leaders have for the UK's future? What will the markets do? And Scotland? The plethora of open questions is only matched by the complexity of negotiating the UK's withdrawal and trade terms, which now awaits us. But two things we know. First, the vote is a popular chastisement of our political system - of the public's elected representatives, of the expert advice that informs it, of the received opinion on what's in the country's best interest. A historic vote was won on the back of very angry citizens in a highly divided, highly unequal country. This has changed politics; it will change politics. Second, the ramifications for Europe will be immense. Will the EU muddle through, as it has done on so many previous occasions? Will it rise to the occasion, tackle the thorny questions, and ultimately find a decisive way out its multiple crises? Or, and surely this would be most disastrous, will it become a lame-duck target for a growing popular disenchantment with liberal democratic politics on the right and the left across Europe? There still is everything to play for.

Claudia Sternberg, UCL European Institute
My nightmare has become reality. I'm a German national, who has found a home in this country. Beyond the practicalities of what will happen next, this result has deeply shaken my very personal view on the world I believed I inhabited. I came to this country as someone entitled to live and work here, to many privileges indeed-as a Union citizen. Even if these are not all taken away now, they will no longer be or feel like rights. At best, they will be granted on the basis of treaties and agreements. This morning's result shows that there is no guarantee that things get better and better in history. What we take for granted can be taken away. I realize today how much I had let myself believe that there was such progress (and I am not saying everything about the EU was wonderful). I also can't help but wonder if the UK today is still the country I adopted as the one to live my life in, so uniquely open-minded, civil, and commonsensical. I am deeply worried about the effects of this vote on my new home country. I'm equally worried about its implications for the rest of Europe. Will this referendum trigger further ones, will our debate and campaigns, and what they have done to what it is acceptable to say, boost populism and xenophobia across Europe? And will they destabilize the precious equilibrium we have achieved since World War II?

Albert Weale, UCL School of Public Policy
Writing at the end of the First World War, Max Weber asked what politics means as a vocation for those who practise it. He suggested that politicians sin against their own calling when their understandable urge for power becomes detached from reality, a form of personal self-intoxication not the serving of a realistic cause. In the referendum, Weber's sin was committed time and time again. On the Leave side it was never made clear what realistically it would mean to leave the European Union. What new relationship with the EU was being envisaged? How realistic was it to suppose that new markets would open up? If the UK gained control over migration, would this actually mean a reduction in numbers? What would happen on the Irish border?  Leavers behaved with all the responsibility of a bunch of teenagers left to party in their parents' house. Yet the person with the greatest self-intoxication was the Prime Minister. If his campaign rhetoric was to be believed, here was a decision on which depended economic prosperity, democratic consolidation in Europe and the realistic projection of the UK's presence in the world. How could the fate of such important matters be made to depend upon a needless referendum called solely to solve a problem of internal division in the Conservative Party? I write before the result is known. If the decision is to leave, then as Kenneth Clarke has said, the PM will not last 30 seconds. If the result is to remain, the temptation would be to breathe a heavy sigh of relief and allow Cameron to carry on in office. Nothing could be further from what is needed for responsible political leadership in this country. We have had too much of intoxicated politicians; can the Conservative Party not find some sober ones?