University of Michigan faculty members convened Tuesday night at the School of Social Work to contextualize and discuss the implications of the United Kingdom’s recent referendum to leave the European Union.
The referendum, commonly referred to as “Brexit,” took place on June 23, 2016, with 51.9 percent of Britain’s citizens voting to leave the EU and 48.1 percent voting to remain.
The panel was moderated by Sociology Prof. Genevieve Zubrzycki and comprised of Law Prof. Daniel Halberstam, History Prof. Kali Israel, Political Science Prof. Pauline Jones Luong and History Prof. Joshua Cole, who discussed the causes and consequences of the referendum.
Zubrzycki opened the panel by noting how the vote surprised voters in the UK and the United States as well as stakeholders internationally. The New York Times reported at the time polls predicted the referendum had an 88-percent chance of failing.
“We woke up the following morning on this side of the Atlantic surprised, shocked and with a great dose of disbelief,” Zubrzycki said
Putting the Brexit vote in historical context, Israel said nostalgic visions and ideas of a “British Empire” had some effect in swaying the vote. In particular, she said some proponents of Brexit invoked ideas of British imperialism and nationalism in their to influence citizens to cast their votes away from the EU.
“The historical amnesia about empire as well as the historical nostalgia for empire are a very important context, for which I think needs much more exploration than they got, during the debates leading up to the referendum itself,” Israel said.
Halberstam, participating in the panel via webcam from Germany, also emphasized the causes and legal implications of the vote to leave the EU.
“You could sort of describe it as the populist awakening meets the European democratic deficit,” Halberstam said.
Describing the EU as an “imbalanced federation,” Halberstam added that there is a power vacuum in Europe because member states have limited their own national sovereignty while not giving the union enough authority to make up for a loss of strength at the national level.
He said one example of the power vacuum was the European debt crisis, caused in part by a global economic downturn beginning in 2009. Because the EU has limited the powers of member states to regulate their own currency, countries like Greece were hit harder by the crisis, but the impact of the EU to help was muted.
“The European Union eliminated Greece’s power to regulate its own currency and to react locally to pressures of a downturned economy,” Halberstam said. “At the same time, they did not give the European Union the corresponding powers to ship money into Greece.”
Overall, Halberstam said he saw Brexit as Britain’s attempt to gain national power and distance itself from an ineffectual EU that had little power to begin with. He noted, however, that the process is still far from done — the UK now needs to notify the EU Council of its intention to leave
“That would set into place a two-year period, during which they can negotiate a ‘divorce agreement,’ ” Halberstam said.
Once this two-year period begins, Britain must negotiate new trade deals and border agreements with the remaining 27 EU nations. As a result, politicians in Britain are currently debating how to swiftly go about with negotiations but also notify the EU of the country’s intention to leave.
Panelists also discussed a number of other ramifications of Brexit, such as the resignation of former British Prime Minister David Cameron in June following the vote.
“The UK might not be left anymore, all you might have is ‘little Britain,’ not ‘Great Britain anymore,” Halberstam said. “That’s going to be something that the UK doesn’t want and David Cameron certainly doesn’t want to be remembered as the man who destroyed the United Kingdom.”
The current prime minister of the UK is Theresa May, a member of the Conservative Party, selected after Cameron stepped down. May became the second female to occupy the role since Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990.
Looking beyond the UK, Jones also noted the the implication of Brexit for Russia, saying a weaker EU will lead to greater Russian strength in the long term. He said this could be a concern given Russia’s 2014 forceful annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and plans it may have beyond that.
“The UK was central to the EU’s strength, which really means the UK was central to the EU’s unity,” Jones said. “The UK was viewed as the biggest anti-Russia proponent within the EU, and the biggest problem for Russia when it came to negotiations with the EU.”
Cole wrapped up the panel, speaking about the long-term implications of Brexit and similar populist movements in Europe, such as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany and far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen in France.
“For me, what’s really interesting here is the ways we can see the Brexit vote as simply one instance among many, in which significant numbers of voters in Western democracies have rejected the advice of mainstream politicians and other experts and embraced to be the radical posturings of populists and demagogues,” Cole said.
Cole charged that these movements arise as a result of people feeling out of touch with their own governments. In Europe, he said, frustration has grown amid waves of migration because some citizens feel threatened.
“Europeans can either work on the dual project of political and economic integration or they can become something else,” Cole said. “We now know that Europe will get smaller before it gets bigger or more integrated — it may be that a smaller Europe may be a more viable project in the long run.”
LSA freshman Paul Chamberlain said he came to the event to hear expert opinions on Brexit after hearing media reports that he felt were lacking in depth.
“I think Brexit is a very interesting topic in the news and there’s a lot of different opinions on how it’s going to move forward,” Chamberlain said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish fact and fiction and hear from some experts who actually know what they’re talking about.”