The European Union (EU) is one of a kind. Comprised of the strongest countries in Europe, monopolizing the oldest former empires in the West, this Union started from nothing more than a gathering of leaders to discuss coal and steel trading. From coal and steel a glut of history, influence, and wealth blossomed that the world has not seen on such a united scale. Europe in all its rich history has seen countless wars over territory, inheritance, and legacy. For the continent to put aside it’s tumultuous past and come together as a united front is nothing short of a miracle. It is hard to find another a functional supranational alliance in all of modern history that has enjoyed so much power. Today, the EU is a collection of pooled resources, talent, and knowhow that was poised to be a major player on the world stage for decades to come.
On June 23, 2016, Great Britain held an extremely rare nation-wide referendum that would determine whether they remained in the EU. The backdrop is that months earlier Prime Minister David Cameron conceded to allow for the vote in order to settle disputes and infighting within his Conservative Party, never thinking that the country would vote anything other than to remain committed to the ideals and strength of the EU. The day and the vote came and went, and with it went more than half a century of planning, innovation, history, wealth, cultural norms, borders, and established tradition that were hard fought to put in place. London voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, but the rest of the country voted to the contrary, and that was enough to tip the scales backwards in a time-travel exercise that landed Great Britain 23 years in the past. A move that was initially - as we know now self-sacrificing on Cameron’s part - afforded as nothing more than a concession, a throwaway, became the biggest vote in the UK in over one hundred years.
Great Britain has always been a hotbed for what is known as Euroscepticism, or distrust and animosity towards the EU. As one of the most powerful and influential countries in the Union, many in the country consider national interests far above the interests of Europe as a whole. Many tend to think domestically first, before, if ever, turning their heads to the happenings in other countries around the continent. Since its official inclusion in 1993, Britain has never looked kindly on the institution. With London being the exception, the country has long been a hotbed for xenophobia, which many think led to the unprecedented voter turnout.
I had the pleasure of matriculating at the London School of Economics and interning with Resurgence (headed up by the spectacular Mark Harvey) over this past summer, and I was on the ground before, during, and after the vote. The atmosphere before was interesting. It was like nothing I’d seen in the US, really. There were various ‘Stay’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns with volunteers outside every tube stop, handing out stickers and literature, but other than that, no one seemed especially excited about this particular demonstration of the democratic process. Everyone, regardless of stance, seemed anxious at best and indifferent at worst. Conversely, Americans are an interesting bunch when it comes to politics. We’re very excitable in many segments of the country. Our excitement is typically fueled and/or extinguished by our differences like race, socioeconomic status, age, etc. In London, politics are enthralling, maybe even more so than in the States; primarily because of how the voting process is structured. That said, people never wanted to discuss it until after the vote. No one had any strong opinions until the results came out, and then - chaos.
Voting took all day on the 23rd, and they were counted well into the night. Sometime in the early morning, British Summer Time (BST), the results were official. After the announcement the city came alive, as if someone had made the mistake of disturbing a sleeping lion. The British Pound plummeted by 10-15% and stock markets worldwide reacted accordingly. In a city where the majority of people treaded the line between apathy and ignorance, the news rumbled through the streets like a bull through a china shop. I was bombarded with the solicited and unsolicited opinions of my classmates and colleagues on the 24th. I was truly taken aback. In one fell swoop, palpable outrage and disbelief sprang up from every direction. As a visiting American with dollars in my bank account, the subsequent developments were financially beneficial; but as a supporter of global progress and democracy, I could not help but express my disappointment with the results.
How could a country so storied, bemoaned, and hailed for its historic global relevance turn back decades of progress overnight? How could a cornerstone of the EU arbitrarily decide that the strength and power that comes with a united Europe just wasn’t for them anymore? It left my head spinning. If my head was spinning, the heads of the British citizens had long ago spun right off. Over the following weeks, I came across too many people who had declined to make it out to a voting station because the weather was bad. On the flip side, I also encountered indivi
duals who thought that voting leave meant leaving Europe as a continent.
|At London School of Economics|
If the voting electorate is not educated when they go to the polls, it is impossible for democracy to fully function properly. Here in the US, if we are not engaged and active as informed citizens, we too could see democracy work in ways it isn’t ideally meant to. Many were wholly unfamiliar with the EU as an institution, and they were especially unfamiliar with the rights it afforded them in Europe, like free and easy passage in any EU member country or residency status in any of the 28 countries just with EU citizenship.
Taking the temperature of the city and of the country in the weeks and months following the decision proved difficult at best. On the surface, it seemed the populace had summarily slid back into the nonplussed attitude that I had seen previous to the shakeup, but under the surface, everyone was and is still boiling and it was always the trending topic of discussion in most places I frequented. Many are still trying to process the magnitude and meaning what occurred that day. A myriad of anticipated and unintended consequences will be felt and realized for generations to come. It’ll be interesting to watch it unfold as the ‘conscious uncoupling’ ensues. Called Brexit, June 23rd, 2016, will be a day that will forever live in infamy. I believe America could learn a few things.