IN what German Chancellor Angela Merkel called a “watershed for Europe and the European unity process,” and what one Oxford University professor called “an act of unparalleled frivolity” which the British people may enjoy now but will eventually regret later, Britain decided to leave the 28-member European Union last week by a vote of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, causing a “bloodbath” across financial markets, the pound to plunge to its lowest level in 30 years, and David Cameron to announce his resignation as Prime Minister. Calls for similar secession from far-right parties in France, Italy, Holland, Denmark and Greece quickly followed, threatening a possible chain reaction that could ultimately dismantle the EU, just as the Cold War dismantled the Soviet Union in 1991.
Once described as an Empire upon which the sun never set, Britain is now faced with the possible breakaway of northern Ireland and Scotland and its reversion to its old size before it became the United Kingdom. A leader of Sinn Fein, northern Ireland’s largest Irish nationalist party, said the British government had lost its democratic mandate to represent northern Ireland in any future negotiations with the EU, and should now call a referendum on whether it should leave the UK and unite with the Irish Republic.
For its part, Scotland voted 62 percent to 38 percent to remain in EU in last Thursday’s referendum, and sees its future in the EU rather than with England, despite their three centuries of shared history. In 2014, the Scots voted against leaving UK in a referendum, mainly because it meant leaving the EU as well. Britain’s vote last Thursday could now deepen any Scottish desire to leave the UK.
This is what we are able to piece together from foreign newspaper reports and Reuters.
Who were for ‘Remain’?
Led by Cameron, the campaign to “Remain” in the EU counted on the active support of 23 Cabinet ministers, the Labor Party, liberal democrats, most of Britain’s economists, 13 Nobel laureates, international organizations like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, most of Britain’s allies like Canada and the United States, most large employers, and most trade unions.
They believed that pulling out of EU would be an economic disaster for Britain. At least 40 percent of British trade is with the EU, and London’s unfettered access to the EU has made it the leading financial capital of the world; leaving could result in slower growth, job losses, higher prices and a possible recession. They believed the EU could be reformed from within.
Business and economic leaders, academics, politicians and even celebrities bombarded voters with messages, saying how important it was for Britain to remain. On the eve of the vote, Remain released a letter signed by 1,300 businessmen warning against the dangers of voting for “Leave.” Many CEOs used direct mail to urge their employees to vote Remain. Even the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned against the dangers of “Leave.”
Who were for ‘Leave’?
Manning the “Leave” campaign were seven senior Cabinet ministers, former mayor of London Boris Johnson, who is seen as a future Prime Minister, nearly half of the Conservative Caucus, the UK Independence Party, and the Sun newspaper. They believed it was time for the UK to control its borders, free itself from “mountains of EU red tape,” cut billions of dollars of regular payments to the EU and use them for health care and other programs.
On the day of the vote the opinion polls predicted a 52-percent to 48-percent win for Remain. The vote showed the opposite results, although with the same numbers. It was a bad day for pollsters. So stunned were the Remain supporters that they immediately called for a second referendum. As reported by The Independent, 145,570 voters had endorsed the call as of Friday, 11:54 a.m., and the number was “climbing.”
The petition said, “We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the Remain or Leave voter is less than 60 percent based on a turnout less than 75 percent there should be another referendum.” The referendum had a turnout of 72.2 percent, a few points short of 75. The petition needs at least 100,000 signatures to be debated by Parliament. But even with the number of signees rising, the report on The Independent indicated little optimism about a second referendum reversing the June 23 decision.
Back to piracy?
Such is the apparent apprehension about the vote’s economic consequences that Professor Margaret Macmillan, professor of international history and warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, for one, asks in a column: “Will the English have to take up piracy again to help them pay the bills?”
But more than what will happen to England, which is a matter of serious concern to Filipinos, especially those with a family member who has found employment there, the more serious concern for everybody else seems to be what will happen to the EU?
France Soir, the French newspaper, has called the Leave vote “a leap into the unknown,” while Le Figaro fears the risk of other EU members rushing into the breach opened by Brexit—Britain’s exit from EU. France could be the first of these others, after the leader of the National Front, Marine le Pen, called for a referendum in France.
If a chain reaction follows, it could have a far more devastating impact upon the future of Europe than the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Thus, some British commentators have suggested that President Vladimir Putin could be drinking champagne now while Britain and its allies are still trying to understand what really happened.
The EU has been hailed as one of the greatest political constructs of the 20th century devoted to peace, prosperity and development. It is an outstanding model of international solidarity and cooperation, and indeed the working model that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations chose to emulate when it decided to become an ASEAN Economic Community with one vision and one identity in 2015.
It evolved slowly. Founded by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1950 as the European Coal and Steel Community, it became the European Economic Community (Common Market) under the Treaty of Rome in 1957. In Jan. 1973, Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined, raising the EEC membership to nine. In 1975, a referendum was held in the UK on its membership in the EEC; 67 percent decided to stay. In 1981, Greece became its 10th member; Spain and Portugal followed five years later.
In 1993, four years after the Berlin Wall came down and Europe lost all its political borders, the Treaty of Maastricht was signed in Maastricht, a town in the southeast of the Netherlands. In 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden joined. In 2004, 10 other countries joined, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. The Treaty of Lisbon was ratified by all EU member-states in 2009. In 2012, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2013, Croatia became its 28th member.
The euro and Schengen
The EU has a European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, where all its member-states send their representatives. They also have a European Court of Justice, a European Central Bank, a common currency and a flag. Of the 28 members, only 19 have opted to abandoned their respective currencies and use the euro; the nine others who are not part of the eurozone are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK.
The EU also has a passport/visa-free arrangement, signed in Schengen, Luxembourg in 1985, for the movement of people across the borders of member-states. The agreement designates the treaty area as “Schengen area” and covers all EU member-states, except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania, which have yet to perfect their Schengen membership, and Ireland and the UK, which have opted to be permanently out. Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are associate members.
Under this arrangement, a Filipino traveling on a Schengen visa, once admitted in any EU member country, say France or Italy, is free to travel to any other part of the Schengen area without need of another visa. This privilege, among other things, would surely disappear if and when the EU disintegrates. But Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, which will take two years to implement under Article 50 of the Treaty on the EU, could have adverse consequences on, among other things, the employment of foreigners in the UK.
Effect on Pinoys
If, as the Remain campaign had warned, secession could mean job losses, Filipino nurses and other health-care providers could be among the first ones to be affected by any recessionary retrenchment.
But quite apart from the potentially adverse economic consequences upon countries supplying labor to the British jobs market, Brexit offers a shocking lesson about federalism, which the incoming Duterte government appears to be looking at as the “silver bullet” needed to lay to rest the country’s insurgency and other intractable problems of development.
One of the first statements of DU30’s congressional allies is that they would like to “fast track” the constitutional shift from the unitary state to a federal republic. The Brexit fvote should now make it clear that federalism is not without its risks; they cannot and should not rush into it. This is not to counsel paranoia. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, one Brexit cannot possibly make us totally paranoid about the federal system of government.
The United States of America, the Federal Republic of Germany, Canada, Australia, the Swiss Confederation, to name just a few, are enduring successes of the federal system. But if Brexit were a shipwreck, it is in the category of the Titanic. We cannot blame some DU30 watchers if they tend to worry a little too much about it.
Federalism a ploy?
It was the British people, not just one big power bloc, who decided to pull out of the EU in a free and open democratic process. There is no sign of an equivalent situation in which the people of Mindanao are aching to leave the Republic; but some DU30 watchers seem to fear that a big power bloc, with roots in the old Mindanao independence movement and the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front, could use the proposed federal structure as a jump-off joint for the creation of an “independent Mindanao republic.”
This theory cannot be accepted nor rejected outright. It needs to be carefully examined. DU30 will swear by the good Book to fulfill his duties faithfully and conscientiously as President of the entire Republic of the Philippines, to preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man and consecrate himself to the service of the nation. We cannot ask for anything more than this.
But his choice mostly of Mindanaoans for the major Cabinet posts and for leadership of the two Houses of Congress, his apparent decision to make Davao City the virtual seat of his government, even though Manila remains the nation’s capital, make certain DU30 watchers afraid that the proposed federal structure could be used to hasten the dismemberment of the Republic. For instance, his next Speaker of the House of Representatives, handpicked by him rather than by the elected members of the supposedly independent House, used to be associated with the movement for Mindanao’s Independence, and has yet to make a full public renunciation of any secessionist tendencies or beliefs.
Perhaps, there is no real reason for anyone to be afraid. But some people are afraid. President-elect DU30 must know this; he must do something about it.