Last Thursday the United Kingdom voted in a historic referendum to exit the European Union after 43 years of membership. The decision by the British people will not only significantly reshape the nation's place in the world, it will also deeply influence future direction of the EU. To discuss the possible consequences of the Brexit on both the U.K. and the rest of Europe, we spoke with the U.K.'s former European Affairs Minister Denis MacShane. Apart from his political career, Mr. MacShane authored two books, one titled "Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe" in 2015, and "Why Yes to Europe" in 2016, and his books stressed that a Brexit was coming.
Answering Daily Sabah's questions via a telephone interview, former Minister MacShane said that the U.K. was now entirely divided after this popular referendum, with a potential consequence being the U.K. breaking up. Underlining that Britain is having a generalized political crisis which has not been seen for 200 to 300 years, Mr. Macshane said that if Scotland leaves to join Europe,, that would be the end of the U.K.
MacShane does not expect the collapse of the EU, he predicts there is a possibility of a Balkanized Europe. Asked why the Brexit campaigners spread fear of Turkish accession to the EU, MacShane said that was simply because they are nationalist populists and they thought it an effective way to frighten people, "it clearly worked."
Daily Sabah: Could you please elaborate on the referendum results from your perspective?
Basically every referendum with regards to Europe this century has resulted in a no to Europe. The 21st century has seen classical left and right parties, based on compromise, replaced by nationalist populist politicians who blame the EU and foreigners for all of our problems.
I wrote a book which was published in 2015 called "Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe" and I knew what was coming. For the consequences of the Brexit for the U.K. and its citizens, we shall have to wait and see. But clearly if the U.K. is out of the EU, London cannot be the center of trade and clearing of swaps in Euros. Many world firms will be worried about the great political uncertainty and confusions and will pause before continuing or renewing investment in the U.K. The loss of a single EU passport for doing business will be a major blow.
Prime Minister David Cameron did not have to organize his entirely personal decision, this is why he is leaving government. Now we voted to leave the EU, and there will be a great deal of political crisis to elect a new prime minister, before we will find a new cabinet and ministers to negotiate with the EU. Meanwhile Scotland voted to stay in the EU. London, which is a giant part of the British society and economy, voted to stay in Europe. So the crisis just gets worse and worse. The country is now entirely divided, with a potential consequence being the U.K. breaking up after this popular referendum.
What role did British and European media play during the referendum?
Most of the British press, including mass circulation tabloids, have been very hostile to the EU for the past 25 years, often printing lies and propaganda.
You said that there is risk of the U.K. breaking up. Do you think this might take place in the coming days?
Not in the coming days, but the Scottish people voted to stay in the EU, while the people of England voted to leave. So the people of Scotland and their leaders say they will need to have another referendum in their country, so that they can stay in the EU as a separate independent nation-state. If Scotland holds a referendum to stay in the EU as an independent Scotland, then Great Britain becomes Small England. If Scotland leaves, that is the end of the U.K.
PM Cameron announced that he will step down in October, what more will these referendum results mean for the U.K.'s domestic politics? Can we expect the rise of far-right and nationalist parties?
No, I don't think so. The populists wanted to get out the EU, and they won that. But Britain will not turn into fascist state and it's not going to abolish laws, it's not going to start attacking fundamental civil liberties. That's not an issue.
Mr. Cameron is now dead politically, and the Conservative Party now has to organize a vote to choose a successor as leader of the party and Prime Minister. As for English domestic politics, the Labour Party will stay weak, the Liberal Democrat party doesn't really exist anymore, because of its leader. So yes there is a generalized political crisis in Britain, such as we haven't seen for 200 to 300 years.
What will be the next steps to take for the government to deal with the EU?
We do not know. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned because he made the most disastrous decision of a peace-time prime minister in British history – to organize a referendum no-one wanted or called for, and now he has paid the price. There is no leadership from politicians, as the Brexit Tories fight like rats in a sack to see who emerges as party leader and Prime Minister.
Do you fear that the U.K. will become more isolated from the EU?
Obviously if ministers, officials and diplomats are no longer taking part in daily meetings at all levels with their colleagues in the EU, the standing and status of the country is diminished. There have been periods in British history when national leaders have tried to isolate the U.K. from the continent. The results were always disastrous.
Do you think that the murder of Jo Cox affected the result?
Not really. People fight for their various opinions. But in the end, people have sadly been tragically assassinated for the purpose of politics in different countries. I think that people decided on the arguments they felt were very important. So poor Jo Cox was killed, but whether that affected the result one way or another, it is hard to say.
It was a narrow win. In this regard, can we say that the U.K. public is quite polarized?
Yes, obviously. If you look at the result which was 51.9 percent in favor of Leave to 48.1 percent in favor of Remain, this means that the British public is quite polarized. It was also polarized with London saying "yes" and Scotland saying "yes." More importantly, having examined the results for different generations, a generational polarization is obvious. Elderly people voted for Britain to leave the EU, while Great Britain's young people voted to remain in the EU. All those details will have to be examined carefully, but we witnessed that the country is very badly polarized.
Why do you think that the Brexit campaigners spread fear of Turkish accession?
Simply because they are nationalist populists and they thought it was an effective way to frighten people, and clearly it worked. One of the logical conclusions is that people rejected the idea of Turkey joining the EU. That is why so incredibly dangerous to greet Turkey as a member of the EU.
But equally the Turkish government, in the eyes of many people in Britain, has not been able to show itself capable of modern democratic European politics. In addition the Turkish government's difficulty in finding a solution to the Kurdish question and allegations about the ruling party have been widely reported in the British press, and these have sadly affected perceptions of Turkey.
So I think yes, clearly it has had some impact, which is why the Brexit campaign used Turkey as an instrument to frighten people. It pretended the case that Turkey is about to join the EU and therefore soon there would soon be 75 million Turks arriving in Britain, and that Turkey was a country that was not upholding the best of European values, and it represented to the British public that Turkey could reject so-called European values. I want to emphasize that I doubt the Turkish question was a factor in the referendum outcome.
Do you fear a risk of emulation by other European countries: Will more and more European countries want to go out of the EU? Will the European project collapse?
No one can answer that question. The possibility of a Balkanized Europe is now on the agenda. I have never understood the concept of the "European Project". There is Germany, France, Italy and other proud independent nation states who have decided to share some common policies to promote growth and open societies under the rule of law. That is the European project, and it should be defended.
Since the very beginning the EU exists to allow countries to come together to share economic prosperity and to enjoy/join mutual cultural freedoms. Of course, it allows people to live, work, travel and retire. I think it is a very good and honorable objective and still remain vital.
But now we play a part in a decision to reverse what has been decided. This is a future that we don't know, and a lot now depends on the EU. Forget about the language of the EU in the sense of Brussels.
Do you think the EU's enlargement process is over after this result?
No, you cannot say that, it depends on whether states find that they are unprepared to reform and willing to show a European spirit. Take for example the states of the western Balkans: Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, they are joining the EU as small states. I think they have to show that they can cooperate internally in the Balkans, which means they have to show they can put behind their differences.
Do you think that the results will affect Turkey's EU process?
Clearly yes! One key aspect of this referendum was the decision by the Brexit camp to decide the example of Turkey as proof that the EU is going in the wrong direction. Turkey is a country that many people see as half-democratic and a very poor country, therefore if Turkey joins the EU and 75 million Turks freely common live, travel and work as all members of the EU in Great Britain was seen as very problematic.