Global Watch

Brexit exposes dangerous global fault lines

Brexit final.jpg

The roots of Britain’s leaving the European Union (Brexit) go back to at least the global financial crisis of 2007/08 and expose some dangerous global geopolitical and socio-economic fault lines. 

“After six decades of increasing global integration, Western nations are turning inwards.

"Protectionism has increased among G20 countries since the global financial crisis, and trade as a percentage of world GDP is on its longest decline in three decades.

“In the United States, reality TV celebrity Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-immigration and anti-trade sentiment to become the Republican presidential nominee. In Europe, extreme right parties have come within a hair’s-breadth of winning absolute election majorities,” wrote Reuben Finighan, research officer at the Melbourne Institute last week on The Conversation website.

To this can be added that the unity of the United Kingdom itself seems set to come under renewed pressure after an overwhelming majority in both Scotland and Northern Ireland has voted for remaining in the EU. Voices have gone up in both countries to go their own ways.

And, as a sign that this has triggered a wider ‘disunity’ trend, some heavyweight commentators are now posing the question: “Does Brexit undermine the case for African regional integration?”

Geopolitical implications

But the Brexit ‘event’ has much wider implications than just for the UK and her immediate trading and geopolitical partners. Historian and constitutional expert Lord Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London, said in an interview with the BBC: “Never in our peacetime history have so many dials been reset as a result of a single day’s events.

“The only thing comparable in my lifetime is the end of the British Empire, which, like this, was a huge geopolitical shift.”

He anticipates that the reaction in the United States (US) will be one of alarm. “I suspect the feeling will be that they've got enough to worry about in the world with a resurgent Putin and Middle East in the state it is without their one dependable ally causing all this trouble,” he said in reference to the destabilising effect it can have on Europe.

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the wider geopolitical implications of such a move - for the EU, Europe, transatlantic relations, NATO, and wider international relations -  have been largely ignored except for debates in a small international relations community of diplomats and scholars.

Fact is that it will most likely turn out to be a defining moment in the history of the EU with wider knock-on effects for NATO, European security and international relations.

Brexit, as it unfolds over the next two years will not happen in isolation from other events, including the ongoing problems in the Eurozone itself and in Schengen.

Depending on how the process plays out in the military (NATO) and geostrategic context, the EU might lose in Britain one of its strongest military powers, together with its renowned intelligence and diplomatic capacities and links across the globe.

This comes at a time of increasing tensions with Russia and the Middle East in ever worsening turmoil.

It will also confront the US with a more complex network of allies in conducting its international relations. In short, it is likely to deliver a more complex, and therefore, dangerous world.

In the words of Nikolas K. Gvosdev on the National Interest website: “Brexit completely transformed the tenor of the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw. This summit was meant to shore up the alliance's response to a resurging Russia in the East and to demonstrate European solidarity to counter the actions of the Kremlin.”

Victory for democracy?

In his BBC interview Lord Hennessy described the result of the Brexit referendum as “a victory for democracy. The greatest strength of any country is the degree to which it is an open society and this vote showed that on that index we (Britain) excel”.

It is clear that the EU, by largely since remaining first and foremost a bureaucratic structure, has failed to “win the hearts and minds” of ordinary people.

 “The people” largely rejected the overwhelming support for staying in the EU from the world’s economists and business community. Fact is, in simple governance terms, business and governments have hit a brick wall with stakeholder/ voters who have become tired of the corporate spin and economists’ explanations,” is how Hennessy put it.

The Brexit result also highlights voting patterns, according to Finighan in his article referred to above. reflecting the frustration of low- and middle-income workers. The lower the income and education levels in a region, the stronger was the vote to ‘leave’.

He argues that globalisation and economic liberalisation have caused average workers’ incomes to stagnate for decades. “Median income has shown no growth in either the US or the UK in the 21st century. In the US, most households have experienced little income growth since the 1970s,” he writes.

There are serious socio-political lessons to be learned, also for political and business leaders in South Africa. In an opinion peace last week, Ben Levitas wrote: “Brexit has shown that people want change, even if it means defying logic

“People want change because they feel that they have lost control over their lives. Outwardly people are concerned about lack of delivery by governments, by corruption in the political and economic elites, by onerous taxes and by the feeling that things are getting worse.

“Other outward expressions of this general malaise, are the feelings that governments have lost control over immigration, over policing, over crime and over where their policies are leading.

“We see the signs everywhere. Populist leaders, that appear from outside the political establishment and appear to challenge the status quo, are gaining traction everywhere.” 

And Finighan warns that as inequality has continued to rise in much of the West, stagnation has spread from low-income workers to the middle class. Anger has followed, spreading to a critically large proportion of the population.

In its wake there is a rise in extremism.


“The frustration-driven disintegration of the West sends a clear message to political leaders and the moneyed interests that influence them: spread the benefits of economic openness. Political stability depends on it.

“Failure to strike such a grand bargain between the winners and losers of economic change will see the West tumble further into the brittle world of nationalism. Then everyone loses,” Finighan concludes.

by Piet Coetzer

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