Nobody claimed that direct democracy and referendums are not messy business, where people vote with their fear and their feet and not with their minds. The latest messy twist is unfolding with cataclysmic effects and a tectonic shift reverberating beyond the UK and the EU. Almost 52 per cent of UK voters voted to exit the EU, with almost a million and a quarter votes making the difference, with a 72 per cent turnout.
But what a mess the referendum outcome has caused all over the world, in terms of political, economic and social fallout, with two new facts: The future of integration for the EU and other regional organisations and the possibility of a break up of the UK itself, as Scotland is seriously considering another referendum of its own to secede from the UK, following the Brexit result, after the marginal loss of its first referendum in September 2014.
It was ironic that not all UK regions were on the same page. The breakdown of the referendum shows clear regional, demographic and ethnic discrepancies and variations among the voters. Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with London and young people voted to stay in the EU.
The factors that coalesced to cause the shocking result were the ascendance of the right in the UK and other European countries. Anti-immigration, refugees and assimilation sparked the rise of nationalism over internationalism, and led to the backlash against the bureaucracy of Brussels and its inference in the affairs of ordinary Europeans — especially with bailing out poorer European states such as Greece and financing European projects, leading to the rise of strong Euroscepticism.
The shocking referendum result forced the British, the Europeans and the world to stand up and take notice of this unexpected result, which could not only lead to the disintegration of the UK itself, but even to the unravelling of the EU, which has entered a phase of uncertainty, with downgrading of the UK and the EU’s financial outlooks. This could end the European dream of a powerful, self-confident United States of Europe.
These events have dealt a major blow to the forces of integration not only in Europe, but to alliances and blocs around the world, including the GCC states, where all alliances used to speak with awe and employ the EU as a beacon, a harbinger to be emulated by aspiring alliances hoping to copy the successful integrational model. After the Brexit results, the divorce could be a prolonged and messy one. It has already caused a soap opera or Shakespearean drama within the Tory party in the UK, and caused a mutiny within the Labour Party aimed at toppling its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Exiting the EU could take years, ending its 43 years of half-hearted membership in the EU. The UK never fully embraced the EU; it opted out of the Eurozone 2001 and kept its pound sterling. Likewise, the UK never joined the 22-member Schengen agreement, which opened the borders for members. The UK has cherished the fact that its English language has dominated the other 23 official languages of the 28 EU states.
We have heard time and again that the GCC should learn from the EU success story and how 28 countries with multiple languages, histories and acrimony have succeeded in forming a formidable alliance, while the GCC states with all their commonalities have failed to integrate. Well, I think we won’t hear such taunting anymore.
But what are the lessons an organisation like the GCC could learn from the Brexit debacle, especially over integration and assimilation, which have clearly suffered a major blow?
Karen Young of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, argued: “Brexit is an opportunity for the GCC to see that even regional organisations with good governance face some problems that can only be resolved at the national level, but require some regional policy coordination… The Brexit experience will likely be a deterrent to further GCC institutional integration, encouraging largely bilateral support mechanisms and entrenching the consultative style of the Gulf regional organisation. A future Gulf central bank and shared defence apparatus start to look even less likely.”
Now the GCC states have to deal with a confused, less united Europe, facing an avalanche of crises in the Middle East, from Syria to Libya, to the Middle East Peace process to Yemen. After its successful role in clinching the Iran deal a year ago, the EU looks like a shell of its former self.
The GCC will continue to deal bilaterally with the EU states and will have a more British-oriented foreign and security policy, which could possibly be more aligned with the US to compensate for its Europe-centric policy.
But the question is how would the British exiting the EU impact the contentious and long-overdue GCC-EU Free Trade Agreement? Naturally, the GCC states are worried about the long-term outlook of their Sovereign Wealth Funds, especially in the UK market, considering the downgrading of the UK and EU financial outlooks.
The GCC states are less worried about the EU because it lacks a coherent policy towards them and they have been frustrated by the delays over the Free Trade Agreement.
The lessons of the EU referendum for the GCC states are clear — it will have a negative impact on the pace of GCC integration, and mainly its mega-project to advance from 35-year-old cooperation to a ‘Gulf Union’. Although there have been calls by Oman to walk out of the GCC, this won’t happen any time soon. There won’t be disintegration, because of the dire security crises we face in our precarious Gulf region. But at the same time, the optimistic views that accompanied Operation Decisive Storm last year and the coordination of the Saudi-led GCC states in dealing with the host of crises and threats to advance a GCC project to contain and check Iran, seems to be less certain than it was before the Brexit referendum.
Hopefully, many lessons will be learned. The most worrying sign is the uncertainty that is prevailing all over as a result of the Brexit referendum. The fear is whether the referendum result will snowball and have a negative impact on regional organisations. The challenge is how organisations such as the GCC, manage a soft landing and avoid the epidemic of disintegration.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji