Letter From London: Tremors From the Brexit
A week after the United Kingdom's referendum on EU membership produced a victory for the "leave" camp, the Brexit vote continues to send shockwaves through Europe and the wider world. Uncertainty prevails in Britain and the rest of the European Union, given the unprecedented nature of the vote and an ill-defined plan on what exactly comes next. It was to this atmosphere of confusion and insecurity that I arrived in London on June 26. Just 48 hours earlier, Britain's capital of 10 million people had first woken up to the official results and began trying to make sense of what had just happened — and what was on the horizon.
With just a week to spend in the sprawling metropolis, I wanted to talk to as many people as I could to gauge the mood of the city and where people stood at this historic time. On my flight into Heathrow, I sat next to a British couple in their mid-30s who live in a small town about 40 minutes south of the capital. They were both supporters of the "remain" camp and were shocked to return from a vacation in New York to a country that had altered its course so dramatically in the span of a few days. The husband said they were scared because no one had a clue what would happen next, and while acknowledging that democracy was a good thing, his wife added that "it just wasn't right" that a vote won by such a small margin could drastically change the country "for generations to come."
When I asked them what drove so many people to vote to leave the European Union, they both quickly said immigration. Like many countries in Europe, the United Kingdom's migrant population has grown significantly in recent years. Compared with 1993, the number of migrants and asylum seekers now entering Britain has increased tenfold. Before the European Union expanded in 2004 to include many Central and Eastern European countries, net emigration from the Continent into Britain averaged around 10,000 people per year; in 2015, it was 185,000 people. Evidence of the large influx from Central and Eastern Europe was readily apparent in central London, where most cafes, bars and restaurants I visited had people from that region working there. Add in migrants — legal and illegal — from areas of the Commonwealth, and immigration certainly seems to have been a factor in the vote to leave. Far-right and nationalist parties have stoked immigration fears — especially regarding refugees from the Middle East — trying to instigate public backlash for political gain.
On a taxi ride from Victoria Station to my lodging, I got another perspective from the cab driver, a British man in his early 40s. He told me he had voted "leave" in the referendum, mainly because he no longer wanted the country to be "controlled by Brussels." He said the European Union had started as a free trade arrangement, but further integration had happened without the public say. He added that a lot of industry in the United Kingdom had left and gone overseas, and he lamented that although London was doing well economically, other more industrial parts of the country weren't.
In terms of the breakdown of the Brexit vote, polls showed that the "ins" and the "outs" were divided by various categories, one of which was age. The vast majority of the younger generations opposed a Brexit (less than 20 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted to leave), while more than 58 percent of pensioners favored it. Given that I was staying in student housing near the University of London, I had plenty of access to the former group. One political science student told me that almost all of the people in her department — students as well as professors — were in favor of staying in the European Union. The fact that students of EU countries could easily study anywhere throughout the bloc under the Erasmus Program was, according to her, a major incentive to stay.
Backlash From the Brexit
One of the students I met notified me via Facebook of plans to hold an anti-Brexit demonstration on the afternoon of June 28 in central London's Trafalgar Square. The event ended up being canceled a day before, reportedly because it was too dangerous to go ahead: The organizer, who initially intended to bring 20 friends together, was unprepared for the more than 50,000 people that said they would attend and the associated security precautions such a large number would entail. Despite the cancellation, another Facebook event quickly formed for the same time and place, and the organizer stated emphatically, "This protest is still happening."
Curious to see the size of the turnout, I headed to Trafalgar Square a half-hour before the protest's slated 5 p.m. start time. At 4:30 p.m., the square was calm and not too crowded, with few signs of protesters but several TV cameras set up by local media in front of the National Gallery. By 4:50 p.m., a small crowd had started to gather just as it began to rain, and by 5 p.m. the crowd had grown in size to fill the interior portion of Trafalgar Square. By 6 p.m., the crowd spilled out into the area surrounding Nelson's Column as people — many of them students — stood in the downpour chanting, "There's no plan!" and wielding signs that read Stop Brexit, What Happens Now?, Migrants Welcome, We Heart EU and We Have Been Left Divided, among others. One commentator on Twitter called the demonstration the "Umbrella Revolution" on account of the sea of umbrellas that filled the crowd of people.
Calling a demonstration held by a few thousand people a "revolution" was definitely an overstatement, but the protest — along with plans to hold follow-up rallies in the coming weeks — shows that the divisions and disputes over the Brexit vote continue. The protest, with its pro-immigrant messages and largely young demographic, also reveals the divisions within the United Kingdom. Though immigrants and students clearly have a lot to gain from the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, there are also segments of society that do not feel better off as a result of EU membership, as the referendum showed. Such sentiments can change as the reverberations of the vote start to trickle in — with the pound immediately falling to a 30-year low against the dollar — and as the post-Brexit dust starts to settle. Even some who voted to leave have expressed doubts about their decision, and those who voted to stay are hoping that because the vote was nonbinding and there is a lengthy negotiation process ahead, a Brexit might not actually take place.
Regardless of what happens, the Brexit vote sent two major messages: Britain is starkly divided politically, and the European Union in its current form is likely unsustainable. What comes next, at least according to those I spoke with in London, is anybody's guess.