Comment & analysis

Brexit through a conflict prevention lens

24 June 2016

As the public in the UK votes by a narrow margin to leave the EU, Saferworld asks: what are the implications of Brexit for peace and stability in the UK, EU and the wider world? And what do those who are concerned need to do to respond in the months and years ahead?

A divided population

The result of the UK referendum on membership of the European Union has demonstrated significant divides across the population – inter-generational, economic, geographic and social.

There are obvious faultlines: between London, Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool – all of whom wished to remain - and the rest of the country; between young multilateralists and older Leave supporters; and between a hitherto fairly detached political class and the disillusioned public at large.

Above all the leave vote is being seen as a rejection of the establishment. In particular the vote appears to have hinged on concerns over immigration, connected for many to the everyday problems of the lack of affordable housing and secure jobs, stagnating living standards and strained public services. Those advocating Leave presented Brexit as a panacea in which a reasserted British nationalism would address the grievances of an alienated working class.  

There is clearly anger on both sides of the divide; the campaign running up to the referendum has been described as a nasty one and there is a real failure to try and address the differences between divergent segments of British society. This tension should not be left unaddressed if the people of Britain are to move forward together.

The economic dimension

It would be rash to over-interpret the huge volatility in currency and financial markets witnessed the day after the Brexit vote, but there are clear risks of financial uncertainty ahead. Although it is to be hoped that a financial contraction would not trigger large-scale violence in the UK as was witnessed during the riots of 2011, recessions are a known trigger for conflict and violence in many countries. Realistically, however, if fears of hampered trade relations, job losses and recession are realised in the UK, they will hit social services and living standards. Whichever way people voted, those who lose out financially will presumably blame those they deem responsible, worsening the existing divisions within UK society.

A disunited kingdom

These divisions have serious implications for the so-far United Kingdom. Scotland may choose to leave the UK rather than being dragged out of the EU. Scotland’s First Minister has already made calls for legal preparations to start towards a second vote on Scottish independence.

It is also uncertain what impact the Brexit will have in Northern Ireland where similar reactions may reopen divisions and conflict. Northern Ireland receives significant resources from the EU in the form of ‘peace money’ to fund peacebuilding projects in the country, the future of which is unclear. Of greater concern may be the hardening of the border with the Republic of Ireland, which risks undermining the peace process.

Instability in the rest of Europe

Financial volatility in the UK would also inevitably reverberate across a Eurozone beset by unsustainable debt and a lack of jobs and growth. Beyond the loss of the UK’s budget contribution, the very existence of the European Union – which has historically acted as a powerful antidote to violent nationalism in many member states – may be under threat if other countries follow suit. At the very least the EU’s ability to develop bold collective responses to the financial, security and migration challenges ahead are now more seriously in question than they were 24 hours ago.

Such risks of inner EU fragmentation have come at a bad moment. The world saw more conflict deaths in 2014 than in any year since 1989; in that year the number of active conflicts also reached 40, a 15-year peak. Reflecting these trends, the global number of refugees has just hit an all-time high of over 65 million people. The rate of refugee flows has increased more than five-fold to some EU member states in the last eighteen months. Pre-Brexit, EU countries had already failed to agree how to save and accommodate people fleeing violence and famine. Many are attempting to close their doors, embracing rapprochement with repressive ‘allies’ to quell the flow of migrants, and reallocating the development and peace resources that might have been used to tackle drivers of conflict to deal with refugees and counter terrorism.

Such actions do not amount to a strategy, and could make these disastrous conflicts worse and Brexit seems to make any collective, multilateralist vision for managing conflict and assisting its victims much more distant. If so, it could become ever harder for Europe and the UK to avoid being inflamed by the flow of destitute people and the rising tide of conflict it may bring. 

Nationalist politics

The Prime Minister’s resignation opens the door to nationalist figures coming to the fore of UK politics. Outside the UK, the Brexit vote could embolden the surge in protest politics and the corresponding rise of nationalist politics. The gains by the Austrian far-right, and the radical left groups in Spain and Greece may be overtaken by further radical developments in France, Italy, and Germany.

Mitigating the conflict risks of Brexit

In the UK, it seems clear that there is a need for dialogue around the concerns of different sections of the population. Significant soul-searching is needed by the entire political establishment as to how it can articulate a domestic and international agenda that both meets the conflict prevention challenges facing the next generation and attracts the support of the public at large. If parties fail to deliver this, perhaps there is now a need for new social movements or political parties to emerge that can have a richer and better informed conversation about how the UK can meet the challenges ahead than has been offered by the mainstream parties and media in recent years.

Even out of the EU, the UK will need to work with European partners to ensure that financial and political instability does not usher in a period of turmoil. Collective answers will still be needed to the seismic movements of people that stem from the abhorrent conditions faced by conflict affected people in repressive and divided societies in much of Africa and the Middle East. There is no way to ‘opt out’ of these global challenges without it harming the UK’s national interest in the foreseeable future.

For long decades, Europe’s experts and institutions have offered development and peacebuilding assistance to other countries. What follows may be a period in which leaders of other countries need to help the UK and European nations to re-establish a collective vision for overcoming division and supporting international stability in the years ahead. 

“ Significant soul-searching is needed by the entire political establishment as to how it can articulate a domestic and international agenda that both meets the conflict prevention challenges facing the next generation and attracts the support of the public at large.”