The Week Britain's Brexit 'Earthquake' Shook The World

A roller coaster -- or a train wreck?

02/07/2016 2:04 PM AEST | Updated 02/07/2016 2:04 PM AEST
It's been an unprecedented week in British politics since voters chose to leave the European Union.

Since the U.K. referendum to leave the European Union last week, the roller-coaster ride of British politics hasn’t let up for a minute.

Every day since the June 23 vote has brought more drama. The U.K. prime minister stepped down, and his possible replacements are jostling for position. The leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition, is fending off a rebellion from within his own ranks. British and EU officials are facing off over how to handle Britain’s exit -- the first country to leave the 28-member economic bloc.

This bumpy ride has sent financial markets into turmoil. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, trillions of dollars were wiped from global markets, and the British pound plummeted to historic lows.

Here’s a look back at an unprecedented week in the U.K.

Britain’s Shock Vote For Brexit

Toby Melville / Reuters
Polls suggested that 'leave' and 'remain' supporters were neck and neck in the lead up to last Thursday's vote.

After months of ferocious debate that divided the country, British voters went to the polls on June 23 to vote whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or exit after 43 years of membership.

The campaigns on both sides had grown increasingly vitriolic. "Leave" campaigners touted British sovereignty and lack of immigration controls as a reason to ditch the union, while the "remain" campaign warned of dire economic and political consequences of Brexit.

But the complex policy debates descended into personal attacks, and the "leave" campaign’s focus on immigration energized a radical, racist fringe on the British right. On the darkest day of the campaign, British lawmaker Jo Cox, a vocal advocate of immigration and the EU, was killed by a man authorities said had mental health problems and ties to extreme nationalist groups.

Polls remained tight, right up until the last minute, but many showed the "remain" camp would edge out the "leave" campaign, leaving the U.K.’s relationship with the EU more or less unchanged. This, of course, did not happen.

As results rolled in, "leave" voters took an early lead and never gave it up. The final result was 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of “leave.” Many in the U.K. woke up to learn their country had just decided to exit the EU.

While Brexit advocates uncorked sparkling wine (no champagne, s’il vous plait) and declared Britain’s Independence Day, there was an outpouring of grief and disbelief among pro-EU voters. “I’m massively reeling. Shocked,” Londoner Hannah Lucas told The Wall Street Journal. “This is the worst day of my life,” said Welsh voter Hywyn Pritchard. 

Brexit Brings Chaos

Russell Boyce / Reuters
The shock victory for Brexit roiled global markets and sent the British pound plummeting.

The fallout of the Brexit vote was immediate, and it was immense.

Within hours of the result, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would step down as leader. Cameron had called the vote to mollify a political challenge from the anti-EU right of his own party, and urged the country to vote "remain." He had pledged to stay in office whatever the outcome, but in the end, his losing gamble caught up with him. “I don't think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination,” Cameron said in an emotional resignation speech.

The uncertainty roiled global markets. As "leave" votes poured in, the British pound plummeted to its lowest point in 31 years and markets braced for serious downturn. Shocked investors who expected a victory for "remain" engaged in a frenetic selloff that wiped some $3 trillion off the markets. The former president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, called the vote "an earthquake."

The political ramifications reverberated around the world. Stunned world leaders who had urged Britain to stay in the EU voiced their regret, while emphasizing their respect for voters’ decision. EU leaders expressed grief and shock, and efforts to keep the remaining EU members together gained fresh urgency.

Meanwhile, the result was met with delight by the increasingly prominent far-right movements scattered across the EU. "Victory for freedom!” tweeted France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen.  "Time for a Dutch referendum," urged The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders.

The result also was celebrated by the U.S. Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, who was visiting Scotland at the time. “I think it’s a great thing that happened," Trump told reporters. “People are angry, all over the world. People, they’re angry.”

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Donald Trump thinks Brexit is a great idea.

The Hangover: Regrexit

Almost immediately, some of the promises of the "leave" campaign began to fizzle.

One of the main campaign platforms was a promise to fund the country’s health care system using money that would have otherwise been allocated for E.U. membership dues. (They claimed it amounted to £350 million (about $464 million) weekly, but that figure has been highly contested.) The pro-Brexit camp felt so strongly about the pledge that they drove around the country with a bus that advertised it.

Matt Cardy via Getty Images
A 'leave' campaign bus emblazoned with a slogan that later proved tricky to uphold. 

But mere hours after the results, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage denied ever making such a promise. Several other Brexit advocates similarly backtracked, including prime ministerial hopeful Michael Gove, who now puts the figure at £100 million ($132 million) per week.

Brexit champions are also struggling to explain to voters how they will implement a key pillar of the leave campaign -- restricting immigration. EU officials insist that Britain must continue to allow EU citizens to live and work in the country in exchange for reciprocal rights for British citizens and access to the European single market. Gove and his main rival for the leadership, Theresa May, say they can reduce immigration and keep the EU happy by allowing entry only to Europeans who already have jobs into the country, but skepticism abounds and Farage warned Conservatives against “backsliding” on immigration controls.

Some supporters of the referendum said they feel duped. According to one recent poll, 7 percent of those who chose to leave regret it already -- a small minority, but significantly higher than the 3 percent of "remain" supporters who regret their vote.

“I’m starting to think that I’ve been played,” one voter told the BBC show "Question Time." “One of the reasons that I voted to leave was because of the fact that they were promised more money into the NHS, and thinking about it now, probably I’m old enough to know better.

“I shouldn’t have put my trust in someone like Farage,” she said.

Break Up Of Britain

Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters
A pro-'remain' banner is pictured in Edinburgh. A majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, re-energizing calls for more autonomy from the UK.

The momentous decision to leave the EU exposed cracks in union of Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

In contrast to the rest of the U.K., Scotland voted 62 percent to 38 percent in favor of remaining in the EU. Scotland’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has put the option of a new referendum on Scottish independence (the last one was defeated in 2014) back on the table. “Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against her will. I regard that as democratically unacceptable," Sturgeon said after the vote.

Sturgeon also has floated the possibility of the Scottish Parliament blocking Brexit, or Scotland striking a separate deal with the EU. However, her options may be limited by Scotland’s economic position, and EU leaders' reluctance to facilitate the breakup of the EU.

In Northern Ireland, where 56 percent of voters wanted to remain in the EU, Brexit threatened to upend a fragile peace accord. Nationalist leaders insist that Northern Ireland remain in the EU under a special status, while unionists say Brexit must go ahead. After Brexit, the open border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland would become the dividing line between the U.K. and the EU.

EU Plays Hardball

The EU-U.K. divorce is going to be tough, and it could get messy.

European leaders say the British government must first negotiate the terms of departure from the EU, before talks on what the EU-U.K. relationship will look like in the future. But Brexit advocates in the U.K. are demanding talks on a trade deal with the EU immediately. Both sides are jockeying for a stronger negotiating position, and that is likely to continue. Much depends on who replaces Cameron as prime minister, when the new leader decides to invoke the EU’s Article 50, which kicks off two years of departure talks, and how the negotiations unfold.  

Farage, meanwhile, couldn’t resist a final insult to the organization he reviled by showing up to this week’s meeting of the European Parliament, where he was given a less-than-warm welcome. After Farage bragged about his win and insulted other members of the body by suggesting they’d “never done a day’s work,” he was jeered resoundingly. 

“You were fighting for the exit, the British people voted in favor of the exit,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded. “Why are you here?”

Labour In Limbo

The prime minister head might not be the only one to roll in the wake of Brexit.

Members of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party are battling to oust their leftist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, claiming he didn’t fight hard enough to keep Britain in the EU, and cannot win the next general election. Despite a vote of no-confidence and the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet earlier this week, Corbyn has refused to step down.

One of his former shadow ministers, Angela Eagle, is preparing a formal leadership challenge, the BBC reports. She has already canvassed enough support from fellow MPs to force Corbyn into a leadership contest, but decided to hold off until next week to give Corbyn a chance to go voluntarily, according to the BBC.

Peter Nicholls / Reuters
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he has a democratic mandate and will not stand down.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, warned that the leadership crisis is tearing the party apart. “My party is in peril, we are facing an existential crisis and I just don’t want us to be in this position because I think there are millions of people in this country who need a left-leaning government,” Watson told BBC News.

Tories In Turmoil

The ruling Conservative party is embroiled in its own drama, as the race to succeed Cameron begins to resemble Shakespeare or the "Game of Thrones."

Boris Johnson, the Brexit champion and Cameron rival widely tipped to be the next British prime minister, bowed out of the running on Thursday morning, hours after his erstwhile ally Gove announced his own candidacy and said Johnson wasn’t fit for the job.

One of Johnson’s allies called Gove’s move "one of the biggest acts of treachery I have ever seen." The former mayor himself quoted one of literature’s most notorious backstabbers, Brutus in Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar," in his speech ruling himself out of the running.

Gove, who insists his intentions were pure, faces four other candidates in the leadership race. The most prominent is Theresa May, the longest-serving home secretary and a supporter of "remain" who largely stayed above the fray during the Brexit campaign.

REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson speak at Vote Leave headquarters after the vote. Gove upended Johnson's leadership bid, but insists no treachery was involved.

Conservative lawmakers first vote on candidates, and the top two contenders go to the wider party membership for a vote, with the winner expected to be in place by September. The new Conservative party leader then automatically becomes prime minister, until a new election is called.

Hate Crimes Surge

Much like Islamophobia in America in the time of Trump, xenophobic attacks against foreigners have spiked following the EU referendum vote.

 A Polish community center in London was defiled last weekend, the words “F**k off” affixed to its front door in yellow paint. On Tuesday, a group of young men accosted a complete stranger on a commuter bus, telling him, “Go back to Africa.”

Activist Karissa Singh said she was accosted while at a student bar.

“A middle-aged white man came in from the street into the bar area and said: “I know we voted Leave for the European Union, but we should’ve voted out to all of you lot,” Singh told HuffPost UK.

The fear of more attacks, as well as crackdowns on immigrants is palpable. In Whitechapel, a London neighborhood popular with foreigners, the words “Resist Immigration Raids” were painted on the streets and on the backs of signs.

Alana Horowitz
A sign seen in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London.
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