United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union


On Thursday, United Kingdom voters decided to exit the European Union, a move that sent the British pound plunging and created a wave of uncertainty across Europe. While the terms of an actual “Brexit,” or British exit, could take years to negotiate, the referendum reflects on major economic and cultural issues facing the entire EU.

Though economic and financial policies are certainly central to Britain’s exit, Chad Gasta, professor of Spanish and chair of World Languages and Cultures, points out there are serious historical and cultural issues at stake, too.

“Brexit is emblematic in that it brings to light similar problems of immigration, racism and nationalism faced by each of the individual European Union countries,” he said. “It’s just that Great Britain decided to actually hold a referendum.”

Gasta is currently in Valencia, Spain, as program director for the ISU on the Mediterranean Study Abroad Program. Within the EU, he said there are also serious cultural divides between Northern and Southern Europe.

“Northern European nations often believe that Southern European nations such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal are not as hard working or entrepreneurial, and their socialist strategies are wasteful and protect bad national policies,” he said.  “On the other hand, Southern European countries often think that Northern nations like Germany and France are overbearing and demanding with little respect for tradition and history except when it suits them. In short, worth ethics, corruption, resource allocation and use, tradition and history have a lot to do with how Europeans view the EU, and not everyone agrees on how much emphasis to put on any of these.”

So how could Brexit affect other EU member states? While the aftermath of Thursday’s vote will unfold for months and years to come, World Languages and Cultures faculty share insights into current views in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland and Spain and Brexit’s potential impact. Effects on business and tourism in Austria “Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern does not foresee an overly negative effect on the [Austrian] economy,” William Carter, assistant professor of German Studies, said. “There will nonetheless be various costs associated with ‘Brexit.’ With one less member of the EU, contributions from the remaining countries will most likely increase. Austrian firms doing business in Britain, and their British counterparts in Austria, will also have to deal with the economic consequences. Much will depend on the value of the British pound. With roughly 800,000 British tourists visiting Austria last year, the country’s tourism industry may experience substantial change. Those living, working, or studying in another country may have the most to lose.”

Even if Britain had voted to remain, Carter said the underlying matters of immigration, the migrant crisis, surging populism and the rise of nationalist parties are here to stay and will continue to affect EU members and their allies, neighbors and trading partners.

“The heated arguments behind the referendum are also taking place in Austria and across Europe. These contentious debates will determine the future not only of the European Union but also the Continent,” he said. It’s an “in or out” attitude in France According to a recent German survey, the French were the most likely of all EU member states to want Brexit, Melissa Deininger, assistant professor of French, said.

“Depending on the survey, up to 25% of French thought that Britain should just leave if it no longer wants to be in the Union. Generally speaking, they believe not much will change for the remaining states. The French economy minister says that the U.K. must either be in or out and there is no room for ambiguity,” Deininger said.

France is a founding member of the EU and sees it as a way to maintain a powerful global presence, Deininger said. However, she notes many groups in France don’t like increasing regulations in areas such as agriculture that affect how they grow and distribute products and whether GMOs will be allowed.

“The Front national (FN) party in France is an extreme right-wing group that has gained increasing popularity, in part because of their anti-EU stance,” Deininger said. “The FN is very nationalist and anti-immigration, ideas that are the very antithesis of the Union, but they have made significant inroads in local elections, and even challenged for the presidency in 2002. [Brexit] could conceivably give some momentum to these anti-EU groups, but most French politicians seem to be spinning an exit as something that will not have a deep impact on the remaining 27 states.” An increased financial burden for Germany Although Germans expected a close vote, many were surprised by the outcome, Mark Rectanus, professor of German, said.

"German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that the vote to leave the EU was a deep loss and a turning point for the EU," he said.

It could also be a financial loss for Germany. The U.K. is Germany’s third largest trading partner and many analysts predict job losses in Germany and the U.K., Rectanus said. As a major leader in the EU, Germany may also have to assume a larger financial burden, a role that is already a pivotal issue for critics.

"For political leaders, from Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel, the EU was a historical necessity," Rectanus said. "It represented a pathway to greater political, economic and social integration in Europe. However, many Germans have also been increasingly critical of the EU bureaucracy, a lack of transparency, a perceived loss of national autonomy, and a sense that Germany is bearing a larger financial share than other EU countries."

Populist parties in Germany that are critical of the EU have gained further momentum from the refugee crisis, migration and concerns over terrorism in Europe, Rectanus said.

"The result of Brexit will likely provide the populist anti-EU groups in Germany with additional impetus to challenge migration policies and open borders with the EU," he said.

However, recent polls in Germany still indicate the majority of Germans would vote to remain in the EU. Ireland’s unique border circumstance Brexit presents a unique inconvenience for Ireland, as it will be the only EU member with a land border with the U.K., and could face changes in border controls with Northern Ireland.

“This means the whole issue of the U.K. and Republic of Ireland will have to be monitored for which the U.K. will have to negotiate a series of regulations,” Ginger Nally said, a World Languages and Cultures academic and study abroad adviser who spent almost a decade living in Ireland. “This would be touchy, as Ireland, as an EU state, would not be at liberty to conduct these negotiations on her own. Such regulations would need to be negotiated by the EU.” Why Brexit was back of mind in Spain In the weeks leading up to Brexit, Spanish media were focusing more on Spain’s own dramas, Gasta said, which included national elections in Spain and European Championship football. That all changed after the vote.

"Since Thursday, Spain has been riveted to the news," Gasta said. "The results were a real shocker. Spain did not expect Great Britain to vote to leave the EU and now they are paying much closer attention and are quite incredulous."

After failed elections in December, Spain held its second round of national elections yesterday. With Spain still facing high unemployment and a persistent economic recession, Gasta said the national elections were also a referendum on EU policies, which many Spaniards believe have stalled their economic recovery.

Spain will likely continue to believe the EU is the best way forward, Gasta said, but there are concerns over how Brexit will affect financial and legal standings of its retirees and workers.

“There is a large continent of British retirees and property owners in Spain whose financial and legal standing could be affected,” he said. “There are also a number of Spaniards currently working in Britain, especially in Gibraltar, whose work status, tax filings and employment eligibility will be affected. Most Spaniards are also concerned that the EU and its currency will be significantly damaged and fear other countries may follow.”

One issue not gaining traction in Spain is immigration, he said. Spain is accustomed to larger numbers of immigrants from other countries in Northern Africa and South America, although it hasn’t accepted as many immigrants from the Middle East refugee crisis.

“In short, Spain seems to believe that immigration controls need to be put in place and they expect more help from Northern countries in Europe, but there is not as much anti-immigration sentiment as in other countries,” Gasta said. “For much of the past decade or two, immigration was the only way to grow the population at a time when many Spaniards were beginning to retire and living longer lives.”

For some Spaniards though, Brexit is meaningless, added Gasta, as they believe Great Britain, with its differences in currency, immigration and employment regulations, was never a true member of the EU to begin with.