The outcome of the Brexit referendum has sent shock waves not just in Britain and Europe, but also in Japan. The outpouring of media reports and speculation, mainly pessimistic, casts a dark shadow over the future of the long-nurtured partnership between Japan and Britain. But the jury is still out.
I lived in Britain in the late 1960s, when that nation had yet to join the European Community because of the continued “Non” by French President Charles de Gaulle. I lived again in London in the late 1990s, when Britain was very much a part of Europe, and the debate was whether it would join the single currency. I have since noted Britain’s metamorphosis into a diverse, multicultural, vibrant society open to Europe and the rest of the world.
When I heard that the “leave” side had won, I wondered if Britain has become inward-looking, nationalistic, populist and xenophobic. If so, what has happened over the past quarter of a century? Before jumping to conclusions, let us see what the referendum signified.
First, it was the fury against immigration, globalization and the establishment that translated into a vote to reject the European Union. According to the Lord Ashcroft polls, nearly half (49 percent) of “leave” voters said the biggest single reason for wanting out of the EU was “the principle that decisions about the U.K. should be taken in the U.K.” One-third (33 percent) said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the U.K. to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” The leave campaign slogans, such as “Take back control,” “Dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom” and “Britain left unrecognizable by mass immigration” had more visceral resonance with voters than the “remain” campaign’s rational arguments on the economic merits of EU membership. There is also British antipathy to the EU’s bureaucracy and regulations.
Second, the result revealed deep divisions across Britain. Prosperous London and Scotland voted by large margins to stay in, and working-class towns, seaside resorts and rural England heavily backed “leave.” The older the voters, the more likely they were to have voted to leave the EU.
A majority of those with a university degree voted to stay in, while a large majority of those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier voted for exit. A little more than half of white voters chose leave, but a majority of Asian and black voters voted for “remain.” These divisions cut across party lines, which may lead to identity crises on the part of the political parties.
Third, though the leave voters won, there is no blueprint charting Britain’s future role in Europe. Speculation abounds as to what kind of option may be chosen for the post-Brexit trade relationship between Britain and the EU, which will require a cool-headed assessment of the trade-offs between continuing to reap the benefits of the single market and ceding some “control” to the EU in terms of policies and regulations on immigration and other matters.
Britain will likely face a choice between reconciliation and confrontation with the EU. Fearful of Brexit contagion, continental Europe might be inclined to give Britain a painful lesson. Would this cause the British government to scale back its ambitions and prepare the ground for a tactical retreat, or, in retaliation, start looking to break down European unity?
In the coming months, Britain will be trying to get its act together under the leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May, who belonged to the remain group. Tough and prolonged negotiations are likely to follow between Britain and the EU over how Brexit will come into reality. In the meantime, instead of overreacting to possible worst-case scenarios, we in Japan should analyze dispassionately how different permutations of Brexit might affect Japan.
Britain’s role as the gateway to Europe for Japanese businesses may be considerably diminished. But the factors that have attracted more than 1,000 Japanese corporations with 140,000 employees, such as the English language, availability of skilled labor and research and development climate, are not likely to disappear any time soon. Nor are the reasons why the City in London has emerged as a global financial center and why Paris and Frankfurt have not: know-how, language, education, tax regimes and professional networks.
When he spoke at the Japan National Press Club on July 1, Tim Hitchens, the British ambassador to Japan, appealed to the Japanese government and businesses “not to underestimate your influence” and to tell Britain and the EU what they want from the Brexit negotiations. We should take advantage of the opportunity to try to influence the course of events. We should not underestimate either the tenacity and shrewdness of the British in adapting to changing circumstances.
Sadaaki Numata served as ambassador to Canada and deputy head of mission in London. This article first appeared on the website of the English-Speaking Union of Japan, which Numata chairs.
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