by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: Kenneth Allen/WikiCommons/CC

NOTABLY AT LEAST in the beginning, many political commentators in Taiwan seemed not particularly able to formulate a political response to Brexit, particularly on the political Left. Indeed, the world over would be struggling to make sense of Brexit in the present. Yet there would even be those who took the view that Brexit is a positive development, seeing false equivalency between Brexit and achieving a referendum on Taiwanese independence from China.

In particular, the international Left has more often than not been highly condemnatory of Brexit. Namely, Brexit is seen as marking the triumph of anti-immigrant xenophobia in the UK, seeing as fear and hatred of migrants would have played a large part in motivating UK voters to have voted for leaving the EU.  And this would seem to have been an irrational action, given that immediate consequences were drops in the pound, downgrading of the UK’s credit rating, and there would seem to be no real economic benefit for the UK in leaving the EU—actually, it is a question whether it is possible for the UK to extricate itself economically from the EU at all. It would be here that racist sentiment has triumphed over logic. The motivations for voting Brexit cannot wholly be reduced to anti-immigrant xenophobia, but this was certainly a large factor.

Some on the international Left called for remaining with the EU in order to maintain the dream of a united Europe, in order that the Left could organize across borders to create international unity. But this belies a rosiness about the EU, itself a neoliberal entity, which has enforced an agenda of austerity as we see particularly in the Greek and other contexts. There were no good options where the Brexit vote, between remaining within the European Union or leaving it.

Yet the ultimate victory of the Leave vote marks a start of dangerous new era in Europe, with xenophobes and racists in the UK taking the success of the Leave vote as legitimizing their actions. Reports of racist incidents in the UK in recent days are many. Far right wing forces the world over, from America’s Donald Trump to France’s Marine Le Pen, have hailed the success of the Leave vote as Britain taking a step towards shutting out parasitic immigrants that infringe upon national sovereignty.

Trickier questions would be those of democracy and sovereignty. That is to say, it is in fact true that the voters of the UK have democratically decided to vote to leave the EU, with 72.2% voter turnout for the vote, and victory by 52% versus 48%. In Taiwan, with push for a referendum to settle the question of Taiwanese independence once and for all, some have advocated referendum as the realization of direct democracy in Taiwan. Nevertheless Brexit this raises the possibility that the people can vote in a rightwards direction. After all, the people do not implicitly move in a leftwards direction.

But if English voters voted to leave the EU, while Scottish and Irish voters voted to remain, this also raises the question of direct democracy, that geographically-centered groups can overwhelm other groups based on their larger numbers. We can understand similarly with regard to differences between the youth vote, with young people voting to remain, but being outvoted by older individuals. If it transpires that many voting for Brexit did not actually expect the vote to pass and did so as a protest vote, or did not actually know what leaving the EU would entail, as some have suggested, this raises another question about direct democracy—in which one cannot expect voters to be absolutely informed about every matter. This raises questions for popular referendum in Taiwan as well, in which these would also be possibilities.

It is actually possible that Brexit may not pass. Namely, there are still years until the actual exit of Britain from the EU would take place. It is possible for British parliament to prevent Brexit, because British MPs still need to vote in order for it to pass. Likewise, there are signs of negotiations between the Cameron government and the EU, indicating the possibility of rapprochement. But, ironically, it would be undemocratic of Brexit is prevented through parliament, after the people of the UK having voted. A proposal for there to be a second referendum was recently rejected.

A Scottish independence vote might also complicate matters, if Scotland leaves the UK before Brexit. This might be an accidental positive effect of Brexit. Yet we see the general rightwards thrust of Brexit in that the left-wing leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is now facing challenges to his leadership which threaten to oust him after Brexit.

The ultimate effects of Brexit remain to be seen. However, within Taiwan, there has been too little discussion of the issue to date and what discussion has occurred has quite often failed to understand that Brexit indicates a rightward political shift, not only in European, but global politics.

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