Brexit may spawn a full-blown UK Balkanization

Brexit may spawn a full-blown UK Balkanization
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With the clock ticking on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the country not only faces major political battles and economic dangers but also the prospect of territorial fragmentation.

While Scotland’s independence will be back on the agenda, fears are growing that the Irish island could either be divided again with destabilizing consequences once the U.K. leaves the EU, or the northern province will be separated from Britain.

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Prime Minister Theresa May has failed to negotiate a Brexit deal that the British parliament will approve. Unless a last-minute agreement is reached on a managed departure from the EU, a no-deal Brexit on March 29 will generate political radicalism and economic shockwaves.

May may resign, and in an early general election the neo-Marxist Labour Party could win a majority by pledging to improve economic conditions through nationalization and an expanded welfare state. Brexit chaos combined with state socialism would ensure the country’s long-term economic decline.

Brexit supporters claim that despite some short-term disruptions, the U.K. will thrive when it leaves a German-dominated EU. They fail to specify how painful this “disruption” will be and that it could take years to negotiate new trade deals across the globe.

Britain will no longer be a party to the legislative and regulatory framework that has governed its external trade and domestic economy for four decades. U.K. exports to the EU would face tariffs, damaging businesses competing with cheaper European rivals. Some economists are also warning that Britain may experience shortages in medical and food supplies.

Border checks and tariffs will disrupt supply chains for businesses in the U.K., which are already diverting resources into stockpiling goods or moving out of the country.

Britain’s budget will be hard hit and much of the lucrative financial services industry will relocate to the continent. The Bank of England has warned that a disorderly Brexit could push the U.K. economy toward an 8-percent contraction in just one year.

There is also a national and territorial dimension to the looming disruption. The United Kingdom consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first three are contained on the island of Great Britain, while Northern Ireland shares an island with the independent Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member.

While a majority of English and Welsh residents voted to leave the EU, a large proportion of Scots and Irish voted to stay. These voting differences have revealed growing political fissures that will expand after Brexit.

The two greatest risks to the U.K.’s territorial integrity are the potential separation of Northern Ireland and a second referendum in Scotland that could secure the country’s independence from the U.K.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is currently in a coalition with the British Conservatives and holds the balance of power in Westminster. It is also one of the major obstacles to May pushing her Brexit deal through parliament.

The Unionists assert that the deal fails to settle their most important demand: no hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The Northern Irish realize that they have benefited from being inside EU, not least because of the ease of trade with the Republic of Ireland.

However, Unionists in the north fear that in exchange for a soft border on the Irish island, the London government would accept a hard border between Britain and Northern Ireland that will affect commerce and travel between units of the same state.

An indefinite “backstop” agreement between London and Brussels, designed to avoid a “hard border” between the two Irelands, would maintain the customs union and single market and could contribute the breaking up of the U.K.

Recent polling indicates that Brexit voters in England may even accept a British-Irish divorce in exchange for a complete disassociation from the EU.

At the same time, the looming economic and political chaos in the U.K. will raise support for Irish unification and revive conflicts and even violence in Northern Ireland between pan-Irish Catholic Republicans and pro-British Protestant Unionists. Most Catholics in Northern Ireland, who form about 40 percent of the population, voted against Brexit.

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The situation in Scotland could also become volatile, where over 62 percent of the population voted in the June 2016 referendum to stay in the EU. In the May 2015 general elections, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party won in a landslide despite the fact that the first Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 failed to muster a majority for statehood.

A chaotic Brexit that severely damages the Scottish economy will raise support for a second independence referendum so that Scotland can rejoin the EU as an independent state. 

History is a chronicle of ironies and paradoxes. In the case of the United Kingdom, a country that for years has been involved in preventing or pacifying conflicts in the Balkans, now faces challenges to its own stability and integrity that some would describe as Britain’s own “Balkanization.”

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and the former director of the New European Democracy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.