By: Paulina Mangubat
Disney-Pixar’s Finding Nemo is one of my favorite films because it contains a scene that is universally applicable to contemporary politics.
In this particular scene, a gang of assorted marine life, each creature tied up in a pet store-style plastic bag, all jump from a wooden pier into the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. For a moment, they celebrate. They’re thrilled to be free of their old home, an aquarium in a dentist’s office.
Then, the bewildered puffer fish in the group asks, “Now what?”
Last week, after months of vigorous campaigning, political punditry and ideological tomfoolery, a new movie premiered: Finding Brexit. On June 23, news broke that 52 percent of participants in the controversial Brexit referendum wanted out of the European Union.
The earth rumbled as hundreds of journalists rushed to their desks. Remain supporters immediately took to social media to air their grievances. And somewhere, now-former British Prime Minister David Cameron—the pro-Remain conservative who had promised the referendum in the first place—was probably hunched over in a chair, sobbing.
Meanwhile, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage was having a field day. Brexit, he said, was “a victory for real people … ordinary people … decent people … Let 23 June go down in our history as our independence day.”
Farage’s post-victory comments seemed to embody much of the rhetoric that has been thrown around by Leave supporters. The Brexit victory was ostensibly fueled by a mass desire to break free from the stifling EU establishment and reclaim British sovereignty and independence.
Brexit, then, is intrinsically tied to the undeniably attractive concept of the political establishment (EU, Parliament or otherwise) ceding to the will of the common people. But now that Brexit is upon us, it’s not clear how much of a role civilians will play in figuring out what a British exit should actually look like. Remain and Leave voters alike now have to sit through two years of negotiations, hand-wringing and debate as British and EU representatives iron out logistics.
The complications are clear. In order for the Brexit process to occur, the British prime minister needs to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows any EU member state to withdraw in accordance with its own “constitutional requirements.” Once Article 50 is brought into play, the UK will be given two years to bid adieu to the EU for good.
No nation-state has ever left the EU in its decades-long history.
But Cameron just stepped down as prime minister, and his successor has yet to be selected. Moreover, in order for a Brexit to occur, the Parliament must endorse the prime minister’s invocation of Article 50. The Parliament is largely pro-Remain. Although the members of Parliament may choose to swallow a British departure, a Politico article predicted that there’s still a 1 in 9 chance of Parliament conveniently blocking Article 50.
Sound complicated? The steps I listed above aren’t even really about Brexit—they’re about getting to the Brexit negotiation table.
There’s irony to be found amidst all this red (er, Union-Jack-patterned?) tape. It’s ironic that Brexit supporters, whose rhetoric was so grounded in the people’s will, have months of decidedly undemocratic bureaucratic alchemy to look forward to.
Moreover, it’s ironic that the liberation narrative espoused by Brexiteers has now been replaced with a crippling sense of uncertainty. While exhausted British politicians work to unknot the ties that bind (with nary a precedent to look back on!), British citizens will wait. Even dinner won’t be spared: Cornish pasties, whose stamp of local authenticity is legally provided by the EU, will bake in an awkward oven of nomenclatural limbo for months to come.
More seriously, immigrants residing in the UK will continue to endure short-sighted, xenophobic remarks: “Get out! We voted leave!” The Independent has already reported a marked uptick in racially-motivated hate crimes in the days following the referendum. Given this information, and the recent murder of British MP Jo Cox, it’s difficult to engage in discourse about Brexit without mentioning the bloodshed it has inspired.
So the wait for Brexit won’t just be long—it will be painful, too.
Perhaps British politicians are all just like those Finding Nemo fish bobbing in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, simultaneously rejoicing and panicking as waves crash and the oxygen levels in their plastic bags decrease rapidly. They had better breathe slowly, think wisely and work efficiently.
In the meantime, the rest of us can hope that, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, [and] people don’t start ginning up scattered-brained or revengeful premises.”
Paulina Mangubat is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. She is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She tweets @paulinaVEVO.