In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, with 52% voting leave and 48% voting remain. Whether they manage to strike a trade deal with the EU or not, it will have a devastating effect on their economy. Even arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg has admitted it could take fifty years before the UK sees any economic benefit from leaving. Why should Americans be concerned with the outcome of the Brexit vote? Because it was set as a popular vote in what is a federation of relatively sovereign states, just like the US. Northern Ireland, one of those states, voted to remain by a margin of 11.6%. Scotland voted to remain by a margin of 24%. However, because England has a larger population than all the other states in the UK combined, their leave vote carried the referendum. As such, two states with drastically different economies, histories, cultures, and identities, have been compelled by popular vote to take an action that will devastate them economically, against their will.
Northern Ireland has a troubled history and an unsettled society. According to their 2011 census, Northern Irish Protestants, who make up 48% of the population, identify as British, while Northern Irish Catholics, who make up 45% of the population, identify as Irish. Most of those Northern Irish Catholics would prefer if Northern Ireland were a part of the Republic of Ireland rather than the UK; these would politically identify as Irish Nationalists. This impulse was the driving factor behind the thirty years of guerrilla warfare waged in Northern Ireland from roughly 1969 until the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998. Sporadic violence has continued to plague Northern Ireland even since. As Northern Ireland shares the island of Ireland with the Republic, they rely heavily on trade with the Republic. Northern Ireland’s economy is less well developed than England’s, and they rely heavily on subsidies from the British government. Leaving the EU will disrupt Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU and crucially with the Republic of Ireland. This impact on an already struggling economy could provide the impetus for those British-identifying Northern Irish to agree to the reunification of Ireland. Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s leading nationalist party, have already called for a referendum on leaving the UK and reunifying with the Republic of Ireland. They hope to hold such a referendum within the next five years. The threat to the union of the United Kingdom as a result of the Brexit popular vote is very real.
Scotland pose an even greater threat to the union, having already held a referendum on independence in 2014, which failed by a margin of 9.6%. Having opposed leaving the EU by a large margin, the economic impact of Brexit will likely convince many who voted against forming an independent Scottish state to reconsider. A recent YouGov poll found that 51% now support Scottish independence. Once the actual impact of Brexit is felt, after the transition period which ends on December 31st, 2020, that margin will likely increase.
In any large federation like the UK or the US, one must seriously consider the plurality and diversity of the constituent states within the federation. Just as Northern Ireland has a different demographic make-up, culture, economy, and history to England, so too is Texas drastically different to California. Were the US to abolish the electoral college, presidential candidates could win election by winning only the coastal states. As the president oversees international trade policy, this could pose a serious threat to the union. The economies of the coastal states rely heavily on technology goods and services as well as financial services, while central states rely more on agriculture and other primary sector businesses such as oil harvesting. If the president wished to appease his coastal voters, he could, for example, strike a trade deal with Brazil to remove tariffs on imports of Brazilian agricultural goods in exchange for Brazil removing tariffs on imports of American technology and financial goods and services. The coastal economies would benefit while the economies of the central states would suffer. Now, why would the central states wish to remain in a union that doesn’t represent their interests? Would they not follow Scotland’s example and make moves towards seceding? While the secessionist Republic of Texas and Texas Nationalist movements were not widely supported, the people of Texas did not have sufficient incentive to support them. If the electoral college were to be abolished, and the interests of red states were to be ignored, there would be more than enough incentive for freedom-loving Republicans to seek to form their own Republic.