While the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s comments that it was “too early to say” when asked about the effects of the French Revolution are apocryphal – he was probably talking about the student uprising in Paris in May 1968 – it certainly holds true when assessing the implications of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), more pithily known as Brexit.
Despite the fact that the initial reaction both across the financial markets and the media has been one of shock, the long-term consequences are simply unknown. Just as both sides of the vote, Leave and Remain, had valid arguments before the election, so it still holds true that the UK may ultimately benefit from this decision.
What is less likely, however, given the expectations generated by the Leave campaign, is that those who voted for Brexit will end up as anything other than disappointed.
Ugly and divisive
The campaign leading up to the referendum was one of the ugliest and most divisive political events in recent British history.
That there were legitimate and compelling arguments to support Brexit, just as there were to stay within the EU, seemed to be lost during a debate where ambition and personal rancour seemed to triumph over reason, manners and even friendships.
This divisiveness, plus the actual shock that the Leave vote triumphed – few of its supporters actually expected to win – has contributed to the current state of political and economic turmoil.
The true long-term implications of this event are still far from clear.
So much so that there exists a real sense that the result, let alone the referendum itself, was a mistake.
Yet the true long-term implications of this event are still far from clear. The current political and economic fallout has to be understood for what it really is, rather than being simply accepted as a defining judgement on the referendum.
Short-term economic volatility is simply no indication – one way or the other – of future strategic success.
This was clearly demonstrated by the growth of the British economy following the collapse of the financial markets after Britain’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.
Similarly, much of the ensuing political furore caused by nationalist politicians calling for the United Kingdom to be broken up possibly reflects their personal ambitions more than an immediate political threat.
Just as the Leave campaign had grounds to argue the case for the UK’s future outside of the EU, so there is a chance they may be able to achieve it.
The UK may well be able to negotiate a free-trade deal with the remaining members of the EU that both allows it to benefit from access to the single market while still maintaining the political sovereignty to reorientate the economy to access new markets.
Similarly, there is no reason to believe that continued membership of the EU would remain an untrammelled success. The EU at heart requires significant reform.
While it has its benefits, it is what its critics claim, viz: a democratically unaccountable elite governing an increasingly disenfranchised electorate.
Likewise, the European social model may well struggle to survive in its current format, particularly given the large-scale level of immigration across the continent.
Yet even if the United Kingdom is able to make a success of its new-found independence and, through increased competitiveness, experience increased wages and lower prices – as some of Remain’s key campaigners admitted might be possible – this is still unlikely to satisfy the Leave voters.
Gradual economic growth in the years following a negotiated exit with the possibility of increased resilience to continental economic fluctuations is a far cry from the sunny utopian uplands of independence that many Brexiters are expecting.
Europe, for many, had become a convenient catch-all excuse for problems that lie far closer to home, ie, an economy over-reliant on the financial sector and a dependency on cheap foreign labour to do manual work.
Europe, for many, had become a convenient catch-all excuse for problems that lie far closer to home ...
With no one left to blame, Brexit may only serve to painfully disabuse the EU’s critics of this misconception.
There is also the formidable question of immigration. In this referendum, as in the previous last two general elections, no matter how contentious politicians may have found the subject, immigration came to the fore of voters’ concerns.
Yet Brexit may not even address the issue of European immigration simply because any free trade deal may be dependent upon the continued free moment of labour.
Similarly, much of the angst related to immigration is not actually directed against communities from within the EU. Rather it is focused on Muslim communities from further afield. Hence, in practical terms, voting for Brexit was little more than an expression of frustration.
That the realities of Brexit will almost inevitably disappoint those who voted for it does not mean that it has to be a failure. There is plenty the UK can do to build on its current economic strengths. Equally, the future prosperity and stability of the EU are by no means guaranteed.
However, such are the expectations surrounding Britain’s exit that regardless of what is ultimately achieved, those politicians who campaigned for this decision will be judged to have failed. For those who chose to support Brexit to further their political careers it may come as a bitter disappointment.
Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.