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Brexit Vote Is Giving These Tiny European Regions Major Anxiety

June 20, 2016, 3:01 PM UTC
European Leaders Summit Continues Following Late Night Talks On UK Membership Terms
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

If anyone harbored doubts about whether Brexit was unpopular with people outside the U.K.—even after Deutsche Bank Chairman Paul Achleitner said leaving would be “economic disaster for the U.K. and a political disaster for the EU,” J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon described it as a “terrible deal” for Britain, and French foreign minister Emmanuel Macron said it would make the U.K. “a little country on the world scale“—then a widely read editorial in Saturday’s Irish Times erased any confusion.

Its title? “Why the Brexit poll is the dumbest mistake a UK PM has ever made.

At least Achleitner, Dimon, and Macron have corporate and political insulation against the effects of a Brexit. Others are not so lucky. For several regions with direct interest in the vote’s outcome, fear of a Brexit is exacerbated by an intense sense of powerlessness. And in a region far from Britain’s shores, some politicians are hoping a majority of Brits will vote to leave—if only to make a point.


After dallying with its own “Scotexit” in a 2014 referendum, Scotland has a complicated relationship with the June 23 vote.

According to a poll of polls by Charlie Jeffrey, a University of Edinburgh politics professor, an overwhelming number of Scots—65.2%—wish to stay in the EU. And while Scots only account for 8.3% of the U.K. population, the overwhelming support may be enough to swing the overall result to “Remain.”

But what happens if the Scots vote to stay and the “Leave” camp prevails anyway?

Former British Prime Minister John Major warned in early June that if this happened, a second referendum on Scottish independence might become “politically irresistible,” with possibly disastrous results.

“The plain, uncomfortable truth is that the unity of the UK itself is on the ballot paper in two weeks’ time,” he said.

But a Scottish vote to leave on a second referendum isn’t a foregone conclusion. Would leaving the U.K. mean setting up a land border with England? Or ditching the pound for the euro?

“One of the main issues in the last referendum that hurt that pro-independence camp was worry about keeping the pound,” says Luis Moreno, a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh. “A Brexit opens up scenarios that are difficult to predict,” he adds.

Northern Ireland

Like Scotland, Northern Ireland is eager to remain in the EU—Jeffrey’s poll of polls shows support at 62%—but, with 2.9% of the U.K.’s population, it has little weight.

Unlike Scotland, however, Northern Ireland would immediately be on a land border with an EU country: the Republic of Ireland. This wouldn’t mean tanks and razor wire, but it might mean passport checks and other restrictions.

Worse for the agricultural region is the worry about whether the U.K. would replace farming subsidies that now come from Brussels. According to a government study of farm income in Northern Ireland last year, direct payments—i.e. subsidies—accounted for 103% of the region’s farm business income.

“The Brexit argument is we’ll have the same money and we’ll be fine. For a farmer, that’s disconcerting,” says Jeremy Shaw, a Northern Irish farmer with 200 dairy cows.

Adding to the tension, voters in Northern Ireland are deeply divided by religion, with Catholics strongly preferring to stay and Protestants more closely split on the matter. A “Leave” result could even launch a push for a vote on Irish reunification. Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness has already said that if Brexit wins there would be a “democratic imperative” to let people vote on reunification.

“As a business owner, it’s not the scaremongering that gets you, but the complete unpredictability,” says Shaw, who also runs Iberian Wine Tours, an enological tourism business.



Pity little Gibraltar. Residents of the British territory are desperate to stay in the EU—the most recent poll from the local Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper found that 94% of respondents would vote “remain.” But with only about 24,000 eligible voters, the little territory doesn’t have much say in the matter.

It’s not hard to see why they’d want to stay. As a peninsula on the undercarriage of Spain, which would very much like to reincorporate it, Gibraltar’s economic prosperity is dependent on EU membership and the open borders that come with it.

“With the U.K. out of the EU, the border between Spain and Gibraltar would become an external, not internal, EU frontier,” says William Chislett, an analyst at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid. “As such, Spain could close [the border] and a legal challenge by the U.K. or Gibraltar would be more difficult.”

Spain’s acting foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, fanned those flames last week when he said that it would be “perfectly possible” in legal terms to close the border, even though he walked that comment back by saying that a closure wasn’t planned and Spain merely wanted joint sovereignty.

For many in Gibraltar, keeping the border open has an emotional component.

“The degree of integration is huge,” says Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence who grew up just outside Gibraltar. “My mother is a pediatrician, and the number of her patients who come from Gibraltar is very high.”


There is one place where some local politicians want Brexit to happen. That is Catalonia, the restive region in northeastern Spain where parties pushing secession lead the local parliament.

While many pro-independence voters have voiced support for EU membership for a future Catalan state, the regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, has said he wants the U.K. to leave the EU, in part to show that orderly separations in Europe can happen.

“The EU will make an extraordinary display of political realism, and an admirable, Darwinian ability to adapt,” he told the Guardian.

Not everyone agrees. Barroso notes that a Brexit could have the opposite effect. “I can make the exact opposite argument, that if the U.K. leaves, the EU is going to be much more reluctant to go through a similar process and turmoil going forward,” he says.

No matter what happens in the vote Thursday—especially after the brutal mid-campaign murder of British lawmaker Jo Cox last week—it will leave a bitterly divided electorate in the U.K.

While Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum may not be the “dumbest mistake a UK PM has ever made,” it’s likely that he has considered the words of Margaret Thatcher. “Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right,” she said in 1975, referring to former PM Clement Atlee, “when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.”