Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May has presented herself as a healer of the wounds caused by the country’s June 23 EU referendum. But the truth is that the Brexit result has unleashed forces in Britain that no one is fully in control of. In just a few weeks, a large part of the UK has moved from mild Euroskepticism to outright Europhobia.

Immediately after the vote, there were well-documented instances of xenophobic abuse, including against such venerable institutions as London’s Polish Cultural Center. But it goes wider than that.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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The new political mood caused by the Brexit vote meant that May, although a Remain supporter, said it was “unwise” to guarantee the future of the 3 million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom. May and her ministers insist this is purely a pragmatic position as they begin negotiations on the post-Brexit status of the UK, but the message these words convey is chilling. It undermines the security of Europeans in Britain, some of whom have contributed enormously to the country by doing highly qualified jobs in places like the National Health Service.

It used to be all about the Euroskeptics, who were driven by a fear that British parliamentary sovereignty was under threat. A leading Euroskeptic member of parliament, Douglas Carswell, who left the Conservative Party in 2014 to join the UK Independence Party (UKIP), was still holding that line at a one-day conference organized by the Center for Economic Reform (CER) on July 6. He told a room of London experts, bankers, and diplomats that they were an “out-of-touch elite” who did not speak for a nation that had voted for Euroskepticism.

Carswell belongs to an ideologically driven libertarian group that can at least hold a civilized conversation with its opponents. He said unequivocally that EU citizens in Britain must have the right to stay here. But he is at odds with most of the rest of his party (including its departed leader, Nigel Farage), which has a much nastier nativist personality. During the referendum campaign, the party unveiled a poster showing a long line of refugees from the Middle East, with the headline “Breaking Point.” As Bernard Jenkin, a Euroskeptic Conservative member of parliament, said rather too candidly at the CER event, the Leave campaign unleashed anger among sections of the public and “we gave the anger expression.”

A large number of those who voted Leave were probably not be aware that the actual Leave-taking from the European Union could take years—and may not even happen at all. Where will their Europhobia be directed in the meantime?

If Britain falls into a postreferendum recession and jobs are lost, then it is only too likely that angry voices will be directed not at the government or the deceptive Leave campaign but at European workers, saying “Why are you still here?”

The binary choice between Remain and Leave opened up painful fault lines between those parts of the UK that voted against continued EU membership—primarily the English regions and Wales—and London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, which voted in favor. There is now a danger that anger may be kindled between the English, on the one hand, and the pro-European Scots and Northern Irish, on the other.

May has been emollient, making her first major trip as prime minister to Scotland for talks with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. But Sturgeon has repeated that she is leaving open the possibility of a second independence referendum, perhaps as early as 2017, on the grounds that Scotland voted to remain in the EU but is bound to leave because of the decision of the UK as a whole.

At the CER event, a veteran Scottish politician, former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, predicted it would be hard for the secessionist Scottish Nationalist Party to lead its country to independence at the second attempt. He pointed to three factors. The first was the collapse in the oil price, which would make Scottish independence less economically viable. Second, Sir Malcolm said, if they wanted to rejoin the EU, Scots would be presented with the unpleasant requirement of abandoning the pound and adopting the euro as their currency. Third, he said, if Scotland reentered the EU having voted to separate from an England that was outside it, the English-Scottish border would become a hard boundary line with border checks, something that would hurt both sides, but the Scots more than the English.

A persuasive analysis. But even if it is right, it will do nothing to lessen the resentment of Scotland toward the English for forcing them into an unwanted future outside the EU.

Northern Ireland may be even more precarious. The fact that both the North and South of the island of Ireland are in the European Union was at the heart of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which gave Northern Ireland a special status in the UK but with a special relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Exit from the EU is going to make it much harder to manage that.

For now at least, a much more direct threat to the Northern Ireland peace process has been avoided. That was the commitment by May and other Conservatives to scrap Britain’s Human Rights Act, which acknowledges the supremacy of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which is not part of the EU. The role of the ECtHR as a final arbiter on sensitive human rights cases was a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and a British withdrawal from it would have been extremely destabilizing. May has now walked back from her commitment to ditch the European Convention on Human Rights, which established the ECtHR. But it looks more like a tactical retreat than a long-term abandonment of that ambition.

One can only hope that now that a new government is in place, Britain’s politics of division will begin to subside. But it is more likely that postreferendum economic uncertainty has lit a flame that will keep the anger alive for the foreseeable future.