Brexit: We Asked 18 of the World's Leading Experts What Happens Next

Pro-EU supporters wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, Britain, July 4, 2018.REUTERS/Simon Dawson
September 13, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: BritainBrexitEuropean UnionEconomyParliament

Brexit: We Asked 18 of the World's Leading Experts What Happens Next

A National Interest Symposium.


Westminster and Brussels have just half a year left before they must agree on a deal for the UK to leave the EU. Resignations of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and chief negotiator David Davis in July signaled the difficulty of getting a deal done. The People’s Vote campaign is calling for a second referendum, while strong ‘leavers’ are decrying even a ‘soft Brexit’ as a “crisis of democracy.” The possibility exists that the UK will depart with no deal.

With these developments in mind, the National Interest asked scholars and experts the following questions:


Where do Britain and the EU go from here on Brexit? Can and should Britain stay in the EU (from a legal, political, public opinion, or another standpoint) or is separation best? Should Britons get another vote on Brexit or on the final deal? What will Britain’s future relationship with the EU look like, and what kind of an effect will it have on Britain’s economy?

We present eighteen responses in alphabetical order. (The views of authors expressed are their own and not necessarily those of their institution.) Click on the links below to go to each expert’s response.

Kenneth Armstrong is a professor of European law at the University of Cambridge and author of Brexit Time—Leaving the EU: Why, How and When?

The United Kingdom only has seven months of its EU membership remaining. It now has to agree on the terms of its withdrawal with the EU and to put in place a framework that will guide negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU once the UK has finally left on March 29, 2019.

Finalizing the terms of the UK’s departure is a task not without its challenges. Although the foundation for a deal on some key issues—settlement of the UK’s financial liabilities and the basis for the protection of citizens’ rights post-membership—has been in place since the end of 2017, the adage that “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed” means that failure to reach a consensus on other issues could lead to a disorderly exit for the UK.

Foremost among the remaining problems to be solved is the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK government’s insistence that Brexit means leaving the EU single market and customs union risks the emergence of frontier controls between the UK and Ireland along the border between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. Any solution needs to overcome a potential “trilemma” of competing interests—those of the UK, the EU, and the Irish government—while also having to anticipate what a future UK-EU economic arrangement might require.

The domestic political debate about what sort of future relationship the UK should seek with the EU, nonetheless, exposes an ongoing lack of clarity about the UK’s stance. It was only this summer that Prime Minister May finally summoned her cabinet to agree to a collective position to be published in a White Paper. It immediately prompted the resignation of her Brexit Secretary of State and her Foreign Secretary. While making some version of this plan work is now key to how negotiations with the EU will proceed, it is proving difficult for the PM to sell even to her own colleagues.

Regardless of whether a consensus is achieved by negotiators, there is a growing sense that the people should also have their say. The “People’s Vote” campaign is pushing for a referendum on the text of a withdrawal agreement. But it is not clear that there is either time to hold a referendum or time to manage the consequences of a popular rejection of any deal. Time shapes Brexit. And time is short.

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook is the executive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

We are headed for a precarious “no deal” cliff following Brussels’s de facto rejection of the latest UK “soft Brexit” plan, in which the UK flatly ignored the indivisibility of the EU’s sacred “four freedoms”—the free movement of goods, capital, services and labor.

Fall deadlines loom large. Time to March 2019 is ticking down. Yet, amidst all looming questions, separation remains the only game in town. Prime Minister Theresa May is feeling squeezed by her own party and has uncertain support in parliament, where she would need the approval of a compromise Brexit deal, while the EU’s chief negotiator seems fully prepared to watch her flounder.

Yet “no deal” is the most dangerous of outcome for both sides. It will rip a deep hole in the EU’s budget. It would bring EU-UK security cooperation to a halt. Borders would harden. It would halt financial industry business-as-usual in London’s City. Tariffs could cripple the UK’s big industries for decades to come. And all that to say nothing of the direct impact on citizens’ rights and movement of people on both sides.

Ahead of a “no deal” cliff, and with the EU still in the stronger position, chief negotiator Michel Barnier will aim to force May to accept further concessions, making her political future at home even more insecure. Polls indicate that a new referendum to choose between a potential compromise deal and staying in the EU—providing the EU would agree to support a Brexit reversal—would lead to an outright ‘remain’ victory.

Could a referendum be achieved between now and March 2019? Unlikely. For now, it remains in both sides’ interest to continue to negotiate in good faith, as far as possible, to give the UK parliament a deal to vote up or down in the interest of retaining the public’s faith in the political system before March 2019. If Britain leaves on a mutually-negotiated path, an eventual return to the EU in the long term remains a possibility. Deal or no deal, in near term both sides will feel the pain.

Peter Catterall is a professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster and author of British History, 1945-1987: An Annotated Bibliography.

Two years after the Brexit vote, the ruling Conservative party in Britain still has not agreed among themselves on what Brexit means, let alone come up with proposals for future relations with the EU compatible with that organization’s rules. The ignorance shown by members of the British government about modern trade policy, the art of negotiation and the binding requirements of treaties have all contributed to the air of unreality about their posturing. So have the mutual incompatibilities of their various positions on Northern Ireland.

Many of these problems flow from Theresa May’s failure to set out what she meant by Brexit when she had the political authority to do so. Her studied vagueness at the start of her premiership has become a millstone around her neck. The resulting failure to rally her government around a feasible position is making a “no deal” scenario daily more likely.

Meanwhile, the British national obsession with the Second World War and the fantasy that they somehow “muddled through” this with minimal outside assistance ensures that much of the country remains wrapped in complacency. Some of this might not be entirely misplaced, as it still possible that some extended transition period will materialize whereby in practice minimal British adjustment is required until, as May has requested, 2023. This would postpone more painful adjustments until after the next general election.

The economy is, however, already visibly slowing comparing to EU counterparts, and the decline in investment prompted by uncertainty over future trading relations is unlikely to be reversed soon. That election, due in 2022, would therefore likely be fought against this unpromising economic background and, on present trends, with the two major British parties still internally divided over how they see future relations with the EU.

These internal divisions in a party system which Brexit has exposed as not up to the task, have contributed significantly to the British political classes’ difficulties in coming up with an agreed, let alone workable, view of future UK/EU relations. But then Brexit has always been as much about how the British see themselves and their own internal cultural divisions as it has been about their relations with the EU. Brexit, with or without a further referendum which currently remains only theoretically possible, in the short-run is only likely to continue to exacerbate these divisions.

Deborah Mattinson is the founding partner and Tomo Clarkson is the research director of BritainThinks, an international insight and strategy consultancy.

For two years, British public opinion has hardly changed on the divisive topic of Brexit. Consistently, “leave” voters have told us that they have no regrets over the way they voted; for their part, “remain” voters have struggled to articulate many (if any) positives to the UK leaving the EU. Deeply divided on issues including multiculturalism, feminism and environmentalism, one of the few things that these tribes have had in common is their boredom with the day-to-day of Brexit and their perception that negotiations are progressing poorly: “It’s been like the blind leading the blind.”

But is opinion shifting? In the last few weeks, several pollsters have released data suggesting that change may be afoot—that an increasing number of “leave” voters are having second thoughts about exiting the EU. Our research suggests reasons to be cautious about proclaiming a decisive shift in opinion at this stage. In focus groups, we’ve met “leave” voters who are increasingly disillusioned with the government’s course of action—but their views on what the UK should do as a result are rarely particularly strongly held. And more urgently, many leavers still believe that, even if Brexit causes considerable short-term pain, it will bring long-term gains that are worth waiting for. As one voter told us: “Brexit is like David Beckham, because it’s going to get better with age. Once we’re out of the EU, it will get better, but it will take some time.”