What happens next? In the short term, there appears tolerance of (although rarely strong appetite for) a public vote on any outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU. The way the public votes in any such referendum will depend strongly on the choice presented on the ballot paper—and, undoubtedly, on how those choices are framed ahead of a vote.
In the longer term, the broader public opinion challenges highlighted by the referendum seem unlikely to go away. The core reasons why 52 percent of voters opted to leave the EU—particularly disillusionment with an out-of-touch elite and concern about the impact of immigration – have not been adequately addressed by the UK’s main political figures. If the main political parties cannot find answers to these questions, Brexit may be the least of their worries.
Swati Dhingra is an associate professor of economics and Josh De Lyon is a research assistant at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
In July 2018, the British government published its first comprehensive proposal on its future relationship with the EU. It includes a “free-trade” area for goods, a looser arrangement on financial services, and continued membership of many EU regulatory agencies. It is essentially a proposal of a single market for goods, with a customs arrangement that allows the UK freedom to decide its own external tariffs.
The proposal begins to address the main economic issue surrounding Brexit: that the UK is highly integrated with the EU and its separation will be hugely disruptive. To take just one example, modern manufacturing firms have complex global supply chains whereby they require intermediate inputs from abroad, and the production process can, therefore, span many borders. After Brexit, these goods may be subject to tariffs so that customs checks will be necessary. Furthermore, there may be a divergence in regulation between the UK and EU such that regulatory checks are required. All goods sold in the EU would need to satisfy rules of origin checks, which can add between 4 and 15 percent to the cost of a good. Because the UK has become so integrated with the EU economy, the costs of a sharp separation would be large.
The white paper proposal makes strides to minimize any increase in trade frictions in goods. However, it remains vague on services, which make up 80 percent of the UK economy. Even the most ambitious trade agreements of the EU, like those with South Korea and Canada, have substantially less market access for services that what the UK currently has.
Another issue for the UK is that Brussels will not accept the proposal in its current form. The EU has persistently indicated that it will not separate the “four freedoms” of the Single Market.
Worryingly, the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit appears to be back in the cards. This would have severe consequences for the UK, including a huge burden on customs procedures and regulatory checks at UK borders that would drastically increase the cost of trade with the EU. For example, research suggests that an increase of two minutes spent at the border by each vehicle could more than triple the existing queues around the port of Dover—to twenty-nine miles—meaning nearly five-hour delays. Furthermore, it is not clear what would happen to the Irish border in the case of no deal, which is of great social and political importance.
The trade-off faced by the UK is that alignment with EU regulations restricts its ability to negotiate deep free trade agreements with non-EU countries. But the EU is by far the UK’s largest trading partner, and the evidence suggests that the UK stands to lose more by diverging from the EU than it is likely to gain from deals with new countries such as the U.S.
Michael Emerson is an associate senior research fellow for Europe in the World at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
A large majority of professional people in the UK—in business, government, academia, civil society—regard Brexit as the biggest unforced error that a democratic state ever inflicted upon itself. A Times Higher Education survey at the time of voting found that 90 percent of Brits working in higher education supported remaining, and a study by Aihua Zhang of the University of Leicester found a strong correlation between the percentage of voters in a region that voted to remain and high levels of higher education. As negotiations have taken place, the factors that make Brexit a mistake have only been made clearer.
A small group of little-England nationalist ideologues and media owners have mobilized all the destructive potential of political populism. The U.S. is experiencing the right-wing populism of Trump, but his time is limited. Brexit would be irreversible.
Yes, of course, the electorate should get a second vote with the choice between whatever May gets as a deal and the alternative of remaining in. The 2016 referendum was an abuse of democratic procedure on multiple accounts. Legally, it was only an “advisory” vote, but it was taken by the Tory party as binding. It posed the question between the known status quo to remain versus the unknown nature of withdrawal.
Making matters worse still, the Brexit campaign was riddled with lies, like the promise to return large sums of money back to the National Health Service. Just the next morning after the vote, Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage admitted the £350 million claim was a lie.
More fundamentally the UK has had a solid tradition as a parliamentary democracy. Unlike the Swiss, the UK lacks much of a direct democracy tradition. It was also a constitutional aberration since most advanced democracies have provisions for a “constitutional majority,” of normally a two-thirds majority, to pass legislation of constitutional significance, which of course applies to Brexit. Back to current politics, the Tory party has now spent two years fighting over whether Brexit should be “soft,” “hard” or “no deal,” which reveals that the body politic has no coherent idea over Brexit at all.
Outside the EU, Britain will be a depressing place, with major manufacturing and financial corporations disinvesting, while crucial sectors such as the health service, construction and agriculture damaged by shortages of labor coming from the continent. Academia also will suffer as many of the best and brightest of the upcoming generation will emigrate. The state of the national psychology will be totally confused, and the sustainability of the United Kingdom itself will become uncertain (with possible the separation of Northern Ireland and/or Scotland).
Federico Fabbrini is a law professor at the School of Law & Government of Dublin City University (DCU) and the director of the DCU Brexit Institute.
The withdrawal of the UK from the EU appears an irreversible process—for two reasons.
First, from a practical point of view, there simply is not enough time between now and March 29, 2019, to host another referendum—which would surely be needed to reverse the decision the British people took in June 2016. So, in the short term, the question is whether the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal, or whether it will be able to compromise and accept the withdrawal agreement on offer from the EU, which includes a transition period to phase out of the EU smoothly.
Second, from a structural point of view, the decision of the UK to leave the EU finds its roots in a deep misunderstanding of what the project of European integration is about. When it acceded the EU in 1973, the UK thought it was joining purely a common market—but the project of European integration had always been political, and since this dimension became visible in the 1990s the UK started feeling at unease within the EU. So, in the long term, the question is whether the UK will be able to craft a relationship with the EU that allows it to remain connected to the common market (the economic dimension of integration the UK always loved). The catch is doing so without being associated to the EU political project—that is increasingly relevant for the EU, but the UK cannot accept.
The U.S. has an indirect, but important role in influencing the answers to two questions above.
If U.S. national interest remains the one consistently followed by Democratic and Republican administrations—from Ike to Obama—the U.S. will push for preserving the unity of Europe. Thus, Washington would promote in the short term an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU, and in the long run as close as possible an economic relationship between the UK and the EU, along a logic of concentric circles. If, however, the U.S. administration will move in a new direction of seeking to restructure the world order it established post–World War II, and thus regard the UK withdrawal as a positive sign of the weakening of the EU, the risks of a disorderly Brexit increase—and with it negative spillovers on the stability of Europe and its transatlantic allies.
Elaine Glaser, Writer, broadcaster, and author of Anti-Politics: On the Demonization of Ideology, Authority and the State.