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Brexit: How we got here, and where next for UK-EU negotiations and democracy
“Brexit means Brexit” was the line that Theresa May repeated in 2016 during press conferences in Brussels and the UK. In 2019, Boris Johnson won the December general election by a landslide on the clear mandate to “get Brexit done.”
However, three and a half years after the referendum, citizens, consumers, businesses, and industries on both sides of the English channel feel no less confused about what Brexit means, what getting it done entails, and what is its significance for the state of democracy today.
The true story of Brexit:
Apart from campaign slogans and political bravado, leaving the EU will require a negotiating strategy that works. This is more crucial now than ever, because the phase 2 negotiations will take a lot more effort and good will than drafting the 2019 Withdrawal agreement. Until now these are missing from the Brexit political establishment and Boris Johnson’s government.
For three and a half years, the Brexit political debate in the UK has focused more on the “fantasy” of Brexit and its “hopes and dreams of refound sovereignty and control, freedom and liberty.” These populist and often ideological arguments polarised British society and political discourse.
Following the divisive Leave campaign in 2016, Theresa May’s government and Leavers in the Conservative party should have switched off the campaigning mode to act like a party in government, with the intention to govern. In that case, their role would have been to inform industry, businesses, and citizens about their rights, liberties, and opportunities after Brexit. This would have brought balance to the political discourse in the UK and an end to the vicious circle of polarisation and populist politics.
Instead, May’s government chose to assuage arch-Brexiters in the Conservative party, and to fend off the haemorrhaging of Conservative voters to Nigel Farage’s xenophobic and populist UKIP, and afterwards the Brexit Party. The Conservatives never understood that their negotiating mandate (and red lines) could only have been as strong as the Leave campaign’s win of the 2016 referendum - arguably marginal (51,9% vs 48,1%).
This win was largely interpreted as the public’s concerns about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to EU membership. But although the question on the ballot asked citizens to cast their vote on EU membership, the poll was decided by factors of inequality and widening spatial disparities across the North and South of the UK. This line of argument is supported by many social studies on the social and economic geography of Brexit.
As early as in 2015, Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) had successfully tapped on these inequalities and popular indignation, following the years of neglect by previous governments, the 2008 financial crisis, and ensuing austerity. Thus, rather than quelling public opinion with assurances and investment about bringing neglected areas in the north of England up to speed with the rich metropolitical centres, successive conservative governments followed the tactics of xenophobes and populists.
In this fashion, they kept demonising the EU, picturing it as an oppressive and undemocratic supranational actor that stifles opportunities for those that need them the most.
Paradoxically, deprived areas in the English north have been major funding beneficiaries of the EU Commission’s policies for regional development (namely the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund). However, member-states - not the EU - are the ones responsible for the management of these funds and implementation of proposed programmes. Ultimately, the rise of UKIP during the Cameron-Clegg coalition government in 2010-5 saw the Conservatives promise a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, if the party won the 2015 election. In this regard, although the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, it was Farage’s UKIP that set the government's agenda.
The true story about Brexit was never about “taking back control.” Rather, this is a story about a mid-sized country, whose successive governments failed to address spatial disparities between mainland and metropolitan centres. Instead of drafting a long-term development plan, the Cameron government chose to do something very different: mimicking xenophobic populists’ rhetoric by adopting the same scapegoat for Britain’s problems (the EU), and promising a referendum on leaving the EU (Britain’s greatest geopolitical asset and trading partner) in order to save the Conservative party voters.
Under this light, the Brexit story was never a story about taking back control. Rather, the Brexit story is mainly about inflicting historic self-harm to a country that bears one of the longest democratic traditions since the Enlightenment.
What getting Brexit done requires:
Policy analysts from both sides of the Channel have accurately captured the future hurdles that these negotiations will bring, with some focusing on what are the practical considerations of getting Brexit done, some focusing on the EU’s priorities and practical limitations of how can a comprehensive free trade deal be agreed within just 11 months, and others focusing on the disparate expectations management in the domestic and foreign dimensions of the UK government. Here are three key-considerations for smoother EU-UK Brexit negotiations in 2020:
1. Time is key: There is some temporary relief in the UK media and among citizens, now that the Withdrawal Agreement has been approved, and May's political stalemate is over. But policy circles in the UK and the EU know that the Brexit saga is far from over, as it already seems that Phase 2 Brexit negotiations will be harder. Johnson has rejected the idea of extending the transition period, which leaves only 11 months to negotiate any deal and ratify it in all national parliaments in the EU before the end of 2020.
As it stands, the best-case scenario would be concluding a basic deal with the UK, but this would fall short of the comprehensive partnership that is needed for businesses, labour, and consumers, from both sides. That is why Johnson must refrain from making the same brazen promises that brought down his predecessor.
2. Filling the governance vacuum: Leaving the Irish Protocol apart, Johnson’s 2019 Withdrawal agreement remains the same as its 2018 predecessor under May. However, references to the joint governance arrangements as being the basis of what might follow in the future EU-UK relationship have been removed. Joint governance arrangements would ensure the smooth running, facilitation, and correction of level playing field arrangements in any future EU-UK free trade agreement.
In return for robust joint governance arrangements, the EU would allow the UK greater market access. But should the UK government choose to diverge - a consistent general theme until now - it will need to create a regulatory framework to take over the functions previously undertaken by the European Commission. This would be a huge challenge for the UK - that is why regulatory convergence is in the interest of both the EU and the UK.
3. A touch of pragmatism: The UK political establishment must avoid replicating the strategic errors of the past. Among others, these consisted in rather optimistic statements about how concluding a comprehensive trade deal with the EU will be the “easiest in human history.” Johnson argued that with the the withdrawal agreement having passed, a “tidal wave of investment” will flow into the country.
Throughout the Brexit saga, successive governments tend to dismiss the inherent trade-offs in Brexit as non-issues, arguing instead that the UK can have autonomy on trade and regulatory policy, while also being offered a “best in class FTA” without suffering in terms of access to the EU market - which is clearly untrue. While these claims may sound bold in UK politics, they don’t help reaching a deal, or gaining public support when (or if) negotiations conclude. So, pragmatism and good will from both sides is crucial for what’s coming up next.
The meaning of Brexit for the state of democracy and the EU:
Taking a step back from the micro-politics of Brexit and the future of UK-EU relations, one encounters far bigger questions about the state of democracy today; about remaining prosperous (and sovereign) in a globalised economy; about maintaining (and furthering) the representation of national democracies within regional supranational institutions; and ultimately, about how ordinary citizens can have a say in matters that are far beyond the reach of national politics.
In a globalised world problems become globalised too. One of the benefits of joining the EU is the ability to find effective solutions to problems that one country cannot deal with on its own. This is a huge advantage for all member-states because it provides them with security and leverage at a time when no country in our world is big enough to take on the transnational problems of our time, namely climate change, digital transformation, a shrinking labour market, and an ageing population.
Jean Monnet wrote in 1954 that “our countries have become too small for today’s world, faced with America and Russia of today and the China and India of tomorrow.” This was at a time when Europe represented 37% of global GDP and 13% of the world’s population. Today, the figures are 22% and 7%.
Boris Johnson said it was time to “let the healing begin” after his electoral win last December. But healing our continent from Brexit will take a lot more effort than identity politics and populist rhetoric. That is why Johnson’s current “UK First” approach will be damaging to British democratic institutions and economy, diminishing for Britain’s foreign policy, and divisive for its society.
This is the moment when both the EU and the UK must think strategically about a relationship which is enormously important to the western world and its alliances. Unless the Johnson government makes some key-compromises between Brexit fantasies and reality, the welfare of the UK and the EU, its closest partner, will face far greater challenges in 2020.