Europe and the EU


Why Brexit might not take place

09 Oct 2017 - 10:42
Source: Garon S / Flickr

The decision of the British government to leave the European Union is so full of contradictions that it is doubtful whether Brexit really will take place. Take for example the fact that the leaders of both major British parties were against Brexit because they understood that Brexit would not be in the interest of the British people but now feel obliged to do their best to implement the outcome of the referendum. What to expect from them? Do they want to go down in history as politicians that, against their better judgement, implemented a decision that harmed their country, or will they try to win time looking for a way out?

Or take the popular slogan “take back control”, that is used as an argument for Brexit, although Brexit will have the opposite effect, in particular because of the Irish question.

Whether one likes it or not, the future of the United Kingdom is increasingly decided outside its borders. Global challenges such as climate change, new infectious diseases, migration  and proliferation of nuclear weapons are of direct concern to the British people, but cannot effectively be addressed at Whitehall. They require action at the global level. If the United Kingdom wants to have real influence on global decision making, it will have to do so through the European Union because on its own it is not a global player like the United States and China. Leaving the European Union will therefore not give back control to London, but only diminish the British influence in Brussels and the world.

Apart from that, taking back control would only very partially address the problems that brought most people to vote for Brexit. Would they rejoice when the power to set standards for nuclear safety would move back from the technocrats in Brussels to the technocrats in London? Probably not. They voted for Brexit because they feel that while others enjoy the benefits of globalisation, they are its victims because immigrants keep salaries down and threaten to take over their jobs. However, it is very doubtful whether the populist remedy of renationalisation and closing borders will help to close the growing gap between the people that benefit from globalisation and those that threaten to stay behind.

But the main reason why Brexit and Take back control will not go together is the Irish question. As argued convincingly by Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books1 , it “opens a crack into which the whole Brexit project may stumble”.

On Good Friday 1998 most of Northern Ireland's political parties and the British and Irish governments reached an agreement that made an end to a conflict that took the life of thousands of people. The agreement recognized the right of the people of Northern Ireland to be British or Irish or both, a revolutionary approach that was facilitated by the EU-membership of both countries. Needless to say that an open border between both parts of Ireland is an essential part of the deal. A hard Brexit is therefore out of the question. That leaves open a soft Brexit after the example of Norway. That would in theory restore the sovereign independence of the United Kingdom, but in practice would mean that London would continue to have to follow the rules made up in Brussels, but this time without a seat at the table. In other words: a soft Brexit might result in the exact opposite of Take back control: London would give up its control over European decision making without getting much real control back in return. When that becomes clear, the British government might reconsider Brexit.

This opinion was published in the October issue of the Diplomat Magazine.

  • 1Brexit ’s Irish Question; New York Review of Books, 28 September 2017.