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Understanding Brexit: the British Perspective

Last Friday on 15th February, Brexit was placed in the spotlight at the E-hall of UvA. Kicking off the cycle Understanding Brexit: the British Perspective, Room for Discussion invited the UK editor for NRC John Hoogerwaard to shed light on this hot topic. Brexit is ahead of us. Within only six weeks, the deadline for leaving the EU will expire and yet nobody knows what is going to happen.

Journalists and citizens are likewise overwhelmed by the noise in the media. The breakneck speed at which alternative plans come up and the desperate confusion with many circulating ‘truths’ make intuition insufficient to assess current developments. The day before the interview, the British Government was defeated again in a motion that was blatantly condemned to fail. The reason why Theresa May asked for that symbolic vote is difficult to determine, according to Mr Hoogerwaard.

One of the most significant elements in the discussion about Brexit is the much-echoed backstop. It is often described as an insurance or safety net to prevent Northern Ireland from a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. If no trade agreement is stroke by 2020, the backstop will consequently emerge so that Northern Ireland remains in the customs union and the single market. Thus, the backstop would extend the time for negotiating a better deal for the border.

The Irish border poses a serious handicap. Given the high risk of violence and instability, a hard border would be utterly devastating. Fortunately, the days in which there was a “military zone” have passed thanks to the Good Friday Agreement (also known as Belfast Agreement), signed in 1998. Ever since, London and Dublin committed to find mutual agreements in case of trouble. Building on that basis, the backstop would help to not only smooth economic conditions -trade between NI and Ireland is relatively small-, but chiefly to maintain the state of peace.

Hoogerwaard also remarked how “party politics” prevail in Brexit’s discussions, affecting both the Conservative and Labour Parties. While the desire for new elections pushes Labour into vagueness, lacking a clear and feasible exit plan, the Tories face a deepening divide. Looming the no deal outcome, May’s governement is trying to convince her unmanageable MP’s in order to deliver a deal. The lack of a clear-cut majority in Parliament brings about a situation where “every vote counts”.

Since the parliamentary arithmetic plays a decisive role, it is convenient to present an overview of its distribution. On the one side, the Eurosceptics, including the European Research Group (ERG), account for 60 to 70 MPs out of 650, advocating a hard Brexit. In a middle position and reaching the majority of the chamber, most of the remaining MPs argue for a soft Brexit, that is, a gradual transition to abandon the EU. Last but not least, certain MPs, like Anna Soubry, and the People’s Vote campaign claim for a second referendum. Despite its minor presence in Parliament, the latter option has become dominant in the London area, where massive marches have taken place. On the other side, alternative parties have also arisen, either defending a harder Brexit or countering Jeremy Corbyn for being “too leftist”. For the moment, newcomers seem to be a marginal force, but who knows what the future holds?

Asked for its personal opinion about the second referendum, Mr Hoogerwaard ruled out this option, considering it too damaging for democracy. The difficulties to reach an agreement between May and Corbyn stem from the very structure of the English political system. Unlike Dutch politics where compromise is quite normal -since fragmented chambers rely on building consensus-, UK’s bipartidism between Labour and Conservative Parties thwarts any attempt to strike a deal.

Finally, some time was devoted to speculating about how the post-Brexit future is going to look like. Concerning trade deals, hardline Brexiteers hold a dominating position. Instead of calling for an alignment with larger world trading blocs, they insist that the United Kingdom must remain on its own, though keeping a close relationship with the EU and striking comprehensive deals with the US and China.

In response to forecasts over catastrophic results in the nearest future, Mr Hoogerwaard ironized about how Brexit could be like the Millennium Bug. This rumour affirmed that a large bug would collapse the global order after 2000, which never happened. All in all, the whole fear, expectations, worries and desperate investments concerning Brexit might become likewise useless, because things will just flow, probably.

Far from conspiracy theories, there is no clue about what is next. Two likely scenarios are on the table: either Brexit will be delivered with no deal or it will be delayed by extending Article 50. In the worst-case scenario, the final decision might even come up in the parliamentary session on 29 March, right before the official disconnection happens at 11 pm. Narrow margins in the polls still make Brexit a delicate issue; despite May’s historic defeat, she turns out to be the most preferred candidate. Bewildering actions may eventually surprise us. For example, UK government has been accused of offering “cash for votes” to obtain support for her Brexit deal. If this came out, Brexit management would verge on outrage.

On Wednesday 6 March, Room for Discussion will hold the second Brexit-related interview. In an attempt to give a better insight of the European perspective, the guests will be Rem Korteweg, head of the Europe in the World unit at Clingendael Research, and Alexandra Dumitru, macro-economist for RaboResearch Global Economics and Markets.


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