A Follow Up to Brexit

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union. By a narrow margin, UK citizens voted to leave the EU, a historic decision that has left Europe and the rest of the world reeling. Back in March, we spoke with the Lauder Institute’s Director of Research and Lecturer in International Studies Dr. Ronald Granieri about the possibility of a British exit from the EU. Now that Brexit has become reality, we followed up with him to gain some sense of where Europe goes from here.

When do you expect the UK to invoke Article 50? To what extent will the EU make an example of the UK’s departure in exit negotiations to discourage other nations from following suit?

The EU Constitution states that once Britain invokes Article 50, they have two years to work out the details, but there’s no clear path in British politics for how that’s supposed to work. Any agreement would have to be approved by Parliament, and the current Parliament includes a majority that wanted to remain in the EU. The next scheduled election in Britain is in 2020, and it’s in Prime Minister Theresa May’s interest not to have an earlier election. If May waits until next spring to invoke it, as she has most recently suggested, then two years after that, in 2019, this government can run for reelection based on the deal that it gets from the EU.

It is certainly in the interest of the EU to drive a hard bargain, though Brexit advocates claim that Britain’s economic leverage should work in their favor. Brexiteers point to Norway as a good example of the deal the UK might get. But that is far from a perfect deal. Norway pays a certain amount every year to stay inside the European economic area. They have to accept EU regulations on their economy, and they also accept free movement of EU members, all policies that Brexiteers reject. Norwegians also have no say in the making of those regulations because they’re not EU members. So even the best deal would be far from perfect; any other deal would be worse. All of this will also require lengthy and difficult negotiations, so there is a strong interest on both sides to delay.

Will Scotland push for a second referendum for independence from the UK?

It serves the Scottish National Party’s purpose to talk about a referendum, but I don’t know whether it serves their interest to hold one. Let’s say Scotland votes to secede from the UK, and then applies for membership in the EU – an application that has to be approved unanimously by all members. There are separatist movements elsewhere in Europe, such as Catalonia in Spain, for example. The Spanish do not want to encourage separatism in Scotland if that would provide a precedent for the Catalonians, and thus would very likely delay if not veto a Scottish application.

We saw a sudden market drop immediately after the referendum, but what economic impact do you expect Brexit will have long-term?

Markets sometimes overreact to events and then settle down. There might be another shock once exit negotiations begin, but a lot of what has people nervous is behind the headlines. If London no longer enjoys the advantages that it has as a center for finance for the European Union, will investment banks shift their employment to Frankfurt or to Paris? That could certainly happen. It’s not so much a shock as there will be new constraints on growth.

Like the “Remain” campaign’s “Better Together,” the Clinton campaign is using “Stronger Together”; and like the “Leave” side, Trump is stoking nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment. Is what’s happening in the US a meaningful echo of what’s happening in Europe?

One of the reasons that spirit is so strong is that people have legitimate complaints about politics as usual. People have reasons to be frustrated and afraid, especially people who do not feel as though they are equipped for this scary, wide-open world. They’re looking for comfort. They’re looking for a sense of community that they are sure they belong to. The Brexit vote provided that. One could argue that phrases like “make America great again” provide that, too.

You can’t get a lot of people out on the street to march and wave their fists and say, “Hey, ho, let’s hear it for the status quo.” The people who are angry and want to change things have that emotional advantage.

What could the Remain side have done to combat an anti-immigrant campaign led by a big personality like Boris Johnson?

The reason the Remain camp was not able to make a positive case for Europe is that nobody in Britain knows how. Cameron and other leading Tories have spent much of the past decades using the EU as a punching bag, which made them weak representatives of a pro-EU case. Thus Remain’s case was largely built on the sentiment, “Don’t leave because things will get even worse.” For many of the people we talked about above, this message sounded like more lectures from an elite they already mistrusted, and fell flat.

The referendum was never a good idea. It was enormously shortsighted of David Cameron to think that he was going to solve an internal party political problem (pacifying Euroskeptics within the Conservative party) by gambling the geopolitical future of Great Britain. He made no preparations for the result, and crowned his irresponsibility by immediately announcing his resignation, rather than trying to help clean up the mess he made.

You wrote about the Passion Deficit between the Leave and Remain campaigns. In your view it seems to be a deficit of passion about a broad European project. Where does Europe go from here?

As long as the economy continues to stagnate, as long as the younger generation either feels disconnected from or unable to make a difference, as long as national governments feel there’s too much to be gained by attacking Europe at every turn, I don’t see how Europe regains its forward momentum and its sense of purpose. I’m a big fan of the European Union, but I fear that right now there simply isn’t anybody willing to put his or her political reputation on the line in favor of Europe. Unless such individuals emerge, the European project will remain on life support.