Blogs > Iwan Morgan > No One Knows What Brexit Really Means

Jul 25, 2016

No One Knows What Brexit Really Means

tags: Brexit

Iwan Morgan is the author of "The Age of Deficits: Presidents and Unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush" (University Press of Kansas). 

Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May has the most difficult inheritance of any new occupant of 10 Downing Street since 1945. She has signified determination to abide by the outcome of the EU referendum in her avowal that ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ but this statement obfuscates far more about the future than it illuminates. What Brexit means will remain unclear until the serious work of negotiating the terms of the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union [EU] is far advanced.  Britain is not engaged in a simple act of secession because it must define a new political and economic relationship with the body to which it still belongs until its government (as opposed to its electorate) formally declares the country’s intention to leave (some months hence in all likelihood) .

Theresa May is caught on the horns of a dilemma:  the longer it takes to negotiate Brexit, the greater will be the uncertainty that is bound to deter business investment plans in the United Kingdom [UK] economy; but a quick settlement of Brexit is likely to mean that the UK gets a much worse deal than would be  achieved through prolonged and patient negotiating.  A number of critical issues – most notably the terms on which Britain can have access to the EU single market – are not capable of quick solution.

Any deal that is reached at whatever point in time is anything but sacrosanct, however.  It would need approval by all EU members.  Accordingly, if any one of the smaller member-states (for example, Bulgaria, Latvia, or Malta) took exception to the terms, it could torpedo the settlement through use of its veto.  In that case, the only option facing the UK would be to negotiate bilateral agreements singly with the larger members of the European Union who are its main trading partners on the European mainland (for example, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain),  but this would be a very complex undertaking that would do little to alleviate business uncertainty about the future.

In an interview with a pro-Brexit newspaper, the Sunday Express, new British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading light of the ‘Out’ campaign, declared his ‘absolute confidence’ that the remaining EU members would grant Britain everything it really wanted in the exit negotiations.  This is the kind of vacuous optimism that characterized the Brexit campaign and better should be expected from a man now with a key role to play in the diplomacy of withdrawal.  But it is indicative that neither side in the referendum debate had planned in any significant way for exit-strategy scenarios if the British people voted to leave.  The Brexit campaign appears not to have thought about the future beyond polling day.  The same is true of the over-confident Remain campaign, headed  by  Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – both now departed to the backbenches (and supported, albeit tepidly, by then Home Secretary – and now P.M. – Theresa May).

Remarkably the UK government had no well-developed contingency plans in case of an ‘out’ vote.  It is now having to start almost from scratch to put a withdrawal strategy in place, but this is a daunting task.  Trade negotiations will be critical to determining exit terms but it has been calculated that Whitehall as yet has only about 20 percent of the number of skilled negotiators needed for such a task.  Meanwhile some 10,000 statutes enacted by Parliament in the 40 years since the UK joined the EU will need revision to take account of Britain’s withdrawal from that body.

It is difficult, arguably impossible, to find historical precedents that might throw light on how Britain will deal with the coming years of uncertainty because we are entering a ‘New World’ – one perhaps more akin to Roanoke than Jamestown!  

In the short-term, at least, the ‘experts’ – the group much despised  by Brexiteers for their doom-saying in the recent campaign – are predicting a recession later this year because the uncertainty over the economic future is harming business investment.  Sharing this concern, the new UK government has virtually committed itself to countering any decline with fiscal stimulus if needed.  So, after 6 painful years of  austerity under the Cameron-Osborne regime in vain pursuit of public debt-reducing balanced budgets, UK economic policy is set to change course dramatically because of Brexit.

This is the first  of many adjustments to the consequences of the referendum vote.  With uncertainty about the terms of  British withdrawal likely to be long-lasting, the UK economy seems in for a very bumpy ride over the next few years – thanks to a small but decisive majority of voters casting their ballots in favor of leaving the EU.  Democracy is a great thing, but there are times when  pragmatic decision-making in a smoke-filled room has a certain appeal!            

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