After the presentation of Sir Jonathan Faull KCMG, Professor Helen Drake, Director of The Academy of Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London, and Chair of The Academic Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) discussed the perceptions of the 28 EU member states – including the UK – and the EU institutions of the UK’s departure from the Union.
Professor Drake highlighted that what we are witnessing with Brexit is the ‘political dimension’ or politicization of the UK’s four-decades-long EU membership with all the spectacle and emotions around its membership entering its parties, Parliament, and press. In other words, it is at the Westminster-Whitehall system – where the theatre of politics takes place – that we see all the drama against four decades worth of highly reputed administrative and bureaucratic expertise demonstrated by UK representatives in Brussels who managed to achieve a very beneficial deal for their country.
As Professor Drake added, reactions within the EU27 are highly emotional too, with feelings such as shock, surprise, regret, and even incredulity being strongly expressed across these states. Up until this point, the UK had enjoyed a rather good reputation as a great negotiator that achieves its goals vis-á-vis the EU. Therefore, it took many by surprise that in the end the UK decided to withdraw from the Union.
Professor Drake also noted that there has been a good deal of unity around EU values and its survival within the EU27 since the referendum, which is often perceived in the UK with suspicion. Among the EU27 leaders, the approach of French President Emmanuel Macron to the EU has been particularly positive – something that is not so unique within the context of recent French political history – which is again viewed with mistrust by many in the UK. In President Macron’s vision for Europe’s future, however, the UK is still there as part of an extant European community, even if in a somewhat different position.
Finally, drawing on initial results from the ‘EU28+`project led by Professor Drake, she argued that Brexit is a ‘non-issue’ for the parliaments of continental Europe as it only rarely features on their agendas. What we do witness, however, is certain member states making contingency plans for the future. In addition, the anticipated ‘domino effect’ that would mobilize hard Eurosceptics all around Europe did not take place. Nevertheless, when Brexit negotiation talks get to ‘substance’, we will see some pressure put on the EU27’s current unity. In one way or another, the EU will look rather different without the UK.
As the last speaker of the evening, Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, discussed how Brexit will influence future British party politics.
Professor Bale started his speech by referring to the UK general election that took place earlier this year, and highlighted that it saw an electoral restructuring which derived directly from the results of the Brexit referendum. Most notably, the Conservatives’ biggest gains were among working-class voters, while the Labour party’s biggest gains were among the middle class. This happened during an election that was based on the theme of Brexit, or more specifically, on the question: which party is best placed to get a good deal for the UK? However, as Professor Bale highlighted, Brexit was not among voters’ biggest concerns. The UK public seems to have been much more concerned about questions regarding the NHS, economy, and education system. As such, the UK made a ‘huge decision’ in a question that is barely important for most of its citizens.
Another paradox, as Professor Bale argued, is the issue of immigration which has been the key factor in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and which is beginning to ‘drop away’. Indeed, immigration does not feature among the top five concerns of UK citizens, the reason for which is yet to be discovered.
Furthermore, Professor Bale noted that the split between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ within the two major UK parties is rather asymmetric. Within the Conservative party, we see an approx. 50-50 division, with nearly half of Conservative MPs considering leaving the EU to be a very bad idea. Therefore, the question to speculate on is, for Professor Bale, why these MPs have been so quiet and how long can they carry on with Brexit? While some of them might indeed be concerned about their party-membership, large numbers of Conservative MPs do not represent constituencies that voted to leave the EU, nor do they need to fear UKIP anymore.
As for Labour, there is a very small number of Eurosceptics within the party, while a hard Brexit is certainly not supported by any of the party’s leading figures. And yet, as Professor Bale pointed out, we still see a Labour party that refuses to ‘come out’ and lead public opinion.
Finally, concerning other parties in Parliament, Professor Bale highlighted that the SNP was harmed by the general election as its strategy to fuse concerns about Brexit with its independence rhetoric failed; the Liberal Democrats had to realise that being displayed as the only fully pro-EU party did not help them becoming more attractive in the eyes voters; while the DUP has found itself in a weirdly paradoxical position for supporting Brexit but at the same time vigorously refusing a hard border between Ireland and the UK.
To conclude, Professor Bale argued that what we witness is a lot of ‘learned helplessness’ in the House of Commons. While the majority of MPs believe that Brexit might not be good for their country, they also seem to believe that it should and, indeed, will go ahead. This is, to Professor Bale, an abrogation of their role as representatives.
The inaugural lecture followed by a Q&A session. The entire event is available to watch here.
Reported by David Gazsi, Research Assistant & PhD Candidate, CER and the School of Politics and International Relations.
Photo credit: tradeexim official