EU and UK flags fly during a pro-EU march in front of the British Parliament in London.
By Hunter Price, Reporter
Between votes of no confidence, customs unions, backstops, and more, the Brexit saga engulfing the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) is difficult to untangle. On January 31, 2019 at the Mortara Center for International Studies, professors from Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University met to do just that, as well as predict how events may unfold with the UK’s March 29 deadline to leave the EU fast approaching. The talk was aptly titled “In the News – Brexit.”
The panel included Ambassador John Heffern of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Dr. Matthias Matthijs, an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Professors Kathleen McNamara and Abraham Newman, both from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Each panelist conveyed his or her impressions of the situation before opening the floor to questions from the audience.
Ambassador Heffern reflected on the fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship and how the EU and UK fit into that, drawing on his experience as a senior State Department official focusing on Europe during the Brexit vote. The U.S. has historically sought to promote a strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance and a strong EU, he said. He also reinforced the notion of the EU as the American “partner of first resort,” backing the US position on issues like Venezuela and Syrian chemical weapons usage. It is against this backdrop that the UK is attempting to leave the EU.
Dr. Matthijs dug deeper into the UK’s internal struggles. Much like the intense party rivalry in the U.S., the two main political parties in the UK, Labor and Conservative, are completely divided on this issue, said Matthijs. Indeed, he argued that the intensity of the Brexit debate surpasses all prior disagreements over European identity. And the March 29th deadline represents the “grand finale” of a referendum campaign defined by false promises and misinformation, as confusion over terms like Single Market and Customs Union created uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit. Lastly, Matthijs described the “unholy trinity” of promises Prime Minister Theresa May has made to her party, the EU, Ireland, and North Ireland that the UK would leave the Single Market and Customs Union, that no hard border between the UK and North Ireland would emerge, and that no hard border between Ireland and North Ireland would emerge. This trio of promises is not possible to fulfill and, consequently, Dr. Matthijs felt the UK would crash out of the EU on March 29th and face perils at home before quickly returning to the negotiating table.
Expanding the scope to international politics, Professor Newman highlighted Brexit’s relationship to the current argument over globalization currently roiling countries throughout the world. The chaos surrounding Brexit demonstrates the difficulty of unwinding globalization, as states like the UK increasingly depend on other states for day-to-day functions. But the growing backlash over supranational institutions and governance, “is making us revisit a question we are not really ready to answer,” according to Newman. The U.S. is not in a position to solve the issue, as it, too, is undergoing intense transformations. The paralysis over the Brexit issue within the UK, says Newman, has brought the country to a standstill for nearly a half decade, and it is in the interest of the U.S. and the EU’s to facilitate any transition as quickly as possible.
Professor McNamara bluntly described the situation as a consequence of the British leadership’s inability to reach a decision on how to proceed. The parties can only build support around kicking the can down the road and extending negotiations. In questioning how the UK got to this point, McNamara blamed the Conservative Party elite’s opportunism. She described the EU’s ability to keep all of its members aligned as surprising and suggested that Brexit has demonstrated that international organizations like the EU should be seen not as a collection of treaties from which one can withdraw but as a vast legal framework based on a set of institutionalized commitments. While the EU has taken a degree of sovereignty from its constituent members, it has also provided them a way to navigate an increasingly globalized world and wield greater influence. The issues in the UK that led to Brexit, though, cannot be fixed by a second referendum, and McNamara predicted that a no-deal Brexit is very possible due to the level of disagreement between party leaders.
In Q&A, one audience member raised the question of whether the 2016 referendum was inevitable. In Dr. Matthijs’ opinion, the vote was unavoidable, which is why former UK Prime Minister David Cameron made it a core component of his party’s election campaign. His miscalculation was on the outcome. Professor Newman highlighted that British politicians sought short-term protection by caving to their parties’ fringes. However, he did not feel this approach was the only option, pointing to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strategy of deflecting challenges from the right as an alternate model. Regarding the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the U.S., Professor McNamara predicted that the UK’s civil servants will continue to present the same global image and that the millennial generation may even push the UK back into the EU. Ambassador Heffern also expressed the opinion that the UK will remain an honest friend of the U.S. At the same time, Professor Newman cautioned that the UK will emerge weaker and increasingly desperate to retain its position in the international sphere, perhaps making it willing to take less-than-optimal deals.
Overall, the participants expressed a dour view of the United Kingdom’s handling of what has become the defining issue of the past decade for the country. There was plenty of blame to share between the UK’s two parties and the leadership of Prime Minister May. There is also frustration over the American inability to contribute productively to the UK’s exit. The solidarity between EU members represents a small silver lining to this debacle, but to see one of the major member states of the institution withdraw represents perhaps the most serious internal threat to the Western, post-WWII global order yet.