Brexit: The critical concerns

There are three major concerns with regard to Brexit for the UK:

  • the internal UK economic and political damage caused by Brexit;
  • the geo-political damage done to and by the UK in leaving the EU at a time of intensifying militant nationalism across not only Europe, but the world;
  • the unconstitutional and undemocratic manner in which the decision to leave the EU has been adopted

Economic Damage to the UK

On the first of these issues, it is clear that, irrespective of the uncertainties in any estimation of the short- and long-term negative impacts of Brexit, the UK will be significantly worse-off economically. This was always going to be the case, given the complexity of the business, trade, and economic integration of the UK within the EU.

No one can say that this was not pointed out during the 2016 referendum, despite it being rejected by Brexiteers as ‘Project Fear’ aimed at  scaring the public into voting Remain. However, this negative strategy by the Remain camp, coupled with the absence of sufficient positive, emotive messaging to encourage undecided voters to vote Remain, weakened the Remain campaign. Moreover, the absence during  the last 40 years   of information and education about the nature and workings of the EU; the patronising attitude of the British political and administrative elites to the EU; and the use of the EU as a scapegoat for British economic and social problems, all contributed to the difficult ‘conversion’ situation faced by the Remain campaign.

Finally, it is becoming obvious – despite the Prime Minister’s pretence otherwise – that the likelihood of the UK being able to negotiate trade deals with either individual countries or economic cooperative groupings around the world is a rapidly disappearing fantasy, even under WTO rules.  Despite comments that the UK is the 5th largest economy in the world, the actual UK position on an appropriately trade-weighted adjusted ranking is 26th on the IMF ranking list (2017). This is a more appropriate indicator of the trade negotiating power of the UK. Moreover, the UK will be giving up its trading position within the 60-odd trade deals which the EU has already secured. There is absolutely no guarantee that these agreements can simply be transferred directly to the UK, outside the EU. It is also the case that, in practice, other potential trade deals, e.g. with the US, would have to await clarification of the final trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

Geo-Political Considerations

On the second issue, even now the geo-political damage ensuing from Brexit is only slowly becoming noticed in public debate. At a time when militant nationalism is growing in intensity across not only Europe, but also in the rest of the world, including in the major powers of China, the USA, and Russia, the UK is leaving a neighbouring, integrated cooperative regional grouping. The UK, in practice, had a strong influence in the counsels of the EU in relation to foreign policy issues (even if a not always ‘progressive’ influence). Outside the EU its diminished status as a medium-sized country, without the advantage of EU leverage for its positions, will be felt in global fora such as the G7, G20, OECD, and the various UN fora, despite its seat on the Security Council.

It is scarcely conceivable that the recapturing of minimal elements of sovereignty from the loosely confederal EU, in which the UK has been a major partner, can be regarded as an emancipating step for the UK. On the other hand, also in geo-political terms, the UK is left inside an inter-governmental NATO whose policy is principally determined by the USA, with an agenda effectively set by the USA administration,  and a current, unpredictable President.  It is interesting that we have had the 2016 referendum on the complex membership of the EU, including its intergovernmental elements. However, by contrast, no one has ever suggested a referendum on Britain’s NATO membership, in which the surrender of sovereignty leaves the UK obliged to come to the armed defence of any NATO member, e.g. Turkey, if attacked?

Any influence the UK might have on ameliorating the unstable pattern of international behaviour has been substantially weakened by its decision to leave the EU. Moreover, the UK’s exit  also, to an extent, weakens the diplomatic influence of the EU, with the loss of one of its major partner nations.  The impact of the UK leaving the EU, both inside Europe and beyond, will be wholly negative. In contrast to the other EU leaders, Teresa May was unable to express sadness at the signing of the withdrawal agreement. Such insouciance in the face of a significant geopolitical and constitutional change is both regrettable and disturbing.

Domestic Constitutional Issues

But the third, domestic, issue, is perhaps the most alarming. The UK is a representative parliamentary democratic governance system. Unfortunately, the UK does not have a codified constitution. It is written, but covered in separate legislative acts, e.g. the Scotland Devolution Act, and in various Conventions, e.g. the Salisbury convention which prevents the House of Lords from voting against legislation which was  part of the government’s manifesto. More generally, the UK constitution is a representative parliamentary democracy working with a constitutional monarchy.

This lack of a codified, written constitution has created problems for Members of Parliament and media commentators in relation to Brexit. The EU referendum held in June 2016 was advisory, unlike the earlier Scottish referendum which was legally binding on parliament. The reason for the EU referendum not being legally binding occurred during the passage of the referendum bill in parliament. An amendment was proposed to insert a super-majority (55 or 60%) into the bill. This amendment was rejected in favour of the referendum being made advisory only. During the campaign the advisory nature of the referendum was not made clear by the government and most MPs to the general public. Indeed, the government promised – completely unconstitutionally – to abide by the majority result of the referendum. The government and MPs misled (effectively lied to) the people. This point was not adequately picked up by the media in the UK either.

Since the referendum, which resulted in a 51.9 to 48.1% majority in favour of Leave, the political consensus of all MPs (and the media) has been to state, correctly, that the result of the referendum should be respected. However, the consensus has also been to state, incorrectly, that the democratic ‘will of the people’ – strictly the ‘will of the small majority’ – expressed in the referendum must be followed by the government and Parliament, and thus the UK must leave the EU; using the EU constitutional legal process of Article 50 of the TFEU (Lisbon Treaty). This has created a situation where the government, via an improper interpretation of a referendum result, has tried to impose its views on Parliament, at a time when the government itself has no majority in the House of Commons, save for a confidence and supply arrangement –  which has been breached – with a small minority party.

Initially, the government tried to suggest that it could, without recourse to parliamentary approval, carry out the legal process of leaving the EU. It took the UK Supreme Court decision in the famous Miller case to correct the government’s unlawful attempt to ignore Parliament. Notwithstanding this decision, the government has subsequently attempted to circumvent the Court judgement by the devious use of various parliamentary procedural mechanisms and is continuing to do so. Most recently, the government has been found to be in contempt of Parliament, a remarkable outcome, and one indicating a deep constitutional crisis between the UK’s elected representatives and the ‘government”’

It is extraordinarily disappointing that MPs (and the media) continue to wilfully ignore the representative parliamentary nature of the UK constitution and suggest that a refusal to follow the majority result in the EU referendum is undemocratic and would subvert the ‘will of the people’. To also state, as the government and most MPs do, that the decision as to whether  the UK should leave the EU was handed over to the people in the referendum (i.e. sovereignty was transferred from Parliament to the people) is clearly a lie.

Irrespective of whether one voted to leave or remain, this disregard for the UK constitution, by the government and the UK parliamentary representatives, is a betrayal of democracy as it has hitherto been practiced. The public criticism by sections of the media of judges, MPs and other members of the bureaucracy for daring to oppose Brexit on constitutional grounds is also shameful.

In Conclusion

The position which the UK finds itself in is deeply troubling; in a world which is becoming riven by aggressive nationalisms, the Global Policy Institute has long argued – with considerable force under its late Director, Professor Stephen Haseler – that the future development of the international polity will involve a development of ‘continental states’, as Stephen described the supra-regional groupings of nation-states, such as the EU. We might also expect, over the course of time, that these confederal groupings will coalesce into confederal global governance structures; capable of dealing with unresolved global problems, e.g. climate change. Such a development would lead to a world less dominated by destructive, competing nationalisms. It is to be hoped that this direction of likely future development will eventually be recognised by the British political and administrative class. And that this in turn will result in a rejection of Brexit in favour of a continued membership of the EU.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.