Political science lecturer comments on Brexit

Published: March 22, 2019
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Matthew Clary, a lecturer in Auburn’s Department of Political Science, comments on Brexit, including political, economic and trade implications. Clary teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations and comparative politics, specializing in courses on national and international security and foreign policy.

Read more about Clary’s research interests online: https://cla.auburn.edu/polisci/directory/professorial-faculty/matthew-clary/.

What would the next steps be if UK lawmakers choose to remain a member state?

UK lawmakers can’t really vote to remain a member-state—at this point, they can vote for May’s Brexit deal as is, some altered Brexit deal (i.e. that might look more like Norway or Canada’s relationship with the EU), or for a new referendum on whether to remain in the EU. Thus the only way that the UK could actually end up remaining in the EU would be if there was a second referendum that resulted in a majority for the Remain position.

What would a delay of Brexit mean for the UK?

A delay at this point seems inevitable since a failure to delay would result in a hard Brexit, which it seems most members of the Conservative party and the British public want to avoid. As of today, May appears to be seeking a short-term extension of the execution of Article 50 (the formal departure of the UK from the EU) which would likely last until June 30th. The idea is that this would buy May a bit more time to either work with the EU for additional concessions, particularly over how the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is to be managed post-Brexit, and/or to convince enough members of Parliament to back her deal. The reality is that neither of these outcomes seem particularly likely. May’s deal has been defeated by a significant margin on two occasions already and the EU has been adamant that there will be no additional negotiations over the existing deal negotiated with May. An extension would then produce one of several outcomes: 1) a final vote on May’s existing deal, 2) a vote for a new referendum on whether to remain in the EU, 3) a hard Brexit, or 4) May could then request a longer extension which would likely just further delay any actual resolution. More importantly, any extension that lasts past the end of May will likely require the UK to participate in EU Parliamentary elections between May 23-26, which could produce additional tension in the British-EU relationship with the UK’s departure on horizon.

What key terms of the withdrawal agreement are the biggest issues for lawmakers right now?

The most significant barrier seems to be how the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (part of the EU) will operate post-Brexit. At the moment, the flow of people and goods between the two countries is generally free of physical barriers or inspections because the two countries are part of the EU Customs Union and Single Market. With the UK desiring to leave the Customs Union and Single Market, it will be difficult to maintain the free flow of commerce and people at the border since inspections and duties on goods/services exchanged between the two countries will need to occur. Such a ‘hard’ border would likely exacerbate historical tensions between Protestants in Northern Ireland and Catholics in Ireland who only recently stopped the decades of violence and conflict between them because it would reinforce the firm border between the two areas that both sides desire to be a single nation. Additionally, it would make life for individuals and those transporting goods/services needing to travel between the two nations on a daily basis significantly more difficult since they would be faced with extensive delays. The irony is that both the EU and the UK desire to keep the Irish border as close to its current status as possible, they cannot agree on how to make that a reality if the UK is not part of the Customs Union or Single Market and thus subject to EU laws and procedures regarding trade and commerce. May’s deal indicates this desire to maintain a ‘soft’ Irish border, but is predicated on the idea of a ‘backstop,’ which is that the UK would remain in the EU Customs Union until 2020 to provide time to identify a process that would allow for the inspection of goods and individuals crossing the border without producing a ‘hard’ border. Many supporters of the UK’s departure from the EU see this as only the UK partially leaving the EU since they would still be bound by many EU laws/procedures on trade and as punting the identification of a long-term solution to the Irish border issue to 2020.

If Brexit happens, what are the political and economic implications for the UK?

If May’s deal is agreed upon, the UK would leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union (no later than 2020) and have until then to negotiate a trade deal with the EU that would govern trade between the two entities post-Brexit. If the execution of the deal went smoothly, meaning that there could be a technological solution to maintaining a soft Irish border and that a trade deal could be negotiated in a reasonable amount of time, the economic impact on the UK and EU would likely be fairly minimal. If however, things do not go smoothly, uncertainty surrounding the relationship between the EU and UK would likely produce significant impacts on both the British and European financial markets, not to mention having an impact on the global economy as well. In terms of political implications, if May is able to successful get her deal passed through Parliament, it would be seen as a tremendous vote of support for her continued leadership of the Conservative Party and she would likely remain in power through 2019. If, however, she is unable to get her deal passed, is forced to put forth a new referendum on leaving the EU, or must deal with a ‘hard’ Brexit, it is likely that May will be forced to resign as Prime Minister or that there could be a call for new Parliamentary elections, which may further reduce the Conservative majority in the House of Commons. This would make it more difficult to get any Brexit deal through Parliament and would likely result in May having to resign as well. In this scenario, if the Conservatives still had the most seats in the Parliament, they could likely still try to form a coalition with another smaller party such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland in order to form a new government with a new Prime Minister. It could, however, result in either the opposition Labour Party gaining enough seats to win a majority of seats in the Parliament and thus the Prime Ministership or in neither Labour nor the Conservative Parties having enough seats to form a majority government. This would force one of the two parties to attempt to form what is called a minority government that is likely to be extremely weak and likely unable to produce much in terms of meaningful legislation. Nearly all of these scenarios would produce a great deal of political uncertainty in the UK that would then extend into the economic sphere, producing further economic losses in the long-term.

What are the implications for the US?

The most obvious implications for the US are the impacts that might be felt on the global economy by Brexit. Since both the UK and EU are heavily intertwined into the global economy, along with the US, any economic uncertainty or turmoil would likely produce economic and financial problems on a global scale. Beyond those implications, Brexit could represent an opportunity for the US to negotiate a new trade deal with the UK once it departs the EU that could promote a closer relationship between the two nations as well as to strengthen the economic relationship between the two. Of course, this is predicated on the notion that the US and UK would be able to easily negotiate a new trade deal between them that both perceived as fair and positive. The US relationship with the EU is unlikely to change all that much since the UK is only one of 27 members of the EU and our economic  and political relationship with the union would likely remain intact.

How will things change for the UK if there is a ‘hard’ Brexit?

If there is a ‘hard’ Brexit (no-deal), there would almost certainly be immediate political and economic turmoil in the UK. In the absence of a clear and transparent path by which the UK will carefully leave the EU, there would suddenly be firm borders between the UK and EU at the Irish border, individuals and commerce traveling via ship, train, and plane into or out of the UK would experience extensive delays, which would likely have dramatic economic impacts, and there would be no clear expectations for how the two entities would interact moving forward. Both sides are working on the details of how a ‘hard’ Brexit would occur, in the hopes of staving off this uncertainty and turmoil, but it seems that for the most part, most people seem to believe that such an outcome remains unlikely and thus most remain unprepared for such an eventuality. The uncertainty and turmoil would likely produce fairly severe economic consequences in the short-term for the UK, the EU, and likely the global economy that would likely last until the two sides could work out the details of their new relationship. It’s unclear how difficult such a proposition would be and for how long such economic turmoil might last, so avoiding such an outcome is likely preferred by nearly everyone. The irony is that because both sides have such firm negotiating positions vis-à-vis each other, such an outcome may actually be the most likely in spite of neither side desiring it to happen.

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